The U.S. House of Representatives issued an apology for slavery last week. Something some people have waited for some 10 lifetimes, something others thought would never happen, what was once a significant event that would lead to progress in Racial Americana went largely under-reported.
A slow news cycle that “went racial” in the race for the presidency, in the same week went silent on the apology for slavery. Though slavery ended (officially) in 1865, Black Americans weren’t officially made citizens until 1868, with the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment. This year is the 140th anniversary of the social equality amendment.
Political equality didn’t come about until the passing of the 15th Amendment in 1870. Many subscribed, and I am one of them, that equality has never come about, largely because there was no repair of the conditions slavery produced. Many of the vestiges of slavery are still present in our society today. The income and wealth disparities, individual and institutional, that manifested itself out of essentially 300 years of free labor have never been made up. Some doubt that the disparities could be made up, as I’ll address momentarily, so what does this convenient apology for slavery really mean?
Reparations is still one of the most “touchy” subjects in the American public discourse, and it really no longer splits along racial lines as it once did. For instance, last week, Barack Obama reiterated his position against reparations, largely because it is an unsolvable dilemma that can never really be rectified. Not only is there no political will to address repairing the state of slave descendants, there’s the quagmire of proving who would be “entitled” to slave reparations and what those reparations would look like.
Slavery is viewed as not just the reduction of human life (and its natural rights) to chattel property (with no rights at all), but also as the intense labor discrimination that not only took contract rights and wages away from its subjects but sexually exploited women for commodity sake and reduced their life expectancy — all forced under a system of absolute control. What convolutes any discussion about slavery are the indebtedness issues that are framed in black and white. Those notions must be dispelled and resolved because all Blacks weren’t slaves, and only 25% of Whites, at any given time in the history of America’s enslavement period, owned slaves.
Then there is the issue of where do you start counting from? 1555, or 1619? And where do you end? 1865, or until the direct descendent of a slave-which would be today? Then there’s the question of what should one receive? Money. America doesn’t have enough money. Really. Of the many turn of the millennium studies on reparations that have been done in the last 10 years, just for slavery in United America, the minimum would be $4.1 trillion (African National Reparations Organization) in unpaid labor for black people born within the borders of the United States.
Economist Larry Neal, in 1990, looked at slave labor expropriated between 1620 and 1865 and put a 1983 value at $9.7 trillion (adjusted for six percent interest compounded). Adjusted for inflation, Economist David Swinton put the number 10 years later (1993) at $16.3 trillion, which he said at the time was more than all the wealth of America. That number in 2008 (15 years later) would exceed $30 trillion, which is why you understand America could never repay Black America, for slave reparations, if it was just about money.
There is also 300 years of lost opportunity costs, when the economic subjugation of segregation is factored in (which the apology also includes) where the absence of wealth and wages excluded Blacks from land grants, homesteads, schools, businesses and inherited wealth passed from generation to generations. The apology took so long because it was seen as opening the door to this conversation. Are black people who are descendants of slaves entitled to reparations? Absolutely. Will they ever receive reparations? It’s doubtful.
But then we thought we’d never see the prospect of a black President either, so anything is possible. But why the apology then, right now? Is it a real effort to promote racial healing in this country? After repentance comes retribution in most wrongs where apologies are extended. This one appears empty since there is little political will for reparations.
The Congressional Black Caucus had been demanding an apology for slavery for over three decades now. But their demand was viewed as being tied to the hidden motive of opening the door to reparations (which it was). Now Tennessee Congressman, Steve Cohen, the only white member of the House to represent a majority black district (six black candidates split the vote to replace Harold Ford, Jr. and Cohen walked up the middle) brings forth an apology resolution, which he actually introduced last year (2007), it suddenly gets traction in the House.
The Senate has stated that it will not consider the House’s apology resolution. Cohen also happens to coincidentally be in a run-off for his seat against a single black candidate, Nikki Tinker. And there, coincidentally, happens to be a black major party (presumptive) nominee, and white people want to know, can reparations ever become a realistic policy proposal in an Obama administration. Just another hurdle for Obama to address (and he has), and another reason to suspect that it was the only way reparations will ever be addressed. Now that we know Obama doesn’t support it, where does the reparations discussion go from here? Noodle that one a minute.
But at least we got the apology out of the way. Yeah, right.
by Anthony Assadulah Samad
Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad is an author, scholar and the co-founder, Managing Director and host of the Urban Issues Forum. Dr. Samad’s most recent book is entitled “Saving The Race: Empowerment Through Wisdom”. His national column can be read in newspapers and cyber-sites nationwide. His weekly writings can be read at www.blackcommentator.com. For more information about Dr. Samad, go to www.AnthonySamad.com.
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