Henry Louis Gates Sets Off Slavery Reparations Debate

Is now the time to "end the slavery blame-game"?

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For years, academics, historians, and activists have debated the idea of the U.S. paying reparations to the descendants of African slaves. Now that President Obama is in office, some say this is the perfect time to decide. As Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates recently argued, though Obama is not a descendant of slaves, his status as "the child of an African and an American" makes him "uniquely positioned" to address the subject. But the issue of reparations is always controversial and extremely complicated.

  • Now's the Time to Resolve This  In the New York Times, Henry Louis Gates approvingly quotes a student of Obama's who said, "He told us what he thought about reparations. He agreed entirely with the theory of reparations. But in practice he didn’t think it was really workable." Gates says Obama "is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. And reaching that understanding is a vital precursor to any just and lasting agreement on the divisive issue of slavery reparations."
  • U.S. Must Pay This Inherited Debt  Econoblogger Brad Delong writes, "I reject the quitclaim deed he offers: just because there were people with skin of another color on another continent who aided and conspired with my ancestors in their crimes does not mean that I am quits of all obligations as I sit here still enjoying the fruits of their crimes." He argues that Americans are born with "an inheritance of institutions, principles, and organizations that is without peer anywhere on the world today and that is of inestimable value" but also "the debts that America owes from its past actions as well." Those debts include reparations.
  • Reparations Is Just 'Victim Studies'  The Root's Stanley Crouch dismisses the academic study of reparations as "victim studies" that draw an "irresponsible cartoon about good guys and bad guys." He sighs, "Overstatement, melodrama, militant distortion and absurd academic theories have dominated the business of racial complaint since the early '60s."
  • Don't Ignore America's Role  Black studies professor Herb Boyd writes to the New York Times, "The economic disadvantage of black workers extended beyond the long night of slavery into the iniquitous era of Jim Crow. A crime was committed against humanity, and the European nations, the United States and the African chiefs are all accessories. But the United States was the greatest beneficiary, and thus should be the main compensator."
From my perspective, the most interesting and provocative modern questions around America's racial dilemma, like any societal dilemma, do not necessitate blame. To put it differently, I am not concerned about gender equality because I think I'm to blame thousands of years of sexism, I'm concerned about  gender equality because it matches my moral center. Blame is irrelevant. In the context of race, the question isn't "Who is to blame for the Middle Passage, slavery, and Jim Crow?" it's "What, tangibly, can we do to counter its generational effects?"
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