Several days after Duke's student newspaper printed a controversial ad denouncing slavery reparations, I overheard an argument between two young black women on East Campus. One of the women offered a blistering indictment of the ad and declared that reparations were essential to the healing process between the races. The other woman shook her head slowly. The ad was racist and "foolish," she said, but "no payoff is ever going to make people respect each other."
"Respect?" the first woman said. "Where do you see respect? Next thing, you'll be saying white people ought to love black people."
"Yeah," the second woman said, "that's what I'm saying."
The issue of slavery reparations has simmered in this country, mostly on a back burner, since Appomattox. After President Andrew Johnson vetoed legislation that would have given every former slave 40 acres and a mule, the issue faded into the wide, ugly fabric of post-war discrimination. Though kept alive by various peripheral groups and individuals (including the not-so-peripheral California Rep. John Conyers, who has tried for 12 years to get Congress to study the issue), the concept of slavery reparations as a viable political movement has more or less languished for more than a century.
Then, this spring, a handful of college newspapers ran a full-page ad titled "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks--and Racist Too." The ad, an articulate rant by conservative theorist David Horowitz, claims that, far from deserving remuneration, blacks owe a debt to America for freeing them to enjoy the national wealth they helped create. Here in the Triangle, Duke's Chronicle ran the ad and UNC-Chapel Hill's Daily Tar Heel published a modified opinion piece by Horowitz. In each case, the decision evoked all manner of indignation and rebuttal. Protests were staged, panels formed, apologies demanded. Newspaper editors spoke earnestly about the importance of "open dialogue." At Duke, an English professor called the ad "horrific, ill-formed, unscholarly, racist." On the Carolina campus, Chancellor James Moeser reminded protestors that free speech is part of the "basic underpinning of our great University."
The speechifying was entertaining and, no doubt, gratifying to Horowitz, but it had little to do with the subject of slavery reparations. Which was both disappointing and predictable. For much of the last century, conversations about reparations have been burdened from both sides of the argument with so much resentment and righteousness, so many taboos and contradictions, that consensus has become a distant ambition. Even the basic questions--How would reparations be paid? Who would be the beneficiaries?--seem intractable.
All that may be changing, though. Not because of David Horowitz, but because support for slavery reparations has in the last couple of years broadened to include mainstream civil rights leaders and respected scholars. (In fact, Horowitz' ad campaign was in response to a recent conference on reparations at the University of Chicago.) A little more than a year ago, Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree Jr. and Harvard Afro-American Studies chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. announced they were considering legal action to secure restitution for descendants of black slaves. Ogletree and Gates are big guns in American academia, and they aren't accustomed to being ignored or marginalized. Their efforts may or may not result in actual payments to black Americans, but, as Ogletree told The Boston Globe, money isn't what it's about. "The real point," he said, "is to put closure to a very sorry period in our history."
The case for slavery reparations seems overwhelming. For more than a century, Congress sustained and protected the institution of slavery, allowing white America--both individuals and businesses--to make billions. Abolition was followed by another century of state-sponsored discrimination which effectively excluded blacks from the wealth they helped to create. The second half of the 20th century saw advances in civil rights and the creation of services, funds and policies designed to help black Americans. Numerous victories were won, from the desegregation of public accommodations to voting rights. Yet, despite advances, and the ability of many black Americans to survive and succeed, the legacy of slavery persists. Blacks have higher rates of poverty and infant mortality than any other ethnic group; they are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods, attend inferior schools, be denied loans and fall victim to police brutality than white Americans. The economic and cultural divide that separates white and black America is in many ways still present, and still painful.
Given the truth of this, why have reparations struggled so hard to make it onto the national agenda? Restitution is hardly an anomaly; in the last several decades we have seen numerous examples, from German aid to Israel to Florida's agreement to pay the survivors of Rosewood, an all-black town destroyed by a white mob in 1923. So why are slavery reparations so hard to talk about?
There are certainly compelling arguments against reparations, many of them reflecting anxiety on the part of black Americans that, like so many other "programs" designed to assist them, this one will hurt more than help. Or that reparations will pick at wounds that are slowly healing. For many whites--especially Southern whites--there's also the messy and implacable issue of guilt. My family owned slaves in eastern North Carolina, and when, seven years ago, I happened to meet a descendent of those slaves, I felt, strangely, vexed. Miss Mattie Ebron was tiny, ancient and frail. All her life she had worked at the crab house, ironed white people's linens and tended to white people's children. Her house was dark and dank, boarded up.
Miss Mattie was matter-of-fact about her connection to my family. In fact, she remembered my grandparents with affection. Still, there were uncomfortable truths: A century and a half after slavery, Miss Mattie and her family were poor. Many of them were in bad health. Few had managed to leave the county they'd been brought to generations earlier. Sitting in her kitchen I considered the parallel fates of our families. Could the enormous incongruities be traced back to slavery? Before I met Miss Mattie that question would have been unsettling; now, with her sitting before me, gaunt and toothless and impossibly cheerful, it seemed horrifying.
Of course, guilt over slavery isn't confined to the South (though here it festers in strange, enigmatic ways). Not long after meeting Miss Mattie I was introduced to a black man named Tye Howard. Howard had been, for a brief time, a reparations activist. He'd since moved on to more "productive" endeavors, but he had two interesting theories about why reparations had not yet become an acceptable topic for debate. After 200 years of racial hatred, he said, many white people literally could not see their way clear to a moral position on the issue of restitution. "It's just human psychology," he said. "If you kick a person often enough," he said, "you wind up hating him, as a way of getting around hating yourself. That hate," he said, "gets to be the smoke screen that hides your responsibility."
Howard's second theory--which he said had nothing to do with hate--was that shame and denial over black suffering had become a national pathology that whites looked to blacks to heal. He said that when he went off to a fairly exclusive college in the North, he came across white people who were "weirdly happy" about his success. "Black people like me were the answer to their guilt. They wanted to be my friend. It was like, 'See? You made it. It couldn't have been that bad.'"
In the end, Tye Howard didn't condemn his "friends." There are worse psychoses than shame, he said.
Indeed, and if the issue of slavery reparations continues to inch its way onto the national agenda, it will be important to pay attention to them. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, known for being right of center, with a twist, recently wrote a column in favor of reparations. The piece includes some grudging language about the atrocities of slavery and America's collective responsibility to blacks. Krauthammer then goes on to suggest that, once reparations are paid (he suggests giving every black American a lump sum--say, $50,000 for a family of four), we can do away with affirmative action.
Without making any judgments about the value of affirmative action, it's easy to see how many people might view slavery reparations as a kind of final payoff, an opportunity to wash America's hands of the problem. Even Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree speaks that language, when he calls for "closure to a very sorry period of our history."
Can it be that simple?
Back in his activist days, Tye Howard told me, he would sometimes contemplate what might have happened if newly freed slaves had gotten their 40 acres and a mule. Would that gesture--those reparations--have altered the future of race relations in America? Would it have transformed a century and a half of bigotry and racism? "I thought about it," he said, "and what I thought was, not likely."
Then Howard told a story about how, when he was a little boy, his family was the unwitting "project" of one Tully Dupree, a white woman for whom Howard's mother did occasional housework. About once a month, he said, Tully Dupree would bring over a box of clothes or used toys. She was always especially nice to Tye, and would sometimes bring him a pack of gum or a fireball. Tye's mother, he said, always seemed uneasy about the gifts.
"I asked my mother why," he said, "and she got this look on her face and said Miss Dupree didn't like colored folks. Well, I had one of Miss Dupree's fireballs in my mouth and I guess I was feeling sassy so I said, 'Miss Dupree loves me.' And my mother made me spit that fireball out into her hand. And she looked at it and she said, 'You see that?' She said, 'That's a whole lot of things, but it ain't love.'"