Why I Support Reparations to Descendants of Slavery
by Donna Lamb
Suppose you and your whole family, for generations before you, had been living in luxury, enjoying all the best things of life and esteemed by society at large. Then one day a man comes to your door and tells you that he must talk with you: You haven't known it, but his great-great-grandfather worked with yours, and your great-great-grandfather swindled his out of everything. As a result, your family has lived in splendor these generations, while his family has suffered extreme poverty and been viewed with disdain. He tells you that he wants to sit down with you and show you all the documentation he has amassed which reveals exactly what your great-great-grandfather did that caused you to end up with everything and him with nothing, because he believes that even now this wrong must be addressed and rectified.
What would you do?
That, I believe, is the situation white America is in now. Descendants of slavery have come and told us that unbeknownst to us, our forefathers stole what was rightfully theirs and passed it down to us, and this wrong must be righted. I, personally, choose to sit down with these descendants, look at their documentation, and try to see how they believe the colossal injustice my people have committed against theirs can be repaired. I understand full well that the damage we have done is so monstrous and so massive that there is no way we can ever actually make up for it, but we must approach complete justice as closely as possible – no matter how many generations and how much money it takes.
Why We Owe Reparations
But perhaps I get ahead of myself. Let me go back and tell you why I, a white American woman, support reparations to descendants of slavery.
It is a simple fact that for 250 years whites robbed millions of enslaved Africans of the wealth their labor created. They were forced to work for free, while we made huge fortunes off their labor. And I'm not just talking about slave-owners either. As I'll explain in more detail later, this country's entire economy was built on slavery, so all whites, whether they wanted to or not, benefited from it.
Not only did enslaved Africans live in abject poverty, but they had nothing to bequeath to their heirs. The money that should have gone to them went instead into the pockets of white people and was passed down generation after generation in our families, doubling and tripling in value all the way. That is the root cause of the huge economic disparity between Blacks and whites that exists in this country today.
We also committed indescribable mental, physical, and spiritual brutality against enslaved Africans. They and their offspring were property for life – chattel – to do with as we pleased: beat them, work them to death, breed them like cattle or rape them. We robbed them of their identity as a people, stripping from them their mother tongues, traditional religions and original cultures as we forced upon them European language, religion and culture. This would be evident if you were to go to any Black community in this country and ask individuals if they knew where their ancestors came from in Africa – what were their ancestors' languages, religions and cultural practices. Most people wouldn't be able to say because we took that knowledge from them.
Further, we destabilized their social structures, relations between men and women, the family, and did everything we could to break their spirit, set one against another, and demoralize them as human beings. The heart-wrenching, far-reaching results of this, too, are very much with us now.
Then, far from apologizing and making restitution for what we'd done during the enslavement, we followed it up with another crime: institutionalized racism which is still alive and sick in our country today, over 140 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. This is because the mindset slavery was based on – the belief that a person of African descent is less than a white person – has not changed centrally. Yes, laws have been passed forcing people to refrain from some of the most flagrant racist practices that took place under the Black Codes and Jim Crow. For example, Black men no longer live in fear of being torn from their families in the middle of the night by a lynch mob, to be hung from a tree, their bodies mutilated. But there is still a gigantic amount of discrimination, carried out violently or with a velvet glove, that permeates every aspect of American life – in education, housing, the job market, finance, as to medical care, in relation to the police and the prison industrial complex, and more – all causing tremendous suffering to Blacks, as well as making it just about impossible for most to achieve financial parity with whites.
What all this means is that there has been one long, unbroken line of economic exploitation and racial injustice (the two are inextricably related) that has lasted from 1619 when the first captive Africans – different from our white ancestors who chose to come here – were brought against their will to these shores, all the way up to the present. Therefore, it’s my own personal belief that we owe reparations for the wrongs committed throughout that entire span of time, not just up to 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified, officially ending slavery.
Meeting the Opposition
One of the first things I tell people opposed to reparations is, don't believe what the mainstream press and media tell you about this subject. Put aside everything you've heard so far and start fresh. The government of this country, backed by its powerful henchmen, the press and media, wants you to fear and hate the idea of reparations, and they misinform you to try to have you do so. Any time you see them introduce a TV show with a statement like, “Should every Black be given a million dollars?” you should know that this is not going to be a serious dealing with the topic. Reparations isn't just about X amount of money being given to X amount of people, and don't listen to anyone who tries to tell you it is.
Nor is reparations about money being taken out of every white person's personal bank account and handed over to Blacks, as the spreaders of misinformation can make it seem. Individuals do not pay reparations. A government pays reparations to a people it has wronged for them to use to repair the damage it has done to them. The way we would pay is the same way we pay now for anything else our government does – even the things we are vehemently opposed to – with our tax dollars.
Another thing the powers-that-be want us to think is that reparations is some weird little idea dreamed up by a greedy bunch of Blacks who are busy figuring out how to grab it all for themselves – instead of what it truly is: a well established principle in United States law and in international law which the US has supported over and over. This government was pivotal – and rightly so – in Jews obtaining reparations from Germany for their Holocaust. The US government also awarded well-deserved reparations to Japanese Americans for this country's inhumane detention of them during World War II. And with both the Jews and Japanese Americans, reparations included provisions for the descendants of the people harmed, not just the actual victims.
I also ask people to be courageous and try to see whether their objection to reparations is really about the thing itself, or because it's African Americans calling for it. I suggest they experiment mentally, change the scenario and see if it alters how they feel. For instance, what if it had been people from the continent of Europe who had been enslaved and people of African descent who had been the slave-owners and masters – would they still be against reparations? “Come on,” I tell them, “be honest. Suppose it were your ancestors who had undergone chattel slavery. Would you still say it was too long ago so just get over it – or would you feel it still deserves redress?”
Another thing I try to have white people do is compare how they feel about African Americans receiving reparations with how they feel about others who have gotten them. Do they object to the fact that their tax dollars were used to pay Japanese Americans for something our government did before many of them were born, and to contribute to the building of the Jewish Holocaust Museum in our nation’s capital, which commemorates a hideous slaughter they themselves had no hand in? (There is, by the way, no comparable museum in Washington, DC commemorating slavery.)
And since I hear questions like, “If we were to give Blacks reparations, how do we know they wouldn't just squander it all and come back asking for more?” I ask if they would have ever thought to ask such a question as to Japanese Americans and Jews. The answer, of course, is no. I try to have people see that all of a sudden a different, more racist standard is applied when something has to do with people of African ancestry, including when it comes to reparations.
Frequently Asked Questions
Probably the most common question I get from white people is, “My family didn't own slaves so why should I have to pay?”
I tell them a person didn't have to own enslaved Africans to benefit from slavery. The entire early American economy, in the North as well as the South, was fueled by the products and revenues generated by the institution of slavery. As, for example, the government raked in millions of dollars in taxes on cotton alone, all whites – whether they were rich or poor, slave-holder or fervent abolitionist – benefited from slavery because the whole infrastructure of this nation was built on money made from it, directly or indirectly.
As I learned from reparations researcher, Ken Lewis, we even owe the success of the American Revolution to money generated by slavery in the colonies. For instance, Robert Morris, who made his money in the slave trade and trading slave-produced goods, is known as the Financier of the American Revolution because he bailed out George Washington's army financially several times, thus helping to save the revolution from going down in defeat from lack of money. This country's true history is replete with such facts.
If you dig deep enough, you will find that every large metropolitan area in the country benefited greatly from slavery. Take New York City where I live, which – even though it was the heaviest slave-holding region north of the Mason-Dixon Line – has always enjoyed a reputation as one of the liberal refuges from slavery during the decades leading up to the Civil War.
As Howard Dodson, Chief of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, has illuminated, from the beginning, every white person in New York benefited from the enslavement because slavery was a publicly organized and operated institution created by the laws of the colony of New Amsterdam. The first enslaved Africans who were brought to New York in 1625 weren't brought as privately owned slaves to work for individuals, but as publicly owned slaves to work for the City. They built forts, constructed houses – in general were the labor force that created the foundation of New York City as we know it today.
From the founding of the republic through the years leading up to the Civil War, New York City, as the financial and commercial capital of the US, controlled the sale of the slave-produced goods that were sold abroad. Cotton grown by enslaved Africans was shipped to New York from the South, and from there sold to Europe. Which leads us to this shocking bit of information: Because of the City's economic dependence on slavery and the slave trade, when South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1861, Mayor Fernando Wood proposed that New York City also secede and join the confederacy. Fortunately, the City Council voted down this proposal!
Another thing I hear all the time is, “I don't see why I should have to pay, because my ancestors weren't here during slavery.” In fact, I hear this so often I'd almost think there were no whites in this country during slavery! There is also this variation, which is a valid question, “What about all the poor people who immigrated here long after slavery – isn't it unfair to expect them to pay?”
First of all, it doesn't really matter when your family came over. As soon as a person's feet land on this soil, in one way or another, they, too, begin to benefit from what slavery created that has come down to all of us through the centuries.
And the fact is, the whole reason people come to this country in the first place is to get in on the wealth that had its origin in slavery. They don't know it, but these streets paved in gold that they came here to find could more aptly be called streets bathed in the blood, sweat and tears of enslaved Africans. A person cannot expect to come and share in what amounts to ill-gotten gains without also having to be a part of making amends for the unjust way they were amassed in the first place.
With that said, I must also stress the point that people who've come to this country looking for a better life, like all people who are struggling financially themselves, have nothing to fear from the reparations movement. I only wish I knew how to make that point strongly enough. Black reparations leaders have enough sense and kindness that they are thinking very deeply about how reparations can be paid without taking resources away from others who are suffering as well. It is a sign of how selfish and racist we ourselves are if we don't assume that of course Blacks are considering what is fair to others, too.
Other questions people put to me frequently are, “It happened so long ago and all the slaves are dead, so isn't it just divisive to keep bringing it up? Wouldn't it help more to bring about racial harmony if we just buried it with the past?” My response is that the ravages of slavery, both economic and spiritual, are very much alive and immediate today. Persons of African ancestry are still seen and dealt with in a way that is very far from what they deserve, while we European Americans continue to receive a subtle – and not so subtle – white privilege in every area of life.
And the thing is, you can't brutalize a people massively and then tell them to just get over it. That will never work – just as it would never work in our own personal lives. What if I were to tell you (fortunately it’s not true, but suppose for a moment it were) that I was a battered wife who'd had my arm broken and my jaw wired several times. Once when my husband was beating me I called the police, which resulted in our children being taken away, and even now, it's going to be years before I finish paying off all my medical and legal bills. Now my former husband, who doesn't think he owes me so much as an apology, wants me to let by-gones be by-gones and be friends. He says it's very un-Christian of me to hold a grudge. Would you think my ex-husband was right? Most people would say, no, definitely not!
It's no different in this case. I am quite certain that there will never be healing between Blacks and whites in this country until whites faces up to the crime we as a people committed against people of African descent and begin to set it right. That's the only way Blacks will ever be able to genuinely respect us. And, odd as it may seem, it's the only way we will ever be able to respect them, because no one can feel clean, at ease with and respectful of someone they've robbed and brutalized and then felt they got away with it. Working towards mutual respect is the only way to bring about true racial harmony. Anything else is divisive.
People also say to me, “But whites fought and died in the Civil War to free the slaves. Doesn't that settle any possible debt to Blacks?” One of this country's great myths, I tell them, is that hundreds of thousands of brave northern men marched off to war to free the slaves – only thing is, it simply isn't true. This can be seen very clearly in the diaries and letters written home by Union soldiers. While I'm glad to say that Quakers and some other white individuals, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Lydia Maria Child, Wendell Phillips and Susan B. Anthony, were avid opponents of slavery, the majority of the people in the North were either too wrapped up in their own lives to think much about it, or had a lot to gain financially from slavery continuing. In the 1800s, northern industrialists were making millions of dollars off enterprises fueled by what enslaved labor produced, in New England's textile mills, for instance, so they weren't about to help terminate it.
Not only the rich, but northern working class whites also felt they had much reason to fear the end of slavery. In actuality, the poorer a person was, the more they felt threatened by that possibility. They already blamed free Blacks for their low wages, and the last thing they wanted was for more Black persons to come north and compete with them for jobs.
Therefore, in 1863 when President Lincoln passed the first draft law, which contained a provision making it possible for the wealthy to pay $300 to get out of the draft or to hire someone else to go in their place, there were draft riots by people who couldn't afford to do that. New York City experienced a vicious four-day long insurrection in which laborers rioted in lower Manhattan, targeting Blacks and abolitionists. The rioters vandalized and burned down entire neighborhoods and maimed and murdered hundreds of people of African ancestry.
Different from the 186,000 Black men and women who fought gladly in the Civil War to win their freedom, half a million white men deserted the Union Army. In fact, Lincoln had to make desertion a crime punishable by death in an effort to stop the hemorrhaging.
Yet, along with the ignobility of so many northerners, there were also moral and spiritual persons, such as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, who went to battle against the Confederacy motivated by a sense of ethics. There were white Union soldiers who truly did give their lives to end slavery. And I say this from the depths of my being: It is a desecration of their memory to try to use them against the very thing they were willing to die for – justice to people of African descent. To oppose reparations in their name is to dishonor everything they stood for. I am sure that what they want from us now is to complete their work by bringing about the full emancipation of enslaved Africans through reparations.
Two more arguments I get are the following – one sounding very noble and the other not, but both essentially coming to the same thing: “Giving Blacks reparations would be insulting; it would take away their dignity,” and, “They should use some personal initiative instead of standing around asking for a handout.”
Both of these miss the point: Reparations is not charity. It is not giving people anything. It is paying people back the wages that were withheld from their ancestors when they were forced to work for free. This is the money Black persons living now should have inherited but couldn't. There's no essential difference from when a friend of mine loaned another man money, to be repaid in three months; yet, five years later he still couldn't get his money back. He took this man to Small Claims Court, and the court ordered the man to pay him back immediately. They even froze the man’s bank account until he did.
You would never say my friend was looking for a handout or that it lessened his dignity to demand he be given back what was rightfully his – a demand fully recognized by the US legal system. That is why I see participating in the struggle for reparations as one of the most dignified, self-empowering things a Black person can do – and fully in keeping with the justice the United States of America is supposed to stand for.
Yet another thing I often hear is, “It was Africans who sold each other into slavery, so why should we Americans have to pay reparations?
Now, I usually find that the people who have no compunction about asking me this would, however, think it extremely crass to point out that many Jews ended up in concentration camps because other Jews turned them in, and that while in the death camps, some Jews, in the effort to save themselves, collaborated with the Nazis, carrying out atrocities against other Jews. Yet, would anyone, even for a moment, think that these facts in some way lessened or excused what the Germans did? Of course not. And we all know that every community when it's been under siege has had its traitors and collaborators who sold out their own people. Global history is full of such instances.
My personal opinion is that, unequivocally, slavery, at whatever period in history and in whatever form, was and is an abomination, and it should be condemned utterly. But it's not for us white people to say how descendants of slavery should deal with those African countries that once participated in the Trans Atlantic slave trade. Just as these descendants have the right to decide what they want to do about European nations such as Spain, Portugal and England that played major roles in the slave trade, or the Catholic Church which profited enormously from overseeing it, Black reparationists must decide for themselves what they think is right as to individual African nations.
The important thing for us, as white people, is to be accurate about what truly happened in Africa during the Trans Atlantic slave trade and to see what our part was in it – not to go casting about, looking to place the blame elsewhere so we can get ourselves off the hook.
For starters, contrary to what most white Americans think, the numerous slave-forts along the coast of Ghana, which are often depicted as symbols of the African slave trade, weren't built by Africans but by Europeans. Originally constructed as trading posts for gold and ivory, they later became pens where their “human cargo” was held and branded before being shipped off to the New World.
Also, though the diverse African peoples fought among themselves – as did people on every continent – once Europeans got a glimpse of how lucrative the slave trade in the New World could be, they began doing everything in their power to escalate conflicts between different African peoples so they would be in constant combat with each other and could be induced to capture and sell each other to the Europeans in exchange for guns and other items of value. If Europeans and Americans had kept their noses out of Africa and hadn't provided an insatiable market for captured Africans, the slave trade would never have become what it did.
And yes, some Africans did indeed accept bribes and other things that were pressed on them by the European and American slave-traders to get them to kidnap other Africans for trade. However, they had no idea what the persons they captured had in store for them across the sea, for Africans had never conceived of anything as base, cruel and sick as chattel slavery, which was very different from how they had seen slavery practiced on their continent.
The thing we never hear about is that, as word spread across the continent about the incredible abuse and suffering the enslaved Africans were enduring in the New World, most Africans stopped participating in the European slave trade. What's more, many countries mounted fierce resistance to the trade – Angola, Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal, for instance.
Unfortunately, their efforts were woefully inadequate against the power and might of the Europeans and Americans. The Trans Atlantic slave trade became the largest forced migration in the history of the world, destabilizing many African societies politically and economically. All you have to do is look at what a rich nation we grew to be and how impoverished Africa became to see who really benefited from the slave trade. It so weakened African nations that they were sitting ducks for the colonization that followed, from which they have never recovered.
The final question I will deal with in this chapter is one white people, even those who support reparations to descendants of enslaved Africans, often ask me, “How would we know how to spend the money and who to give the reparations to?”
Well, I tell them, the good news is, we don't have to decide anything about how descendants of slavery will make their case, what they'll ask for, how they'll spend the money and who will get reparations. All of those things are totally up to them. Just as in any other situation where one party has been injured by another and is seeking redress, it isn't the place of the party who committed the injury to tell the injured party what to do. For example in a class action suit against a corporation, it would seem ludicrous to even suggest that the corporation should tell the people bringing charges against them how to argue their case or how they should allot the money after they won. It's actually just none of our business what Blacks do with the money – although I've seen abundant evidence that they're going to do just fine figuring out how to spend it and who and what to spend it on.
The only thing that is our business is looking honestly at this question: “Did we, as a nation, commit a crime against people of African ancestry for which our government owes reparations?” That's all. If we aren't trying to answer that truthfully, everything else is just an evasion.
In the face of every argument any person can make against reparations, heart and soul I feel it was a crime of such monstrous proportions that a way must be found to make restitution, and, to use the old cliché, Where there's a will, there's a way. Any injustice, personal or international, which has been committed against anyone must be seen for what it is and regretted. It cannot be lied about, smoothed over, or swept under the rug as though it's no longer important – whether it happened three days ago, three years ago, or three centuries ago. If it was wrong, it is wrong, and it still must be looked at honestly and sincerely revoked. That's the only way we will ever put an end to brutal and insidious institutionalized racism that continues to plague this nation even now in the 21st century.