Norm Allen: The Demand for Reparations: Chasing Fool’s Gold
Arguments about Reparations have moved in and out of the national conversation about social justice for many years now. Recently the topic has been brought back to the fore of the public debate (especially on the internet), sparked largely by a cover story published in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic titled “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for the magazine who writes about culture, politics, and social issues. Coates spent more than a year working on the story.
In light of the renewed discussion, I am happy to present a guest blog post on the subject by Norm Allen, a friend and colleague for whom I have much high regard. Indeed, I have had the honor of working with Norm Allen on a variety of projects over the last eight years. In 1989 Norm founded (with assistance from Paul Kurtz) African Americans for Humanism (AAH), the first organization focused on the promotion of humanism and humanist ideals among people of African descent. He served as the executive director of AAH from 1991 to 2010 as well as editor of its quarterly, the AAH Examiner. Norm is currently working on his third book, “Secular, Successful and Black,” which will be published by Prometheus Books. We publish “The Demand for Reparations: Chasing Fool’s Gold” below.
Ever since the abolition of chattel slavery in the U.S., various parties have been arguing for reparations for African Americans. On January 16, 1865, Union General William Sherman revealed Special Field Order Number 15, which set aside land for African Americans. On March 3, 1865, Congress passed the Freedman’s Bureau Act that set aside a maximum of 40 acres (mules provided by the government were added later) “to every male citizen.”
Sadly, Lincoln was assassinated and President Andrew Johnson ascended to the Presidency. He vetoed the Freedman’s Bureau Act that had been amended in 1866. The new act supported returning 850,000 acres of land to former White land owners!
There are two main avenues that reparations advocates pursue: 1) the courts and 2) through Congress. It should be clear by now that pursuing reparations through the courts is a legal dead end. For example, in 1995, California’s Ninth Circuit Court dismissed a reparations lawsuit for $100 million, saying, among other things, that the statute of limitations had run out. Other judges have said the same in other cases.
Apparently, pursuing reparations in Congress is also a dead end. In 1989, Rep. John Conyers (Democrat, Michigan) introduced H.R. 3745 (now H.R. 891) the “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.” Every White congressperson has opposed it ever since.
Most White Americans do not even believe the government should apologize for slavery, let alone give African Americans reparations. Indeed, a Gallup poll taken in 2001 found that 70% of White Americans were opposed to an apology. In 2002, a Gallup poll revealed that 90% of Whites were against reparations, as were 50% of Blacks.
There are good precedents for awarding reparations for aggrieved groups. In “righting a wrong,” in the February 1997 issue of the now-defunct Emerge magazine, Lori S. Robinson related:
In 1976, Australia gave its indigenous Aborigines more than 96,000 square miles of land after having appropriated it during European settlements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries…. [In 1971] indigenous Alaskans received nearly $1 billion and more than 44 million acres of land through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act….During the 1980s, five Native American nations were paid sums ranging from $12.3 million to $1.1 billion for stolen land and broken treaties. (The Best of Emerge, edited by George Curry, pp. 611-612.)
How much would reparations be in modern dollars? No one knows for sure. Essence magazine had an economist appraise 40 acres and a mule at $43,209 in 1997 dollars. Ray Scott, who owns a funeral home in Tacoma, Washington, put the value at $113,569.16.
Many Whites claim that America paid its debt by waging a successful Civil War that shed much blood, lost many lives and nearly destroyed the nation. Others, such as Charles Krauthammer, say they would back reparations if it meant an end to affirmative action and other programs for historically oppressed groups. (Oddly, reparations advocates never effectively address whether they would accept this “compromise.”)
African Americans should have received reparations long ago. However, realistically speaking, too much time has passed, and with each passage of time, Whites become more bitterly opposed to reparations. Pursuing reparations is a colossal waste of time, and African Americans should pursue other avenues in their ongoing quest for social justice.
By Norm R. Allen Jr.