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The Nose

The Big Payback

Posted 8/22/2001

It's controversial. It's contested. It's made national headlines in recent weeks. And now it's coming to the local fore.

The issue of 21st-century African-Americans receiving monetary reparations for the enslavement of their 19th-century ancestors is moving from the back burner into the fire, with the potential to make the billions wrested away from Big Tobacco look like something from TV's Night Court. And some of the nation's highest profile counselors--including the needs-no-introduction Johnnie Cochran--are leading its cause.

Meanwhile, the fervor is catching in Mobtown, even if it is scattered, divided, and decidedly lower key. Last fall, City Council Resolution 00-234--"for the purpose of encouraging the 106th United States Congress to hold hearings on the issue of reparations for African-Americans"--passed unanimously. And on Aug. 15, the Nose ducked into council chambers for the first public hearing on the subject. Lead by council members Stephanie Rawlings Blake (D-5th District) and Bea Gaddy (D-2nd District), chairperson and vice chairperson of the Legislative Investigations Committee respectively, the meeting was an "educational hearing" and citizens were invited to speak their minds. Indeed, all kinds of mind-speaking took place in what was nearly a full house.

Gaddy, who along with Agnes Welch (D-4th District) introduced Resolution 234, led off the discussion, stating the obvious and stressing that despite the myriad anti-poverty measures at work today, "nothing is working." In a personal aside, she added that she hoped reparations might see to it that her "great-grandchildren won't have to suffer."

Government and politics professor Ronald Walters, of University of Maryland, College Park, was next up to the mic, asserting that the some 240 years of African-American enslavement, together with Jim Crow laws and sundry other forms of government-sanctioned discrimination that grew out of black bondage, are directly linked to the ills facing black America today: from urban violence to drug abuse to test-score gaps between black and white schoolchildren. "Our vast misdistribution of wealth didn't happen by accident," he said. "The grandeur of this country is based on unpaid labor."

How big the debt? Who might pay? Who might profit? Alas, Walters offered few details. He did estimate that in 1865 the cash value of the United States' 3 million slaves was $1.5 trillion (in 1865 dollars, that is). And he predicted Cochran and Co. would "sue the American government" to recoup that cash within the year.

Then came a string of riled private citizens, led by activist A. Robert Kaufman. Never one for the modest approach, man-the-barricades Bob threw open the reparations door to the descendants of the non-slaveholding poor, white farmers and the waves of oft-discriminated-against immigrants who came here after the Civil War, suggesting we all "unite and take back our country from the one-half percent who own more wealth than 90 percent of us put together." His F-the-rich rhetoric was followed by a couple dozen speakers--black and white--favoring reparations. But rather than see African-Americans simply receive checks in the mail, most speakers advocated other forms of compensation, such as free college education for African-Americans and/or massive new support for public schools serving predominately black communities. There were a couple exceptions: When one fiery woman (self-identified as a mother of 22 children and 101 grandchildren) said that America owed her a check--"I don't want to share it with the Jews, I don't want to share it with the Indians, I don't want to share it with nobody," she thundered--another speaker wondered aloud whether "a check from our oppressors will repair our community," drawing disapproving murmurs.

During a break in the hearing, the Nose perused various fliers at the rear of the room--including one announcing the formation of a Baltimore chapter of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA)--and sought refreshment. Over sweet tea and Doritos, we chatted briefly with Gaddy. "Some people are talking, 'I want a check!,' but I think that's in poor taste," she said. "I'm talking about what equals money: education, housing, drug treatment without charge, and a bed to sleep in."

But as she prepared to return to the hearings, Gaddy acknowledged that her payback plans are still murky. "I still don't know all about reparations myself," she said "I'm still learning." So, it would seem, is everyone else.

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