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Urban Rhythms

Pay Dirt

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 3/28/2001

I am the direct descendant of enslaved Africans. My mother's side of the family was held in North Carolina. My father's side was held in Alabama.

If America had chosen to pay my ancestors 40 acres and a mule, either as reparations for the great crime and mortal sin of slavery or just to help them get started as free men and women, it would have been both fair and appropriate.

I don't think reparations are necessary now. But--and I bet you knew a "but" was coming--the more I hear bigots on the right insist that those African-Americans who demand reparations today are playing the victim game, whining for handouts, or obsessing over the distant past, the angrier I get.

No, "angry" is too mild a world. Imagine the outraged horror, the tooth-rattling rage, if descendants of Holocaust victims were forced to endure the sneers and taunts of the descendants of Nazis. That's how I feel about the bigoted right. The more they talk, the more they convince me that many of them are not the least bit sorry about slavery.

And so I want to pay them back in their own coin. I want to make them howl. And if making them pay reparations will do that, then by God let's leave them without a tooth in their grinning mouths; let's leave them naked and hungry, hurt and confused, plucked and squeezed and all gnawed-up like Fido's chicken bone.

Bankrupt the country? Damn right, I'd bankrupt the country if I had to. Sorry about the innocent. But if a significant number of Americans didn't secretly agree with them, the bigoted right wouldn't be in power and riding high right now.

The latest furor over reparations began a few weeks ago when a conservative iconoclast named David Horowitz tried to place an ad headlined "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks--and Racist Too" in about 50 college newspapers. Most of those papers rejected the ad. But a handful ran it, sparking predictable anger and outrage on campuses across the country--which is exactly what Horowitz intended.

"These black students come in and say, 'This hurts our feelings,'" he told The New York Times. "Come on, an argument hurts your feelings? Fight back."

Fight back? Baby, you don't want to go there.

The Horowitz campaign forces us to deal with an age-old problem: How should decent people respond to bigots? If we ignore them, we face the risk of allowing their opinions to spread unchecked. If we debate them, we risk lending credibility to their views.

In this case, Horowitz avoided the ongoing debate among decent people over reparations by convincing gullible college students that no one is talking about the issues. In reality, not even African-Americans agree on this question. For example, as I said above, I am against reparations--although I'd consider embracing the idea as a way of annoying bigots. Opposing reparations does not automatically label you a bigot--but your reasons for opposing them might.

Horowitz notes that, although the reparations movement appears to hold white Americans solely responsible for slavery, Africans and Arabs also participated in the trade. He says that only a minority of white Americans owned enslaved Africans and that other white Americans fought and died to set them free. He says later immigrants, such as Vietnamese boat people and Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, have absolutely no connection to slavery and therefore shouldn't be penalized. And he says that past reparations, such as those paid to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, Japanese-Americans interred during World War II, and the African-American victims of the Tuskegee experiments, were paid directly to the victims or their immediate families instead of being offered to an entire race of people.

Each of those arguments illustrates the impracticality and perhaps the unfairness of imposing reparations on the country. But wrapped around those arguments is a point of view about slavery, enslaved Africans, and their descendants that is outright offensive. For example, Horowitz compares the per-capita incomes of African-Americans with that of their African cousins and concludes that the descendants of enslaved Africans actually benefited from the experience. He asserts that today's economic disparity between blacks and whites has more to do with failures of individual character than with a system that ended 150 years ago. And he says that the United States has paid trillions of dollars in reparations since the 1960s in the form of welfare.

Need I bother refuting those ideas? Must we rehearse, for the thousandth time, the misbegotten horror of slavery or trace the way its tentacles reach into the 21st century? Is it necessary to point out, yet again, that the majority of those receiving welfare are white?

Frankly, I'd like to ignore people like Horowitz. But they are too loud, too powerful, and, quite frankly, a little bit too clever to ignore. They aren't going away. If I thought reparations would truly make them sorry about slavery, I'd take them for everything they owned.

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