Reparations, reconciliation long overdue

Slavery is an issue only two generations removed from students who could be at the U.

We as a country can take a step toward easing a bit of the tension that periodically snaps us to attention and makes us realize the skeletons (both literal and figurative) in our national closet are not as old or forgotten as we would like to think.

This topic is touchy. By no means are my suggestions comprehensive or developed with much more than a dose of common sense, a pang of responsibility and a dash of historical perspective. Hopefully, though, there is enough here to get some of us thinking, debating and talking about possibilities of reconciliation and reparation hovering just outside the political radar screen.

For many people, reparations for descendants of slaves seem ludicrous. It feels like the whole thing happened a long time ago. Many nonblacks are not descended from slave owners or did not have family in this country until decades after the end of the Civil War. Two things stand out: Every other group that came to the United States (despite the struggles and discrimination they faced when they arrived) came here by some degree of choice. Also, a male slave born in 1850 could have had a son in 1900, who could have had a child in 1950. This implies there are thousands of middle-aged or elderly grandchildren of slaves now living in the United States. Slavery is not some quiet echo from the bottom of a vast historical chasm; it is an issue only two generations removed from students who could be attending the University.

There are volumes of arguments for and against reparations, but here is my proposal: First, monetary reparation is an essential element of any reconciliation initiative we pursue. Other necessities include acknowledgement and an apology for the institution of slavery, a process of educational rehabilitation (not just guilt-mongering) and an executive guarantee that such atrocities will never be revisited upon any human living on U.S. soil.

It sounds complicated because it is, but here is a package that encompasses many of those foundational concepts and seems doable given the right leadership and public backing. Many questions – committee appointments, contracting for services, etc. – I do not answer here, but feel free to begin addressing them.

The federal government should earmark $20 billion per year for the next 50 years to be administered by a reconciliation commission chosen by black leaders. These dollars could be raised from annual taxes on cotton, tobacco and other industries built on the backs of slaves; alternatively, we could cut a couple F-117As from our military budget. The amount coincides with some of the most conservative estimates of slaves’ lost earnings, assuming they came to this country as willing immigrants – $1 trillion to $3 trillion.

The commission could take suggestions for administering the money, so I will offer mine now. Build one large or several smaller memorial museums similar to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The facade of the building could contain an engraved acknowledgement of U.S. complicity in enslaving Africans, as well as an apology that asks for forgiveness and progress – a lasting, poetic statement in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln.

While $20 billion is not a lot compared to other federal programs, it could serve to bolster public schools with high black populations, provide small-business loans, manage court cases and serve to revitalize black communities. Eligibility for the funds and usage would not be a debilitating concern under this plan because the money would be targeted toward black communities, but could serve to benefit the entire country.

There will be no true reconciliation without a meaningful gesture from one part of the people of the United States to another. Money is the blood that flows through the United States’ veins, and giving it as recompense for past wrongs is as significant a gesture as we collectively know how to make. Whether such a proposal is legally necessary or universally fair is of little concern to me – it is historically justified, a moral necessity and quite simply the right thing to do. I strongly feel the lasting effects of such a policy would be felt well into the future after most of us are gone, and the sting felt by a prideful few during its inception is long forgotten.

Aaron North welcomes comments at [email protected]