Weekend, February 3-4, 2001
Robert A. George, an editorial page writer
he question that arises every year during Black History Month is: How can one move forward while looking backward? It's an especially important question in the context of America has a whole. This is the land that was once known as the "New World," after all. Perpetually looking backward is almost fundamentally un-American. The American instinct is to keep moving ahead. Don't stop thinking about tomorrow, as someone once said.
To the extent that a Black History Month is needed, it should ideally be used to inspire. One can look to such heroes and heroines as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Louis Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, and thousands of others who contributed both to the advance of blacks in America and to the advancement of America itself. That is one reason why Black History Month is a valuable educational period for Americans of all races.
However, too often, black Americans find not inspiration in the past, but grounds and material for a sense of grievance that festers into the current day, even as the nation moves into a new millennium. The question comes up as the issue of slavery reparations again rears its head.
The topic of reparations touches upon moral, legal and practical issues. A book could be written on the entire topic, but here we'll just digest these themes. Moral arguments could be made on both sides. There's a certain reflexive sense of justice that suggests that people thrown into slavery should be somehow reimbursed for their suffering. On the other hand, it is also immoral to force reimbursement from those not involved in the original offense. Should today's Americans be forced through taxpayer expense to pay for the sins of their forefathers? And are they, realistically speaking, even their forefathers. The last four decades have seen an explosion in immigration. Millions of citizens of every possible color are either recent immigrants, or first- or second-generation Americans. There are also many who believe that the Civil War was the ultimate "cost" to the American nation for the sin of slavery. How could more be added to that?
Legally, the question remains as to who "has standing" to push forward a suit for reparations. In the cases of German compensation to Holocaust survivors, or even U.S. compensation to Japanese internment families, there were identifiable individuals who could place claims on specific property stolen from them. A cash value could then be assessed for compensation.
Alas, it is more to the realm of philosophy than law to figure out an answer to the question, "What value is man?" It is also precisely the legal question which spills over into the basic practicality of dealing with reparations: Who would benefit financially from reparations?
The New York Times, it can be generally stated, tends to be obsessed with the issue of race. The paper often goes over the top into a miasma of "feel-good" liberalism with little point. Entire forests may have died to print the exhaustive (not to mention exhausting) "How Race Is Lived In America" series last year.
However, to give the Gray Lady her due, the paper occasionally hits its mark. Last Monday, the Times ran the rather interesting "Who Is A Seminole, and Who Gets to Decide?". It's an exploration of the split that has occurred among the Seminole nation of Oklahoma. For generations, many descendants of escaped slaves had been considered full Seminoles. Now, a rift has occurred and the "black Seminoles" have been, for want of a better phrase, excommunicated. At the heart of the split is what else? money. It's a battle over who should have access to $56 million in federal funds that Congress paid to the tribe in the early 1990's in compensation for the federal seizure of much of Florida in the early part of the nineteenth century. The black Seminoles assert they have a right to a part of that fund. The "blood" Seminoles say no.
While the story is interesting from an historic perspective, it also unwittingly holds valuable lessons in light of the reparations issue. If a bitter split could develop over identifying an individual's racial group, and just $56 million, what would be the result of a reparations battle? A hundred-million (possibly billion) dollar settlement would transform America from a "diverse," "multi-cultural" nation into "black" one overnight. The cash would be seen as an entitlement. No sooner can one say, "Build it, and they will come" and everyone will want a piece of the black pie.
Randall Robinson, the pro-reparations author of The Debt: What America Owes Blacks, would undoubtedly be upset by this reaction. But the fact is that it's simple human nature. If the government sets up a fund for the descendants of former slaves, it would be like offering everyone in the country a "free" ATM card. Your whitest next-door neighbor? Don't be surprised to find out he's a descendant of slaves. That woman across the street? Yep, her too. Furthermore, based on the awful "one-drop" rule, would reparations be apportioned by determining how much "blackness/slavery" residue is in one's blood? Divisive would not begin to describe the scenario.
No one doubts that certain psychological and spiritual scars remain with African Americans due to the legacy of slavery. Reparations would provide no relief for such scars. Instead, they would visit even more wounds upon the soul of what is still all its faults aside the United States of America. This is a country that recognizes its various problems and makes honest efforts to overcome them and move forward. History must be a foundation upon which a future is built, not an anchor that keeps the American people tied to past.