Donna Lamb: Meeting the Opposition to Reparations


One of the first things I tell people who are opposed to reparations is, don't believe what the mainstream press and media tell you about this subject; put aside everything you've heard so far and start fresh. The government of this country, backed by its powerful henchmen, the press and media, wants you to fear and hate the idea of reparations, and they feed you misinformation to try to have you do so. Any time you see them introduce a TV show with a statement like, "Should every Black be given a million dollars?", change the channel! They're already mocking, not dealing with the subject seriously. Reparations isn't just about X amount of money being given to X amount of people, and don't listen to anyone who tries to tell you it is.

Nor is reparations about money being taken out of every white person's personal bank account and handed over to Blacks, as the spreaders of misinformation can make it seem. Individuals do not pay reparations. Reparations are what a government pays a people it has wronged for them to use to repair the damage it has done to them. The way we would pay is the same way we pay now for anything else our government does--even the things we are vehemently opposed to--with our tax dollars.

Legal cases can be and are being brought against specific entities--such as insurance companies that got their start insuring slave owners against the loss of their "property" and were thus able to grow to the multi-billion dollar corporations they are today. But there again, it isn't your average struggling worker who's going to be left destitute because he's being punished for a crime he never committed. It's corporations that amassed huge fortunes off the backs of Blacks that are going to be made to share some of their ill-gotten gains.

Another thing the powers-that-be want us to think is that reparations is some weird little idea dreamed up by a greedy bunch of Blacks who are busy figuring out how to grab it all for themselves--instead of what it really is: a well established principle in law and in international law which the United States has supported over and over. This government was pivotal in the Jews obtaining reparations from Germany for their Holocaust, and it backs reparations for the victims of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The US government also awarded reparations to Japanese Americans for this country's inhumane detention of them during World War II. And with both the Jews and the Japanese, reparations included provisions for the descendants of the people harmed, not just the actual victims.

I also ask people to be courageous and try to see whether their objection to reparations is really about the thing itself--or about the fact that it's Black people calling for it. I ask them to experiment mentally, change the scenario and see if it alters how they feel. For instance, what if it were Irish people who had been enslaved and Blacks who had been the slave owners and masters--would they still be against reparations? Come on, be honest: suppose it were your ancestors who had undergone chattel slavery: would you still say it was too long ago so just get over it--or would you feel it still deserved redress?

Another thing I try to have white people do is compare how they feel about Blacks receiving reparations with how they feel about others who have gotten them. Do they object to the fact that our government used their tax dollars to pay the Japanese and to build the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC? And since I hear questions like, "If we were to give Blacks reparations, how do we know they wouldn't just squander it all and come back asking for more?", I ask if they would have ever thought to ask such a question as to the Japanese and the Jews. The answer, of course, is no. I try to have people see that all of a sudden a different, more racist standard is applied when something has to do with people of African ancestry, including when it comes to reparations.


1) One of the most common questions I get from white people is, "My family didn't own slaves so why should I have to pay?"

I tell them a person didn't have to own enslaved Africans to benefit from slavery. The entire early American economy, in the North as well as the South, was fueled by the products and revenues generated by the institution of slavery. As, for example, the government raked in millions of dollars in taxes on cotton alone, all whites--whether they were rich or poor, slave holder or passionate abolitionist--benefited from slavery because the whole infrastructure of this nation was built on money made from it, directly or indirectly.

As I learned from CURE member Ken Lewis, we even owe the success of the American Revolution to money generated by slavery in the colonies. For example, Robert Morris, who made his money in the slave trade and trading slavery products, is known as the "Financier of the American Revolution" because he bailed out Washington's army several times, thus helping to save the revolution from going down in defeat from lack of money. This country's true history is replete with such facts.

If you dig deep enough, you will find that every large metropolitan area in the country benefited greatly from slavery. Take New York City where I live, which--despite the fact that it was the heaviest slave holding region north of the Mason-Dixon Line--has always enjoyed a reputation as one of the liberal refuges from slavery during the decades leading up to the Civil War.

As Howard Dodson, Chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, has illuminated, from the beginning, every white person in New York benefited from the enslavement because slavery was a publicly organized and operated institution created by the laws of the colony of New Amsterdam. The first enslaved Africans brought to New York in 1625 weren't brought as private "slaves" to work for individuals, but as public "slaves" to work for the City. They built forts, constructed houses--in general were the labor force that created the foundation of New York City as we know it today.

From the founding of the republic through the years leading up to the Civil War, New York City, as the financial and commercial capital of the US, controlled the sale of the slave-produced goods that were sold abroad. Cotton grown by enslaved Africans was shipped up here from the South, and from here sold to Europe. Which leads us to this truly shocking fact: because of the city's economic dependence on slavery and the slave trade, when South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1861, Mayor Fernando Wood proposed that New York City also secede and join the confederacy. Fortunately, the City Council voted down this proposition!

2) Another thing I hear all the time is, "I don't see why I should have to pay, because my ancestors weren't here during slavery." In fact, I hear this so often I'd almost think there were no whites in this country during slavery! There is also this variation, which is a valid question, "What about all the poor people who immigrated here long after slavery--isn't it unfair to expect them to pay?"

First of all, it doesn't really matter when your family came over. As soon as a person's feet land on this soil, in one way or another, they, too, begin to benefit from what slavery created that has come down to all of us through the centuries.

And the fact is, the whole reason people come to this country in the first place is to get in on the wealth that had its origin in slavery. They don't know it, but these "streets paved in gold" they came here to find could more aptly be called "streets bathed in the blood, sweat and tears of enslaved Africans." A person cannot expect to come and share in what really amounts to ill-gotten gains without also having to be a part of making amends for the unjust way it was amassed in the first place.

With that said, I must also stress the fact that people who've come to this country looking for a better life, like all people who are struggling financially themselves, have nothing to fear from the reparations movement. I only wish I knew how to make that point strongly enough. Black Reparationists have enough sense and kindness that they are thinking very deeply about how reparations can be paid without taking resources away from others who are suffering as well. It is a sign of how selfish and racist we ourselves are if we don't assume that Blacks in this movement are considering what is fair to others, too.

I have seen that there are a lot of great ideas out there among Reparationists about how, along with corporations, the Robber Barons and other super-rich families who benefited the most from slavery can be made to pay the most through such things as progressive taxes--where the richer you are, the more you pay. There is also thought about how money can be diverted from things that don't benefit working class people anyway, like corporate welfare, the bloated war budget and the militarization of space--in other words, ways money can be redirected in such a manner that it not only doesn't harm other poor people, but will actually save the lives of some!

Furthermore, there are ideas out there--such as freeing the political prisoners and people who were incarcerated for non-violent crimes--which, far from costing us money, will actually save our tax dollars!

3) Other questions people put to me frequently are, "It happened so long ago and all the slaves are dead, so isn't it just divisive to keep bringing it up? Wouldn't it help more to bring about racial harmony if we just buried it with the past?"

My response is that the ravages of slavery, both economic and spiritual, are very much alive and immediate today. Persons of African ancestry are still seen and dealt with in a way that is very far from what they deserve, while we European Americans continue to receive a subtle--and not so subtle--white privilege in every area of life. In this country all other ethnicities and immigrants are more respected as human beings than the descendants of slavery.

And the fact is, you can't brutalize a people massively and then just tell them to get over it. That will never work--just as it would never work in our personal lives. What if I were to tell you I was a battered wife who'd had my arm broken and my jaw wired several times. Once when my husband was beating me I called the police, which resulted in our children being taken away, and even now, it's going to be years before I finish paying off all my medical and legal bills. Now my former husband, who doesn't think he owes me so much as an apology, wants me to let by-gones be by-gones and be friends. He says it's very unchristian of me to hold a grudge. Would you think my ex-husband was right? Most people would say, no, definitely not!

It's no different in this case. I am quite certain that there will never be healing between Blacks and whites in this country until whites faces up to the crime we as a people committed against people of African descent and begin to set it right. That's the only way Blacks will ever be able to genuinely respect us. And, odd as it may seem, it's the only way we'll ever be able to respect them, because no one can feel clean, at ease with and respectful of someone they've robbed and brutalized and then felt they got away with it. Working towards mutual respect is the only way to bring about true racial harmony. Anything else is divisive.

4) People also say to me, "But whites fought and died in the Civil War to free the slaves. Doesn't that settle any possible debt to Blacks?"

One of this country's great myths, I tell them, is that hundreds of thousands of brave Northern men marched off to war to free the "slaves"--but it simply isn't true! While I'm glad to say that Quakers and some other white individuals, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Lydia Maria Child, Wendell Phillips, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, were avid opponents of slavery, the majority of the people in the North were either too wrapped up in their own lives to think much about it, or had a lot to gain financially from slavery continuing. In the 1800s, Northern industrialists were making millions of dollars off of enterprises fueled by what enslaved labor produced--in New England's textile mills, for instance--so they weren't about to help terminate it.

Not only the rich, but Northern working class whites felt they had much reason to fear the end of slavery. In fact, the poorer a person was, the more he or she felt threatened by that possibility. They already blamed free Blacks for their low wages, and the last thing they wanted was for more Black persons to come north and compete with them for jobs.

Therefore, in 1863 when President Lincoln passed the first draft law, which contained a provision making it possible for the wealthy to pay $300 to get out of the draft or to hire someone else to go in their place, there were draft riots by people who couldn't afford to do that. New York City experienced a vicious 4-day long insurrection in which laborers rioted in lower Manhattan, targeting abolitionists and Blacks. The rioters vandalized and burned down entire neighborhoods and maimed and murdered hundreds of people of African ancestry.

During the Civil War, half a million men deserted the Union Army; in fact, Lincoln had to make desertion a crime punishable by death in the effort to stop them!

Yet, along with the ignobility of so many Northerners, there were also moral and spiritual persons, such as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, who went to battle against the Confederacy motivated by a sense of ethics. There were white Union soldiers who truly did give their lives to end slavery. And I say this from the depths of my being: it is a desecration of their memory to try to use them against the very thing they were willing to die for--justice to people of African descent! To oppose reparations in their name is to dishonor everything they stood for. I am sure that what they want from us now is to complete their work by bringing about the full emancipation of enslaved Africans through reparations.

5) Two more arguments I get are the following--one sounding very noble and the other not, but both essentially coming to the same thing: "Giving Blacks reparations would be insulting; it would take away their dignity," and "They should use some personal initiative instead of standing around asking for a handout."

Both of these miss the point: reparations is not charity; it is not giving people anything; it is paying people back the wages that were withheld from their ancestors when they were forced to work for free. This is the money Black persons living now should have inherited, but couldn't. There's no essential difference from when a friend of mine loaned another man money, to be repaid in three months; yet, five years later he still couldn't get his money back. So he took this man to Small Claims Court, and the court ordered the man to pay him back immediately. In fact they froze his bank account until he did.

You would never say my friend was looking for a handout or that it lessened his dignity to demand he be given back what was rightfully his--a demand fully recognized by the US legal system. That is why I see taking part in the struggle for reparations as one of the most dignified, self-empowering things a Black person can do--and fully in keeping with the justice the United States of America is supposed to stand for.

6) Yet another thing I often hear is, "If it hadn't been for the African people themselves selling each other into slavery, there wouldn't have been any slavery, so why should America have to pay reparations?"

Now, I usually find that the people who have no compunction about asking me this would, however, think it extremely crass to bring up the fact that many Jews ended up in concentration camps because other Jews turned them in, and that while in the death camps, some Jews, in the effort to save themselves, collaborated with the Nazis, carrying out atrocities against other Jews. Yet, would anyone, even for a moment, think that these facts in some way lessen or excuse what the Germans did? Of course not! And we all know that every community, when it's been under siege, has had its traitors and collaborators who sold out their own people. Global history is full of instances.

My personal opinion is that unequivocally, slavery as such, at whatever period in history and in whatever form, was and is an abomination, and it should be condemned utterly. But it's not for us white people to say how descendants of slavery should deal with those African countries that once participated in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. Just as African Americans have the right to decide what they want to do about European nations such as Spain, Portugal and England that played major roles in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, or the Catholic Church which profited enormously from overseeing it, Black Reparationists must decide for themselves what they think is just as to individual African nations.

The important thing for us, as white people, is to be accurate about what actually happened in Africa during the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade and to see what our part was in it--not go casting about, looking to place the blame elsewhere so we can get ourselves off the hook.

For starters, contrary to what most white Americans think, the numerous "slave forts" along the coast of Ghana, which are often depicted as symbols of the African slave trade, weren't built by Africans but by Europeans. Originally constructed as trading posts for gold and ivory, they later became pens where their "human cargo" were held and branded before being shipped off to the "New World."

Also, though the diverse African peoples fought among themselves--as did people on every other continent--after Europeans got a glimpse of how lucrative the slave trade in the New World could be they began doing everything in their power to escalate conflicts between different African peoples so they would be in constant combat with each other, and could be gotten to capture and sell each other to the Europeans in exchange for guns and other items of value. If Europeans and Americans has kept their noses out of Africa and hadn't provided an insatiable market for captured Africans, the slave trade would never have become what it did.

And yes, some Africans did indeed accept bribes and other things that were offered by the European and American slave traders to kidnap other Africans for trade. However, they had no idea what the persons they captured had in store for them across the sea, for Africans had never, ever conceived of anything as base, cruel and truly sick as chattel slavery, which was different from how slavery had been practiced anywhere in the world before.

The thing we never hear about is, as word spread across the continent about the incredible abuse and suffering the enslaved Africans were enduring in the New World, most Africans stopped participating in the European slave trade. Many countries mounted fierce resistance to the trade--Angola, Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal, for instance.

Unfortunately, their efforts were woefully inadequate against the power and might of the Europeans and Americans. The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade became the largest forced migration in the history of the world, destabilizing many African societies politically and economically. All you have to do is look at what a rich nation we grew to be and how impoverished Africa became to see who really benefited from the slave trade. It so weakened African nations that they were sitting ducks for the colonization that followed, from which they have never recovered.

7) Here is the final question I will deal with now which white people--even those who support reparations to descendants of slavery--often ask me: "How would we know how to spend the money and who to give the reparations to?"

Well, I tell them, the good news is, we don't have to decide anything about how descendants of slavery will make their case, what they'll ask for, how they'll spend the money and who will get reparations. All of those things are strictly up to them. Just as in any other situation where one party has been injured by another and is seeking redress, it isn't the place of the party who committed the injury to tell the injured party what to do. For example in a class action suit against the tobacco companies, it would seem ludicrous to even suggest that Phillip Morris should tell the people bringing charges how to argue their case or how they should spend the money after they won. It's really just none of our business what Blacks do with the money--although I've seen abundant evidence that they're going to do just fine figuring out how to spend it and who to spend it on.

The only thing that is our business is looking honestly at this question: Did we, as a nation, commit a crime against people of African ancestry for which our government owes reparations? That's all. If we aren't trying to answer that honestly, everything else is just an evasion.

In the face of every argument any person can make against reparations--even ones I haven't known how to argue against effectively--heart and soul I feel it was a crime of such monstrous proportions that a way must be found to make restitution--and, to use the old cliché, "Where there's a will, there's a way." Any injustice, personal or international, which has been committed against anyone must be seen for what it is and regretted. It cannot be lied about, smoothed over, or swept under the rug as though it's no longer important--whether it happened three days ago, three years ago, or three centuries ago. If it was wrong, it is wrong, and it still must be looked at honestly and sincerely revoked! That's the only way we will ever put an end to the brutal and insidious institutionalized racism--the aftermath of slavery--that continues to plague this nation even now in the 21st century.