The reparations debate

Posted: Feb 26, 2002 12:00 AM
Like clockwork, the debate over slave reparations is heating up again to coincide with the end of Black History month. Last week, USA Today ran a lengthy, front-page article touting new evidence that some of America's most prominent private companies may have profited from slavery, including the newspaper's own publisher, Gannett, which published advertisements for the sale and return of slaves prior to the Civil War. Already, a group of prominent black scholars and attorneys have announced they will sue those corporations they allege made money from slavery, even if indirectly. The reparations debate has the potential of replacing affirmative action as the most volatile race issue in America, with Americans deeply divided on the topic. USA Today's own polls show that large majorities of black Americans believe that companies that profited from slavery should apologize, pay reparations to the descendants of slaves and establish scholarships for black students. Only about a third of whites, on the other hand, think a formal apology from the corporations is necessary or that the companies should establish special scholarship funds. And barely one-in-ten whites favor paying direct monetary reparations. Now, a new book by author and activist David Horowitz, "Uncivil Wars: The Controversy Over Reparations for Slavery," takes on not just the controversial issue of reparations, but the motives of those who are promoting the cause. Horowitz is the founder and president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. Last year, he tried to place ads in some 71 campus newspapers listing "10 Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea -- And a Racist One, Too." Only 28 student newspapers actually printed the ads, but the campaign sparked a furor on college campuses across the nation. Protesters, including faculty and administrators at some of the nation's most elite colleges and universities, denounced Horowitz, calling him everything from a racist to a fascist. Many of the campus editors who agreed to carry the ad issued public mea culpas. The editors of University of California at Berkeley newspaper apologized that they had "allowed the Daily Cal to become an inadvertent vehicle for bigotry." When Horowitz traveled around the country debating reparations, he became the object of even more abuse. On some campuses, he had to hire security guards to ensure he would make it on and off stage safely. I can sympathize with Horowitz, having faced similar abuse on college campuses, where I've been shouted down, threatened, and, on one occasion, punched for criticizing racial preferences and bilingual education. So what exactly did the ad say that provoked such outrage against Horowitz? As he points out in his book, the most controversial items had to do with his assertions about the success blacks have enjoyed in the United States. Admittedly, Horowitz made his point provocatively. Since the reparations debate was largely initiated two years ago by Randall Robinson in his book "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," Horowitz asks, "What About the Debt Blacks Owe to America?" He notes, accurately, that American blacks "enjoy the highest standard of living of blacks anywhere in the world," and he says that "in the thousand years of slavery's existence, there never was an anti-slavery movement until white Anglo- Saxon Christians created one." Horowitz's purpose is not to defend slavery or even America's terrible history, but to recognize that what is unique about the American experience is that the United States rejected an institution that was inhumane and that many white Americans -- including 140,000 Union soldiers -- were willing to give their lives to do so. "For all America's faults, African-Americans have an enormous stake in this country and its heritage. It is this heritage that is really under attack by the reparations movement. The reparations claim is one more assault on America, conducted by racial separatists and the political left," Horowitz writes. It is unlikely that reparations claims will go anywhere in the courts, despite the efforts of high-profile lawyers involved with the movement, including Johnnie Cochran and Harvard's Charles Ogletree. And Congress shows no interest in pursuing the issue legislatively. Which leaves reparations as a debating topic -- but one that has the potential to inflame racial animosities and divide Americans. Surely there is some better way to commemorate Black History Month than to reignite the reparations debate each February.