Thursday, July 16, 2020

Flashback 2002: Readers' thoughts on reparations

     A reader remembered a column I had written on reparations in 2002, and I posted it Tuesday. It makes sense to then share some of the reader reaction I got to it. Reading this nearly two decades later, I'm struck by how much more crazed we've become, as country.

     My column last week on the issue of reparations for slavery seems to have touched a nerve with a lot of people, white and black. Most gratifying of the many responses I got, and thought were worth sharing, were letters and e-mails from African Americans who were astounded to find a white person expressing an opinion that made sense to them. Like this one from Kathy B. Hayes of Chicago:

     "This is a 'thank you' for being bold enough to share your thoughts with the public on this very sensitive matter. I, being African American, was beginning to feel that this was something that 'White America' would never fully understand. Though it just seems to be so clear cut, most people I've discussed the matter with say, 'I didn't do it . . . [African Americans] should be grateful they've come so far.' Many won't accept the fact that America was built on the backs of my ancestors! The issue is deep, and many African Americans are suffering from generational curses, but many seem unable to break the curse. As you seem to be aware, there are people today who have been unable to recover from the days of slavery up to the '60s, when the hatred toward African Americans was as deep as in the days of raw slavery. 
   "The first step is to resolve this issue. What better way than monetary reparations in some form or another? The Bible tells us that money serves ALL purposes (Ecclesiastes 10:19),whether in the form of low-rate mortgages, college tuition, etc. Time has not healed the marks from all that's transpired right here on American soil. America must remember the Bible also tells us that whatsoever a man sows, that will he also reap.     "Now is the perfect opportunity to show some compassion for the crimes that took place."

     White readers, on the other hand, tended to take what I call the "that's not my table" approach. Their relatives were in Ireland, or Sicily, or somewhere else, and the whole thing is not their problem. Ron Moran wrote:
     "I'm a bit more cynical on the subject of Americans being blamed for slavery and having various panderers like Jesse J. demanding payments. You are correct in establishing the issue of slavery going back to before we were a country, as well as for the plight of the Irish, Jews, Asians, Italians et al. as they assimilated.
     "Slavery has been a worldwide practice to the detriment of the temporarily enslaved in many cultures, from the Egyptians, Romans, Chinese, and still exists today in various parts of Africa, India and some S.E. Asia areas.
     "The African slavery trade would not have been possible (then as now) if it did not have the cooperation of various strong African tribal chiefs going out and rounding up weaker tribes and hauling them to the coast to trade (primarily) for rum.
     "Slavery has been a worldwide practice to the detriment of the temporarily enslaved in many cultures, from the Egyptians, Romans, Chinese, and still exists today in various parts of Africa, India and some S.E. Asia areas.     "The African slavery trade would not have been possible (then as now) if it did not have the cooperation of various strong African tribal chiefs going out and rounding up weaker tribes and hauling them to the coast to trade (primarily) for rum.     "If there are reparations to be paid, then it should begin at the source, which is with the African tribal chiefs' descendants -- which would be a difficult task, but a proper beginning. The first of the initial purchasers/traders in slaves to this country were the English. Let's start and end there."
     The problem with this approach is that it isn't extended toward other aspects of American life. Nobody says, "Gee, I'd like to be protected by the Bill of Rights, but my relatives were in Prague when it was ratified." You come to this country, you become an American, you inherit the country's burdens along with its joys.
     James Reyes argues that reparations could galvanize black youth to new achievement:

     "The big lie about reparations is that white people would be negatively affected. This is the real reason why there is a great reluctance to even discuss the issue . . .     "If free college tuition is offered to descendants of slaves, or even all African-Americans, they better be ready to take advantage . . . . The disillusioned, bored, directionless young people of this country would be the new heroes of the civil rights movement."
     Many who wrote in opposition of reparations had an amusing tendency to unconsciously illustrate the pervasive racism that blacks are still up against. Perhaps sensing the loathsomeness of their opinions, they tended to write anonymously. Here is "Frank L." explaining his viewpoint:
     "What created slums, and why are they still there? Blacks did it all by themselves, and it's not gonna get any better because they don't care. I lived in those neighborhoods, and where the white people moved out, they were beautiful and well-kept. If you build new, they will wreck that in no time. Take a look at all those buildings on the South, West and North sides that have to be torn down. Who wrecked them? Common sense will tell you that's where all the gangbangers come form. Reparations? Hell no."
     I can't end on that note. Let's return to planet Earth with Phoebe Novak, of Chicago:
     "Yes, history is what has brought us here today, as each generation builds on the previous one. When previous generations of one group were held in slavery, we cannot say that we all have run this race from the same starting line. When the gun went off at the starting line, [they] were chained at the starting blocks. Well, eventually the race officials (no pun intended) released those people, and they started running, trying to catch up to all the others . . . . They would have to be superhuman to catch up at that point. Fair race? No, a false start, but the race was not rerun.     "Your column put this issue in very clear words. The United States should set this matter right. Maybe scholarships are one way to begin. I don't have the answers, but we should at least start."

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 17, 2002 


  1. Thanks for posting this. The nation as a whole isn't more crazed, just more desperate. As the saying goes, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”. The feelings of loss and the fear of oppression drives these people to be more vocal. But the attitudes themselves have been always been with us, just not so visible. As a young adult I remember perusing The Spotlight at the local greasy spoon in exurban Lake County. Ever since, I've spied this worldview on display through various channels, and thanks to the internet I've been exposed to historic content that traces the path back to before the nation's birth. That these attitudes are now being met and called out rather than tacitly accepted or ignored, feels like progress.

  2. Reparations would be a good start. But there are entrenched policies and systems in place that would require serious change. People with power, wealth and privilege would have to relinquish their hold upon a portion of these resources in order to attempt to make things right. Acknowledging theft and oppression is one thing. Taking action is something else completely. I don't think Americans understand in order for some to have more others would have less. Who is willing to give up a significant portion of their net worth? Very few of us I imagine. It's easy to be for something so long as others have to make the sacrifices required to accomplish the end goal. Many Americans are greedy and selfish. Many others are indifferent. All the talk in the world will not end inequality.

  3. My admittedly simplistic and perhaps simple-minded solution to the reparations issue would be to improve Black schools to the point that white parents would want to send their kids there.


    1. Yes fix the schools ! But if the families that send their kids there are in or underemployed, imprisoned, uninsured, suffering Health issues, food and housing insecure, have to navigate dangerous streets to get to the school, lead and asbestos exposure, drug addiction ... Fix the schools all the rest will fix itself. Lack of access to capital, predatory businesses , redlining, the bail system please stop me

  4. When folks say we need to blame African tribal leaders for slavery I say if a person kidnaps a child with the help of a member of that child's family is it ok for you to exploit the child?

  5. To those who don't have compassion for the struggle of black people in the US and around the world I say this: black people arrived as slaves to this country beaten and broken after being packed inhumanely on slave ships- I have been to Ghana and I have seen the so-called slave castles there. Once free men, women and children were packed like cattle into small concrete rooms and and then onto ships without any provisions. Some died, some gave birth in these subhuman conditions. There were no bathrooms or beds. They arrived on our shores and other shores around the world literally torn apart. What was their crime? None. If families were still together after all of this, when they arrived into their "owner's" hands, husbands and wives were not allowed to live with each other. Families were destroyed. Their dignity and all freedoms were stripped away. It was more than unnatural, cruel treatment that you and I could not have endured for five minutes.

    Black people have been dragged to their deaths and lynched and are and have always been constantly harassed and traumatized by authority. Taxes are unfairly used to beef up Millennium Park in Chicago and to keep streets in privileged areas well paved while the rest of the city is neglected. The Dan Ryan was specifically built to segregate. Thank goodness urban planners will soon be called to task and can even be sued for planning housing systems that support institutionalized racism and increase risks associated with intersectionality. The world is changing and with change comes struggle.

    We are now speeding "up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" in the words of Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.


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