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Books A Just Cause

by Jack Beatty


THE DEBT: WHAT AMERICA OWES TO BLACKS

by Randall Robinson.
Columbia University Press,
Dutton, 272 pages, $23.95.


IS history becoming unsafe for injustice? About sixty German companies, including Deutsche Bank, Siemens, DaimlerChrysler, and Volkswagen, along with the German government, have offered to pay $5.1 billion in reparations to the "slave laborers" who were forced to work in their offices and factories during the Third Reich. Swiss banks are unbuttoning their discretion to pay Holocaust survivors -- or, in the case of deceased victims of the Holocaust, their families (a significant inclusion) -- for money and treasure stolen from them by the Nazis. These precedents of historical responsibility have raised anew the question of reparations to African-Americans for the still-echoing horrors of 246 years of slavery. Randall Robinson's eloquent book -- The Fire Next Time, perhaps, for this generation -- could help to turn a mood into a movement.

Randall Robinson is one of the heroes of the patient struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He began his campaign in 1972, when, with a group of thirty black Harvard students, mostly from the law school, he occupied the office of Derek Bok, then the president of Harvard, to pressure the university to sell its holdings in companies with operations in the white-led colonialist states of Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa. The occupation lasted a week (a record for Harvard occupations), and by the long measure of anti-apartheid activism it worked. After nearly thirteen years of protests and embarrassments, the Harvard Corporation began "selected divestments" in 1985. (For information on the divestment movement see Robert Kinloch Massie's stirring 1997 history of U.S.-South African relations during the apartheid years, Loosing the Bonds.) In late 1984, when President Ronald Reagan's re-election -- to which whites in South Africa responded by dancing in the streets -- made the cause seem hopeless, Robinson reanimated the movement by occupying the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. Hundreds followed him: being arrested in front of the embassy became a rite of passage for idealistic young people born too late for the civil-rights movement. TransAfrica, the pressure group Robinson revived in 1984, was well on its way.

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More on politics & society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"The Conservative Line on Race," by Glenn C. Loury (November, 1997)
In a book uniting social science with ideological argument, the authors contend that African-Americans should rejoice in the progress they have made since the 1960s, stop playing "the race card," and renounce the other articles of racial liberalism.

"Whatever Happened to Integration," by Gerald Early (February, 1997)
Reviews of Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America and The Trouble With Friendship: Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Race.

Related links:

"The asking price: a cool $777 trillion," by Cameron Duodu (November, 1999)
"In August, an organisation calling itself the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission (AWRRTC) met in Accra, Ghana, and demanded a cool $777 trillion in compensation for the crimes committed against Africa and people of African descent during the slave and colonial eras. A look at the legal basis for the African claim to reparations." (An article from New African magazine.)

"Political Versus Legal Strategies for the African Slavery Reparations Movement," by Ricardo Rene Laremont (August, 1999)
A discussion of the legal basis of the African-American reparations movement. (An article from the online journal African Studies Quarterly.)

Today Robinson wants to employ the tactics that ended apartheid to advance the justest cause in history. He envisions a "Year of Black Presence":
Every black church, organization, and institution would commit to choose one day of the 130-odd days that the Congress is in session and bring on that day one thousand African Americans to walk the halls of Congress in support of compensation measures designed to close the economic and psychic gap between blacks and whites in America. The Congress, for one year, would never stop seeing our faces, never stop hearing our demands, never be relieved of our presence.
The Debt is a work of ideas, not of policy prescriptions; nevertheless, Robinson has wisely included some proposals to bring home to his readers what's at stake. His main proposal, taken from the article "Many Billions Gone," by the Tulane Law School associate professor Robert Westley, is that a private national trust be established, with heavy contributions from the government, to pay for enriching the education of black children and for the college tuition of "all blacks who qualified academically and were found to be in financial need." Research into the uncompensated contributions that blacks have made to white businesses and individuals down the years would set the size and duration of the trust. Corporations, governments, and other institutions found to have benefited from slavery would be assessed "just compensation as an entitlement" for the labor they stole; these funds, too, would flow into the trust.

This compensation would be sought with the "same vigor that Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat demonstrated on behalf of Jewish survivors of the Nazi holocaust," if Robinson had his druthers, and the trust would establish a museum of slavery on the Mall, in Washington, to document the magnitude of American iniquity. Robinson wants young African-Americans to see why they are disadvantaged relative to white Americans. "You are owed ...," he writes. "The fault is not yours. There is nothing wrong with you. They did this to you."

The Debt mixes autobiography with reflection, and sometimes, as in an account of a visit in Havana with Fidel Castro, the reader loses the main thread. However, even in the Cuban interlude Robinson says things that draw one to the main topic. For example, struck by the relative lack of race prejudice in Cuba, he writes, "Many blacks -- most, perhaps, though I can't be sure -- don't like America." How could it be otherwise? To ask African-Americans to like America in spite of America is to ask too much.

Every white woman who goes to a gynecologist should know that one of the pioneers of that specialty tested his implements and procedures on slave women, without consent or anesthesia. White people who visit the Capitol should know this:

The worn and pitted stones ... had doubtless been hauled into position by slaves, for whom the most arduous of tasks were reserved. They had fired and stacked the bricks. They had mixed the mortar. They had sawn the long timbers in hellishly dangerous pits with one slave out of the pit and another in, often nearly buried alive in sawdust.
Every white railway passenger in the southeastern states should know that slave laborers built many of the first southern railroads from Georgia to Virginia, as the historian Scott Reynolds Nelson writes in his new book, Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction. Slaves cleared the right-of-way and laid the tracks. Black convicts, in jail for breaking their sharecropping contracts with white landlords or for stealing shovels, finished the job after the Civil War -- free at last!

American history would be covered with shame if stealing the lives and labor of a whole people were its worst crime. But, as Robinson explains poignantly, the worst was the obliteration of African-American memory, the breaking of links to the African cultures from which the slaves were torn. The peoples against whom the genocides of the twentieth century were perpetrated -- Armenians, Jews, Cambodians -- "weathered the savageries with their cultural memories intact." They could "regenerate themselves and their societies" by building on their traditions. "Only slavery, with its sadistic patience, asphyxiated memory, and smothered cultures, has hulled empty a whole race of people with inter-generational efficiency." That is why slavery is "far and away the most heinous human rights crime visited upon any group of people in the world over the last five hundred years."

With charged views for and against, the reparations debate would inevitably be racially divisive. What good can outweigh that harm? Robinson says that absent reparations, "there is no chance that America can solve its racial problems -- if solving these problems means, as I believe it must, closing the yawning economic gap between blacks and whites." Equality is Robinson's transcendent good: simple justice. The question is whether these means will lead to that end or away from it.

African-Americans can begin to make themselves whole through the reparations debate, Robinson says -- they need a past before they can claim the future. The call for justice could evoke "a surge of black self-discovery."

We could wear the call as a breastplate, a coat of arms. We could disinter a buried history, connect it to another, more recent and mistold, and give it as a healing to the whole of our people, to the whole of America.
Would the call for reparations become a race-wide embrace of "victimhood" -- the term that glib commentators use to advertise their feeble moral imaginations? Robinson will have none of that. To stand up for justice is to transcend the passive suffering of victims. It is to say, with pride, "Enough." It is to demand that Americans answer for their history.


Jack Beatty is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His most recent book is The World According to Peter Drucker (1998).

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 2000; A Just Cause - 00.02; Volume 285, No. 2; page 103-105.