The Debtors: Whites Respond to the Call for Black Reparations

Editor’s Note: The following excerpts are made up, for the most part, of approximately the first two pages of each chapter. They are intended to offer a glimpse into the content and an expression of the tone and personality of the writer. Endnotes have been deleted from the excerpts, and the Introduction and Appendix are not included.


by Dorothy Benton Lewis

From my living room, in Maryland, USA, I watched the opening of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. It was wonderful to see the parade of beautiful people in their various national colors and traditional dress. I couldn’t help but think how great and beautiful the world would be if, in the words of Rodney King, we could all just get along. How great it would be to cheer the human spirit and work to bring out the best in all people. For me, the transformative work within the Black reparations movement represents a best hope for this possibility and the evolution of humanity.

The foundation for this belief came at an early age. For the most part of my youth, the only Black people that I had known were family members or friends of family members, and our conversations were not political. My only political education came from my older brother whom I adored. He had left home at 17, lied about his age, joined the Navy, and spent some time in Korea. Among other things, he came back a Black Muslim and an avid reader. I found his stories to be shocking. “White people are the devil.” No, that couldn’t be true! He had plenty of political evidence to back it up, nothing that I had ever learned in school. But when I read the history of Black people, contrasted it with stories my grandmother told me and the racism I experienced in school and the work place, his teachings came in handy.

For what other reason could a child ascribe to a heartless people who terrorized and destroyed families, sold their children and worked them day in and day out for their own personal gain? How else could one describe people who waged a war to keep people enslaved, Jim Crow, separate and unequal, police brutality, genocide and land theft?

As much as I loved him and thought he was the smartest man in the world, my brother’s teachings did not become a part of my belief system, for I was and am still discovering what that is. But much of what he said did become a part of my youthful armor for coping with the racism that came my way. I knew nothing of Marx or Engels; I didn’t have to study any “ism” or philosophy, or bang my head against a wall in a corner trying to figure out why white people were so mean and evil to Black people for no reason. They are doing what is in their nature. Well, what about the good white people like Charlie Purvis and those in the NAACP? “They are all devils until they prove themselves otherwise.”

Fortunately, my path in life has crossed with a good number of people who have proven themselves otherwise. The chapters in this book took me back to memories of some of those people. We started in the reparations movement over 36 years ago in support of the Alaska Native land claims, another reparations movement, where I learned that one doesn’t have to be a material beneficiary of justice to support it or work on its behalf. Some of us are quick to question the motives of others when they support a justice issue that offers them no perceived benefit. Of course, we judge the world by our own thoughts, behaviors, and experiences, but we also must give people room to be who they say they are. By their deeds you will know them, whether good or evil….
This Book Is a Good Start

The chapters of this book reflect some amazing self-study, inner work, and observation of white people by a variety of people who identify themselves as white. They bring a new perspective and a new courage. Indeed, it sometimes takes great courage to go public with one’s thoughts on this issue. It is a good sign when even a few rise above their privilege to assess the landscape and the path that led them to where they are, and indeed, to reassess whether or not they are still headed in the direction that they choose to go, and, if so, to think about why they may or may not want to go there.

The authors share with us some insights to many questions. They dig for the truth and come to terms with it in their own time and way. We get a glimpse of their efforts to lift off the yoke of lies that have burdened us all. We journey with them through the rubbish, giving it up to the gems of truth to discover who they are versus who they have been being. Their reflections and introspections provide us with a model for that personal journey of awareness that leads to appropriate action. They take responsibility for those who have done evil in their name, and continue to hide it. “What can we do to make amends? What can we do to stop the pain? How can we assure that it will never happen again?”

Their reflections and questions represent the kind of soul searching that each of us must do if we are ever to live and walk in truth in the USA, and the kind of soul searching and truth telling that the government must do if its good works and professed noble intentions are to be credible at home and in the international community. And they provide themselves with an opportunity to choose their own thoughts rather than the lies that we have all inherited from an era and a people who benefited royally from those lies. Perhaps their work may be able to show by example the healing properties of truth telling.

A Response to David Horowitz's
“Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks - and Racist Too”

by Larry Yates

Editor’s Note: The David Horowitz quotes have been reprinted as they were written and publicly distributed. No corrections have been made to capitalization, punctuation and so on. The italics are ours, added for the purpose of clarity.


There Is No Single Group Clearly Responsible For The Crime Of Slavery

Black Africans and Arabs were responsible for enslaving the ancestors of African- Americans. There were 3,000 black slave-owners in the ante-bellum United States. Are reparations to be paid by their descendants too?

Response to Point One

Horowitz begins by trying to parse out responsibility for centuries of institutionalized injustice as if the issue were a kid's prank or a minor crime. “If Johnny or Billy (or Abdul) was also involved, then you can't blame me without punishing them too,” he seems to be saying.

Horowitz seems to see reparations to African Americans as mainly a witch-hunt to spotlight the guilt of whites – guilt that he seems to be dodging and wants to spread around. David, I hate to tell you, but not everything is all about you.

Reparations would primarily be an attempt to repair massive damage done to African Americans – and others – by a historical institution that has been in operation for about four centuries, throughout the history of what has become the United States of America, first as slavery, then as Jim Crow, and today as institutional racism.

During all that time, our society has been grossly out of balance at a moral, economic and political level. Of course the guilt, like the pain, has been widely shared. And of course no living (or dead) person is fully responsible for everything that has happened.

Certainly, there were and are brutal individuals deserving of individual punishment. And undoubtedly some of them were not white. But the problem was never mean or wicked people, whatever their racial distribution. As is shown in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of our nation's first best sellers, the issue is a system that brutalizes everyone, even the most gentle, pious and polite. While we are touched personally by these matters, they are much larger than any one person's concerns.


There Is No One Group That Benefited Exclusively From Its Fruits

The claim for reparations is premised on the false assumption that only whites have benefited from slavery. If slave labor created wealth for Americans, then obviously it has created wealth for black Americans as well, including the descendants of slaves. The GNP of black America is so large that it makes the African-American community the 10th most prosperous “nation” in the world. American blacks on average enjoy per capita incomes in the range of twenty to fifty times that of blacks living in any of the African nations from which they were kidnapped.

Response to Point Two

Following Horowitz' reasoning above, if I force you to build me an enormous mansion, and I let you sleep in the closet under the stairs, you have benefited from your labor just like I have, even though I didn't do the work and you did, and I got most of the benefit, and I get to own the house, and sell it when I please.

Africans in the 17th and 18th centuries had a right to stay in their own countries – or to immigrate to America voluntarily, as some Africans are doing today. Instead, they were, as Horowitz admits, “kidnapped.”

Most of us would be disgusted if someone tried to say a person who was kidnapped was better off for the experience. Is speaking in this way about millions who were kidnapped any less disgusting?

In addition, Horowitz ignores the fact that Africa was devastated by the slave trade and subsequent colonialism and neo-colonialism. It is true that African Americans have a higher material standard of living than most Africans in Africa. But Africa is far from where it could have been economically had there not been the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Meanwhile, the American economy was pumped up by centuries of free labor and by the availability of an entire continent of “free land” – land that had, in fact, been lived on and sustained by indigenous peoples for millennia.

As for their relative wealth, African Americans do not live in Africa, where their comparatively “high” incomes might benefit them. Instead, they live in the United States, where their incomes are comparatively low, and their “wealth” is negligible.

Answering Opposition to Reparations; Plus,
White Advocacy for Reparations – The Personal Side

by Donna Lamb

Suppose you and your whole family, for generations before you, had been living in luxury, enjoying all the best things of life and esteemed by society at large. Then one day a man comes to your door and tells you that he must talk with you: You haven't known it, but his great-great-grandfather worked with yours, and your great-great-grandfather swindled him out of everything. As a result, your family has lived in splendor these generations, while his family has suffered extreme poverty and been viewed with disdain. He tells you that he wants to sit down with you and show you all the documentation he has amassed which reveals exactly what your great-great-grandfather did that caused you to end up with everything and him with nothing, because he believes that even now this wrong must be addressed and rectified.

What would you do?

That, I believe, is the situation white America is in now. Descendants of slavery have come and told us that unbeknownst to us, our forefathers stole what was rightfully theirs and passed it down to us, and this wrong must be righted. I, personally, choose to sit down with these descendants, look at their documentation, and try to see how they believe the colossal injustice my people have committed against theirs can be repaired. I understand full well that the damage we have done is so monstrous and so massive that there is no way we can ever actually make up for it, but we must approach complete justice as closely as possible – no matter how many generations and how much money it takes.

To flesh out my viewpoint, in the first part of this chapter I shall tell you why I support reparations and how I answer opposition to it. This will include my best answers to seven of the questions white people most often ask about reparations. Hopefully, this will be equally useful to those of you who are still making up your minds about reparations and those who already support it but are looking, as I always am, to increase your knowledge about this extremely large and complex subject.

Then, in part two, in a much more informal tone, I’m going to put aside embarrassment, let my hair down and really talk turkey about the problems and confusions that can arise when you’re a white person like me working in this Black-led movement. I’ll share some of the pitfalls and quandaries I’ve experienced in the hope that you’ll find something that helps light the way for you.

As you read my chapter, you’ll no doubt notice that even though I don’t capitalize the word “white” when alluding to European Americans, I do capitalize “Black” when referring to people of African ancestry born in the United States. That’s what, starting with the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, many African Americans choose to call themselves as a term of racial pride. Therefore, I see Black as carrying the same weight and deserving the same respect as Latino, Asian, European or any other proper noun.

The term white, however, has a totally different origin. It’s not a name we chose to give ourselves, but rather a word assigned to us all the way back in 1691 when the Virginia legislature first used the phrase “white man or woman” in a law – and not for an honorable reason, either. In short, the legislature’s objective was to stop disenfranchised people of European extraction, such as servants, tenant farmers, the urban poor, soldiers and sailors, from identifying with the Indigenous Peoples and people of African descent because, if unified, they might rise up together and overthrow the ruling elite whom they vastly outnumbered. Therefore, certain rights and privileges denied to others, such as buying land and carrying guns, were given to all whites, including indentured servants, in order to separate them from – and make them feel superior to – people of color so they would align themselves, instead, with the white elite. This ploy succeeded all too well, unfortunately.

Historically, the word white as applied to European Americans has always been lowercase. I see no reason to break with that tradition now.

I am fully aware, however, of how odd – and perhaps even disparaging to white people – it looks on paper to see Black in uppercase and white in lowercase, especially when they appear close together and repeatedly as they occasionally do in this chapter.

The American Heritage Book of English Usage is also well aware of the problem. After stating, “Black is sometimes capitalized in its racial sense, especially in the black press, though the lowercase form is still widely used by authors of all races,” it goes on to say:

The capitalization of Black does raise ancillary problems for the treatment of the term white. Orthographic evenhandedness would seem to require the use of uppercase White, but this form might be taken to imply that whites constitute a single ethnic group, an issue that is certainly debatable. Uppercase White is also sometimes associated with the writings of white supremacist groups, which for many people would of itself be sufficient reason to dismiss it. On the other hand, the use of lowercase white in the same context as uppercase Black will obviously raise questions as to how and why the writer has distinguished between the two groups. There is no entirely happy solution to this problem. In all likelihood, uncertainty as to the mode of styling of white has dissuaded many publications from adopting the capitalized form Black.

Well, it has not dissuaded me. And I hope you will not be put off by it, either.

Justice and Human Rights

by Ida Hakim

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

– 1948 Article 1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations

The Rights of Human Beings

The salmon has innate knowledge of how to be a salmon. It swims toward the place it originated, fulfilling the cycle of life while overcoming enormous obstacles on the way. The bird also has innate knowledge of how to be itself. One bird will sing the perfect song, already written within at birth. Another will know by instinct its path of migration. Even the ant is born knowing how to be an ant. Nature knows and obeys its inner core.

What about us? What do we humans know and obey? If we look at the horrors of human history and the consequences we are facing today, it appears that we know fear and we obey, far too often, the greed and aggression that fear engenders. Perhaps at one time we did know courage, and did obey a truthful and merciful inner voice. If this is so, then we who yearn for a better world surely must do our best to turn upstream like the salmon and find the place of origin we have lost. On December 10, 1948, world leaders came together and voted to uphold a courageous ideal, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration remains our best effort toward bringing humanity home to a world where every person and every people are able to live their lives in enjoyment of human rights.

It is a commonly held belief that human rights are innate, i.e. people can be denied their human rights or deprived of their human rights, but human rights cannot be destroyed. In this writing we will challenge that belief by examining how the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery and the ongoing effects of slavery have utterly destroyed the human rights of a people. It stands to reason that if something has been destroyed, in order for it to exist again it will have to be re-created as new from the ashes of destruction. So, we will not only look at how human rights can be destroyed, we will glimpse a presently occurring process of resurrection, also termed ethnogenesis.

The Right to Freedom

We, the African descendants of slaves, the so-called African-American, the so-called Black American, the so-called Negro, have never tasted of the “freedom” that so many millions of other members of the human family enjoy, safeguard and treasure. We are the only people on this planet that have had to endure over 400 years of the most brutal, dehumanizing slavery the world has ever known. We continue to suffer to this day from the scars of that slavery and from institutions of racism in the United States of America that deprive us of our human rights.

– 1994 Petition to UN by Mr. Silis Muhammad

Freedom is the nature of life. Like the freedom of the bird to fly or the freedom of the salmon to follow its instinct, the human being is by nature a free being and should have a guiding instinct that respects the freedom of others. Freedom is often as important or even more important to a human being than life itself. We know that many of the African captives, upon seeing what was in store for them, took their lives. Others remained alive perhaps because they had no opportunity for death, perhaps because they had hope of escaping, or perhaps out of sheer will power to be stronger than the slavemaster. Today, those who endured the indescribable hell of the middle passage, the dehumanization of being broken or “seasoned” into submission, and the never ending suffering of slavery are held in reverence by their descendants, and should be held in reverence by us all, for all time.

Although one might believe that freedom for the enslaved Africans and their descendants was granted when slavery ended, there is more to freedom than the freedom of the physical body. If the body can walk where it wishes to walk, but the mind and spirit have been forcibly severed from all those things which identify self, where then is freedom? The bird born in a cage, turned free in a forest, would not know how to be a free bird. The salmon born in a salmon farm, turned free in a stream, would not know how to find its way home. Thankfully, human beings are conscious of themselves, and they have a capacity beyond the bird and the fish.

Human beings can create and re-create what they need; therefore, it is possible for destroyed identity, which will be discussed in more detail as we go along, to be re-created by the people themselves. Having seen and observed the will power, mental power, spiritual strength, and endurance of the descendants of enslaved Africans, hereinafter referred to as Afrodescendants, one can have complete confidence that the process of resurrection and restoration will take place. If the world community creates enabling circumstances through reparations, the process can proceed peacefully, without conflict or bloodshed.

Reparations: Class and Institutionalizing White Privilege

by Amy Kedron

Reparation for the legacy of chattel slavery is one of the most important issues to emerge in public discourse today. Though calls for “forty acres and a mule” have been made for centuries, this is the first time in recent history that major scholars, lawyers, and publishers have seriously considered and supported this issue. Like any subject dealing with a disadvantaged social group, the argument concerning reparations is an issue of power. It is about giving black people the power that they have been denied for centuries, and – for the first time in history – allowing the black community alone to decide the best way to make itself whole again. To be sure, this does not mean that reparations is only an African American issue of interest. The case for reparations will gain its greatest strength, and reparations will do the most to heal all of society, when all of society recognizes its own historical link to this struggle.

Though certainly not all reparations opponents are white, polls show that relative to black people, whites are less inclined to support black reparations. This may be because many white people feel they have no direct personal connection to it; black history is considered separate from the white dream of America. Some contemporary historians have begun to examine history from an intersectional lens, examining the contributions of peoples across lines of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. Other histories of late have focused on one particular social group, leaving us with women’s history or black history, for example. This chapter is a narrow, comparative analysis of white and black laborers. By juxtaposing certain aspects of the histories of working-class black and white people, this article sets out to examine race and social privilege more comparatively and, therefore, more correctively. Reparations history is a history that, like the construction of race itself, has been intrinsically linked to black and white people alike. It will trace the social and economic origins of newly freed black and white laborers in the South to show how the categories of blackness and whiteness, in particular, have always been co-dependent. Socially, it was nearly impossible to construct white privilege without simultaneously instituting black disadvantage. More specifically, this article will look at how similar black and white workers once were as field laborers, but how the future trajectories of these two social groups diverged. To ultimately, in the words of Noel Ignatiev, “abolish whiteness,” we must also abolish the disparate conditions on which the construction of blackness has come to depend. Therefore, by adequately eradicating this inequality through the use of a sufficient reparations program, we will also eradicate inequalities inherent in the black/white binary.

This analysis will compare and contrast three social initiatives to illuminate some of the first racial rifts in America. Those programs are: freedom dues, the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Civil War veterans’ pensions. By comparing freedom dues and veterans’ benefits (both programs that benefited mainly white people), to the Freedmen’s Bureau (a program that benefited mostly black people), we can see how some of the first forms of assistance granted to these groups were based on racial values. Though these three initiatives sought, at least in part, to assist a sector of society that could not adequately assist itself, the effectiveness of these programs was based, at least partly, on racial preference. First, this chapter examines how freedom dues affected the upward mobility of European indentured servants and how central the concept of land ownership was to European freedom. This will help us more greatly appreciate the condition of black people as former slaves and as recipients of Freedmen’s Bureau benefits – a program whose intended function was similar to freedom dues. Finally, to examine black benefits on a greater scale, we will briefly compare social appraisals of the Freedmen’s Bureau to the Civil War veterans’ pension program. Overall, this will help us understand some of the fundamental roots of black disadvantage and white privilege and how reparations history can help us truly understand and correctively interrogate whiteness to help everyone aspire to a more democratic America.

Slavery and Institutionalizing White Privilege

Before we can begin to examine freedom dues, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the Civil War veterans’ pensions, we must first understand the importance of the broad institutional effects of slavery and why they are still relevant today. Our present realities are steeped in a great historical continuum. Because it was the economic backbone of America for so long, slavery helped establish some of the finest institutions in America. We can still see proof of this today. For example, Yale University’s first scholarship, first endowed professorship, and first library were established with slavery profits. Even now, eight of Yale’s twelve schools bear the names of wealthy slave owners, and Yale is not alone. Rhode Island slave trader, John Brown, used his profits to create what was later known as Fleet Boston Bank and what later yet became Brown University, another one of today’s most prestigious Ivy League schools. Many of our country’s businesses have also profited from the objectification and commodification of African people. Aetna Insurance Incorporated, presently the largest insurer in the United States, began issuing insurance policies to slave owners in 1853 for so-called “property” losses and damages; CSX railway cars run on rails that were constructed by slaves. Slave laborers also built our nation’s White House, Capitol Building, and even the wall for which Wall Street is named. In fact, African slaves were the first “stock” sold on the New York Stock Exchange.

It is important to note here that black people helped establish a whole infrastructure that ensured the financial freedom and stability of wealthy white people in America – an infrastructure that has been passed down from generation to generation. Much has been said about reparations (black reparations specifically) and white guilt, but it seems as if the wrong whites, for too long, have shouldered a disproportionate share of this guilt. As a whole, white people are not equally privileged and, therefore, have not equally benefited from the spoils of slavery. One’s economic privilege by birth had a great bearing on one’s access to these benefits. For example, in some Ivy League schools today, one-third of each year’s entering class is still reserved for the sons and daughters of wealthy alumni.

Land Swindle:
The Plight of Black Farmers, Land Loss, and the Case for Reparations

by Dorothy Blake Fardan

Land is the most essential ingredient for a people’s freedom, self-determination, and life sustenance. The United States Government and its dominant white population have always known this, and evidence shows that they not only stole land from the Native Americans, but have deliberately conspired through the years to thwart Black people’s access to land, after they worked it for three to four centuries with no pay. Africans, like all indigenous peoples, knew the value of land, not as a commodity that could be bought and sold, but as a mothering womb that provided for all life essentials and the basis for growing human community. Agriculture is believed to have originated in the great Nile River delta, extending into the nearby Asiatic river cultures. Africans knew how to farm before being taken captive and placed in bondage by the European. Upon being “freed” from chattel slavery at the end of the Civil War, these original farmers knew exactly what they wanted: land enough to do for themselves and be self sufficient. Unwilling to allow such authentic freedom to take place, the government, with President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill in 1866, denied the 40 acre allotments to freedmen as promised to them. The former slave masters with government collaboration then extended slavery in the form of sharecropping and tenant farming.

According to historian, attorney, and longtime reparations activist, Dr. Robert L. Brock, census figures from 1860 to 1870 reveal some interesting contrasts. From 1860 to 1865, the cotton crop yields reflected years of slave labor and indeed brought wealth to the slave masters. But from 1865 to 1870, the census figures show a dramatic increase in yields, reflecting the industry of Blacks when working for themselves, even if it was in tenant farming and sharecropping. This ability to increase crop yields by sheer desire to work for themselves would quite naturally be a threat to the white agricultural hegemony of the South and the apartheid system it was erected upon.

Despite the legacy of slavery and continued white opposition, Blacks managed to acquire 15 million acres of land by 1910, most of it in the South. This was not land allotted to freedmen by the government; it was land they acquired by saving their meager wages from tenant farming and day work. Black Civil War veterans were some of the most determined to get land and placed their less than adequate pay towards land purchase. Prospering freedmen villages and other slave-descended communities had already taken shape all across the South, and as far north as Virginia where Hampton Freedmen Village was one of the largest and most successful.

As Black communities began to strengthen, they displayed incredible self-reliance and progress. Every historically Black community had its church, which it built from the ground up, and connected to the church was the school. The school was either in the church or the home until one could be built. In fact, Brock says the church was the school. Sunday school teachers were the first teachers, and the Bible was the text for learning the alphabet and the three “R’s.” Both W.E.B. DuBois and Robert Brock point out that the public school system for both Black and white children started with the Black school. Brock says, “The public school system started in the Black church.” And records show that the white ruling class had no intentions of educating poor white children any more than they did their slaves and their descendants: Their own children were educated in prestigious private schools, financed, of course, by the profits from free slave labor and exploited labor of slave descendants.

What happened, then, to such an industrious people, that led to the continuous loss of their land from the turn of the century to the present day? How do we explain the fact that 15 million acres decreased to 3.7 million acres in 1977, and to 2.2 million acres in 1987? Census figures show that there were 57,000 Black farmers in 1977, and 23,000 in 1987. That was a loss of 34,000 Black farmers in a ten-year period. Jerry Pennick, of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, says, “Blacks are losing land at a rate ten times that of whites. From 1920 to 1982 close to 94% of Black farms were lost, while 56% of white farmers lost land in the same period. This is a national crisis!”

The answer lies in the history of institutionalized racism as manifested in the practices of local white populations; the Black Codes; the policies, deceptions, and cover-ups of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); the rulings of the court system; and the blatant conspiracies to deny Black landowners among local bankers, merchants, white landowners, and politicians. Needless to say, the Ku Klux Klan operated within these networks to overtly and covertly swindle Blacks out of their properties.

From Legal Enslavement to Prison: Connecting the Reparations Dots

by Molly Secours

Every year since 1989 U.S. Congressman John Conyers, the longest serving African American and the second most senior member of the House of Representatives, has introduced a reparations study bill, H.R. 40, before Congress. Every year H.R. 40 has been duly rejected.

Although reparations advocates have existed around the globe for over 100 years, Conyers, who is known to many in this country as the legislative father of reparations, argues that it is crucial for us to look toward legislative remedies as a vehicle for addressing the issue of reparations for African descendants.

As part of the bill, Conyers requests that a commission of seven persons be appointed by the President to examine the lingering effects of institutionalized slavery and the residual damages of governmentally sanctioned oppression and discrimination on living African Americans. In other words, although legalized slavery has ended, we must look at the devastating and numerous ways in which it continues to manifest itself today.

To many, requesting that a study be conducted by the governmental body that initially legalized and sanctioned enslavement is ludicrous. Understandably, it conjures up images of the fox watching over the hen house, and encourages many to believe that congressional appeal is futile and that reparations can only be achieved by petitioning the international community. But whether or not H.R. 40 is a legislative success or failure, it is crucial to understand that the bill has heightened national awareness of the issues surrounding the need for reparations. And to some degree it has inspired many to join the international community in demanding justice for all African descendants throughout the Diaspora.

One critical area that requires honest and careful examination in relation to reparations because of its continued effect on the lives of African Americans is criminal justice – and more specifically – juvenile justice. For the purposes of this book, I present a more local and rather personal view of the disparities of a criminal justice system.

As a writer and filmmaker I have worked with youth – disproportionately of color – who are in the early developmental stages of their prison careers. And yes, I say prison “careers” because sadly, many of these youth in the juvenile justice system learn skills and behaviors that will lead them directly from juvenile to adult prison. Like many of their enslaved ancestors, it is the path they have unconsciously been led to by a system of racial oppression since before they could walk or talk. Many of them are third and fourth generation inmates.

Having spent hundreds of hours behind the prison walls, I have come to the conclusion that there is a direct correlation between the current incarceration rates among Black youth and white supremacist laws that originally enslaved Blacks. Without a doubt our jails and prisons are a slightly more sanitized version of slavery.

I have also come to the conclusion that unless there is a concerted and comprehensive effort on the part of whites to address the wrongs committed against our brothers and sisters of color, that the cycle of oppression, poverty and criminal injustices will continue. It is also crucial that we stop discussing the issue as if it were a “minority problem” and finally call it what it is: “a dominant majority problem.” It is whites who enacted the injustices of yesterday and who – unconsciously or not – further perpetuate the continuation of injustices today. It is time to take responsibility with action and not just rhetoric.

Whenever confronted by adamant objectors who deny the validity of reparations for African descendants because slavery and white supremacy are a thing of the past, I suggest spending a few days visiting a prison. And if one is really sincere, I suggest reading material that will challenge misconceptions about “Black crime” and clarify the connection between the historical enslavement of Blacks and their highly disproportionate incarceration rates in our jails and for-profit prisons.

As you read the rest of this chapter, I want you to know that these are observations and experiences of someone (a white person) who did not understand or agree with the notion of reparations until several years ago. Before witnessing the inequities of the criminal justice system firsthand, I was unable to make the connection between the startling statistics which highlight disproportionate incarceration rates among people of color and the rapid escalation of jail building currently taking place in this country.

Before researching, I did not know that prior to Emancipation there were very few prisons in the U.S. and little need for them. It took several years after learning this fact to fully comprehend the correlation between enslavement and imprisonment. And even more painful was learning how feared Blacks have always been by whites in this country – and how legal separation became a solution by whites to quell their fear of Black reprisal.

The criminal justice system is just one area in which institutionalized racism and oppression are alive and well. Reparations are required in order to bring an end to today’s lingering effects of slavery. Unfortunately, slavery seems to have served as an excellent role model for privatized for-profit prisons that view inmates as a means to a profitable end. I will leave it for others in this book to address disparities in other areas that further legitimize the case for reparations.

In the stories that follow, I offer a glimpse of young lives ravaged by the effects of a racist system that was set in place under slavery. This system brings slavery’s effects into the modern day, and clearly demonstrates what Congressman Conyers has referred to as residual damages.

Reparations as a Vehicle for Reclaiming Our Humanity

By Jerry Saltzman

What is it to wake up to the truth about reality? Is it to realize that we’re made of the same sub-atomic particles as are fish or the stars? Is it to drop our preoccupation with ourselves and watch the walls between me and you, mine and yours, disappear? When our suspicious gaze softens, a clear view of the universe emerges. When we can see past superficial differences, we feel at home wherever we are. The world is no longer a room full of wary strangers but a vast cosmic block party to which everyone and everything is invited.

– Adapted from the teachings of Zen Master Dogen


I was not raised to seek large perspectives that might explain what I observed going on around me. Opinions were expressed, things happened, people and groups of people were simply the way they were, and whatever way I was treated was simply the way I was treated. Germans and “Japs” were evil; gentiles (goyem in Yiddish) were dumb and/or anti-Semitic; mom’s family (she and her sisters were first generation American) was better than dad’s (immigrant); Negroes were...well, never mind!; World War II was an exciting and glorious event and military men were handsome, courageous and white (according to the popular media of the time); dad simply had thunderously violent outbursts and had little time for and interest in his kids; our family was just an ordinary family, but we were different from the Cleavers; my deep insecurity was something that I simply had to endure – seeking help was out of the question; I was going to go to college to become a doctor and that was that!

Nor was I educated to seek perspectives that would give wider meaning to the facts that were being fed to me. The United States had possessions (Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, etc.); slavery once existed until the Civil War; a strange notion called manifest destiny served as a guide to the westward expansion of the United States.

I walked through life acquiescing in tunnel vision until my early thirties when an event that dramatically changed my life occurred. I had a severe emotional crisis that brought me to the brink of non-functionality. Being in a position where I needed to seek outside help, commit myself to an institution or end my life, I wisely chose the first alternative. With the help of insightful and thoughtful counselors and friends, I began to deconstruct the difficulties that could have permanently ruined or ended my life. Patience, persistence, the continued support of trusted allies and a willingness to take as honest a look as I could at the demons that haunted me gradually resulted in my living a much richer life, sporting a more hopeful outlook along with much greater confidence, and engaging in deeper and more productive relationships.

One of the most helpful pieces in this process was the broadening of the perspectives from which I looked at the elements of my life and the lives of those who shared my journey. For example, my mother and her sisters did not manifest the pain of virulent European anti-Jewish oppression as obviously as my father and his brothers. They commenced their education in the United States and felt much more at home in the culture of the country where I was born. Not being as traumatized as my father and his brothers, they had more attention for young people like myself, so obviously they seemed more attractive to a young child. Once my father told me the details of what life was like for Jews in Poland, the sudden eruptions of his brutality made more sense, and it was easier to let go of my resentment toward his violent rages that had so badly hurt my mother, my sister and myself. And the grave disappointment of my parents at my decision not to pursue a career in medicine made much more sense once I understood the connection that Jews have made between upward mobility and the increased chances for physical survival. For centuries Jews in Europe were subject to attacks that destroyed their property, took the lives of many and forced them into exile. Oftentimes ransoms were exacted as a condition of preventing these attacks. There were also instances during the Holocaust when Jews were able to buy their way to freedom.

In each of the instances I have mentioned, a widening of my perspective on a difficult aspect of my life gave room for a profound healing process to occur. Awareness of the wider contexts made it more possible for me to take the hurts I endured less personally, which diminished the power of feelings of victimization. This process of healing will most likely constitute a lifelong journey. In the course of that journey, specific life choices that widened perspectives made life considerably richer.

There is a point to the above narrative which is relevant to the subject of this chapter. The movement for reparations to descendants of enslaved Africans could be a key to one of the most profound social transformations in the United States during this century. Dismantling the consequences of slavery and discrimination toward black people could lead to more equitable economic relationships and a far more open and fluid social structure in this country. Dramatic improvements could occur in race relations, and the health and social problems that plague us could be considerably alleviated. We could take decisive steps toward becoming one nation indivisible. Thus this reparations issue merits an enthusiastic and cooperative national discourse.

Yet the response to the call for reparations on the part of our government and by the American populace has been lukewarm at best. It has been about fifteen years ago that Representative John Conyers first introduced his bill to acknowledge the injustice and cruelty of slavery and to set up a commission to examine the impact of slavery and subsequent discrimination on contemporary black Americans. That bill has not, as of this writing, made it out of committee. Popular support for this bill is not much stronger. Although a number of city councils have drafted resolutions of support for the Conyers bill, the mere mention of the reparations issue brings on, more often than not, trivialized caricatures, dismissive responses, irrelevant and mean spirited objections or acrimonious interchanges.

The moral legitimacy of this claim for reparations is indisputable. It is unquestionably wrong to create vast wealth and power on the basis of the heinous exploitation of a group of people. And there is no moral rectitude in deriving economic and social benefits from that exploitation while the descendants of those exploited have unequal access to society’s perks and continue to suffer the social, psychological and emotional legacies of that exploitation. It is contrary to the inherent goodness of us, those who are so privileged, to perpetuate attitudes and assumptions that keep this situation in place. Thus the issue of reparations to descendants of enslaved Africans deeply impacts all Americans, not just black Americans. It is the intent of this chapter to illustrate and solidify this point. In order to do so the black reparations issue will have to be viewed through a wider lens.

The Immigrant’s Role in Reparations

by Carol Chehade

Very few movements have revealed America’s racist attitudes better than the movement for reparations to Black people. Although people all over the world have fought for and gained reparations, we have seen nothing incite more disdain for the idea than when reparations began to be demanded by Blacks in the United States. Far less controversy surrounded the concept of reparations when it was fought for and won by Jewish people against Germans. Far less tension was felt when Inuit people (also known as Eskimos) were given back 850,000 square miles of their land. Far less resistance occurred when some Indigenous Nations (also known as Native Americans) had long-ignored treaties finally enforced and were awarded various types of restoration.

Virtually every war around the world is fought for injustices that stem from past offences. Palestinians and Jews are fighting one another for grievances that pre-date the Biblical era. In fact, the fighting between Jews and Palestinians is over an interpretation of what is owed in a contract. Certainly, this breach of contract and warring between the two groups is older and more ambiguous than the breach of contract that occurred on January 16, 1865, under the auspices of the War Department and Congress with General William T. Sherman’s Special Order No. 15, better known as “Forty Acres and a Mule.” In comparison to other worldwide cries for reparations, Black people’s demands for reparations are relatively new. Therefore, no statute of limitations should apply when we embark on this journey toward reparations.

Harsh criticism of reparations has become a new code word for American anti-Black racial hatred. Rather than say, “I hate Blacks,” people can now say, “No, I do not hate Blacks; I hate reparations.” Yet, since the specific case of reparations we are having trouble with is being fought for the dignity of Black people, then hating reparations while concurrently proclaiming love for Black people isn’t logical since a positive (i.e. love for Blacks) and negative (i.e. hate of reparations) equals a negative. To speak in favor of Black people and then in the same breath deny them avenues to obtain justice and restoration is akin to a man saying he loves women while simultaneously allowing women to be raped without stopping the rapists and bringing them to justice. What makes the argument even more inconsistent is the fact that if America really opposed the concept of reparations, then other ethnic and racial groups never should have received reparations either. People who use code words like this are in denial of their own hatred. Besides, if America ever “tolerated,” let alone loved, the Black race, it would demand that new immigrants do the same.

It is our racism that has convinced us that Black people are not worthy of honor and defense. We will get closer to the goal of reparations once we dig in and find out how deep and twisted are the mangled roots of our own racism. It is easier to excuse institutional racism because the institution has a blurry face, but without the support of the individual, the institution of racism will fall apart. There is much power in freeing ourselves from the prison of racism, and one place we can start is through our full support of reparations.

Much has been argued about the obligation that Whites have in fulfilling the goal of reparations. Especially heated are the arguments about the responsibility of immigrants for reparations. Many opponents of reparations believe that since a minority of Whites have ancestors who owned slaves, the majority of Whites and immigrants of any ethnicity or color are not accountable for slavery. This is a slick loophole for people who do not want to take responsibility for being United States citizens. If immigrants are exempt from paying reparations, it means no American has to pay, since all of us, except for the Indigenous Peoples and the descendants of enslaved Africans, come from immigrant backgrounds. America is an immigrant nation.

Furthermore, if one is not Black in America, then one is eventually allowed to become White. This means that immigrants have extra protection against the possibility of reparations by (1) proclaiming that they were absent in this country during slavery, and (2) assimilating into the White majority, many of whom stress their lack of culpability because their ancestors never owned slaves. So now we have opponents telling us that neither immigrants nor Whites (if the terms are separable) are liable for reparations, which implies that nobody has to pay. It is the epitome of White power to allow manipulative arguments such as these first to justify the enslavement of African people and then to deny justice to Black Americans today.

The anti-reparations arguments used by White Americans, who may have been here for generations, are similar to the opinions held by relatively newer immigrant groups such as Arab Americans, of which I am part. New and old immigrant groups alike typically do not entertain the reparations issue. Although my own particular ethnic group was involved in a slave trade that was much bigger and lasted longer than the European slave trade, we fail to see similarities with Euro-American oppressors of Black people. As Arabs we are not even acknowledging modern-day slavery by Arabs in Mauritania and Sudan. Therefore, to ask a group in denial to recognize the ramifications of slavery in an adopted country seems far-fetched. We reason that we were not even in the United States during the civil rights era, let alone during the slave era. As a result, we cannot understand why we should pay for other people’s sins.

This argument is severely flawed, however, because it not only deflects our responsibility, but it also denies our nation’s collective experience of what brought us to the racial division we have today. In other words, as newer immigrants we must understand our particular role in paying the debt owed to inhabitants who have been here longer than the majority of immigrants. If we want to be part of this racist system, then we must help pay the debt that this system has incurred.

Why White america Should Support Black Reparations

by Mark Patrick George

In an age of “national insecurity” and one when this nation’s government wages what it calls a “war on terrorism,” there is a certain irony in that effort. That irony involves the fact that the United States has a long history of domestic terrorism at home, terrorism it has yet to acknowledge, discuss, and atone for. The question must then be raised as to how a nation and government that cannot even acknowledge that the enslavement of African peoples involved a crime against humanity has the arrogance to suggest that it is about liberating people in other places? How can a nation founded on invasion and genocide, one afraid to tell the truth about that history to itself, to its children, and to others, suggest that it is solely about the business of human freedom and has humanity’s interests at heart?

With that in mind, the question of why white america should support Black reparations is in many ways is the wrong question. It is the wrong question because it places the burden of convincing the nation to live up to its creed on those this nation has systematically brutalized and worked to do away with. In other words, the responsibility does not lie on those historically and contemporarily oppressed by american society to educate white america about that oppression. Instead, the burden lies on those of us who are white to justify why reparations and justice are not due.

For example, when we consider the history of more than 400 years of overt physical and psychological kidnapping, brutalization, raping, dismembering and genocide of people of African descent, the question really is how can white america not support the call for reparations? When we consider the fact that on a whim, men and women of African descent could be lynched at public celebrations with no legal recourse, as hundreds were in the 20th century alone, how can white america not support the call for reparations? When we consider that more than 8 million acres of land has been stolen from people of African descent in the last one hundred years alone, through racist terrorism and racist state policies of eminent domain, how can white america not support the call for reparations? When we consider that people of African descent were legally excluded from nearly every state sanctioned policy (i.e. the Homestead Act, early FHA policies that helped whites acquire land and homes, among countless others), which resulted in the accumulation and control of billions of dollars of wealth for white people, how can white america not support the call for reparations? When we consider that this nation systematically and legally excluded people of African descent from full citizenship, as well as denied them the status of human in all social and economic arenas of american life, how can white america not support the call for reparations? Lastly, when we consider the fact that this nation and its government have repeatedly and systematically infiltrated and worked to undermine every movement for social justice led by people of color – be it the Civil Rights movement, the Chicano movement, the Black Power movement, the Red Power movement to name a few – how can white america not support the call for reparations? In short, the terrorism perpetrated by the U.S. Government and by white america has a long history, one that remains to be fully acknowledged and atoned for.

Given this history, as a white person I would like to request two things from those of my race. Before I do so, please know that I fully recognize that when I speak of white america, I speak of a complicated and varied group in terms of gender, economic class, region, sexuality, etc. At the same time, the common denominator of white racial status and identity unites us and is to our advantage, whether we want that status or not. We are not and cannot be racially neutral by the very fact that we qualify as white, whether we claim that or not.

Selections from Our Mail and Email

Since 2002, CURE has extended an invitation to white America, via our website at, to ask questions or make comments about Black reparations. The comments we receive are distributed to the CURE members for a response. In this chapter we are presenting some of the most interesting letters and responses. The letters and responses are published as they were written, with only minimal editing.

Comments to CURE from SW:

Why would you want to use our nation’s (and its citizens) resources to basically just hand out money to African Americans? That in itself is racist, because you are excluding non-blacks. I totally understand that everyone is entitled to their opinion and that you will never change your mind, but why not spend your time trying to devote our nations resources to something that needs it, like health care, and unemployment. Slavery is over, and if anyone faces discrimination these days, I'd have to say it’s whites. I was assaulted, as well as my sister and some of my friends, by Hispanics when we were going to school as kids. Am I now entitled to reparations, due to the discrimination? I come from a poor white background. None of my family is wealthy or even close to it, yet you think African Americans are entitled. I'm sorry but I have more pride in my heritage. I first feel sympathy for my own race. I may just come from a poor part of the country, but where I live there are a lot of poor white people. They are your people, but where's your sympathy for them? Just something to think about. It really bugs me to see my people, white people, who would, hypothetically, let a white child starve to save a black one. It's a disgrace.

CURE member Amanda Furness responds to SW:

In many ways, I've struggled with the same issues. I myself am from a family of Kentucky coal miners who have never had more than a pot to piss in. Even now (because of my lack of inherited wealth and my family's economic instability, not to mention the social stigma that comes along with being considered “white trash”) I find myself struggling to support my two sons as a single mother with no real help in sight.

No, I would not rather see a white child starve so that a Black child can eat, but I will fight to enlighten my own people as to the true history of this country so that we can insure not only our own spiritual and physical survival in a changing world that is filled with many people who despise us for the color of our skin (because of what they and their ancestors have experienced as minorities in America), but also so that we might be able to overcome the legacy that our nation has left us. We must come to understand the position that the United States Government and the wealthy families that helped to establish this country have put us (poor whites) in. It is one of being despised as the oppressor without knowing exactly why that is. One of the things I regret about this work is that there is no real dialogue between poor whites and the Black community that would allow for these issues to be examined; it is my hope to establish some kind of forum for that to happen in.

In many ways, we have suffered through some of the same indignities that people of color have endured, and indeed, we have been exploited by the mining, chemical and oil companies; thing is, there has been a single identifying characteristic that keeps us (as a group) from being swept under the rug and that is the color of our white skin.

For example, if you as a young white man found yourself in court on a gun charge (as did two of my nephews recently), you'd likely be sentenced to probation or community service, whereas a young Black man facing the same charges might find himself sentenced to a 2 – 5 year prison term, the serving of which will undoubtedly affect his future, his ability to find a decent job and (in some states) his right to vote. Such is the reality of American life, and of course it angers members of minority groups (and especially those of African descent) to witness such injustice, especially when their ancestors put forth most of the labor that helped to establish this country and its wealth. Though I hate to admit it, there have been times when I myself have taken advantage of these privileges, even after being made aware of them (which convicted me twice as hard because I knew I was wrong and should have owned up to my own consequences).

No, maybe we didn't financially benefit from the system of slavery, but we do benefit socially from its inception and continuation, i.e. lesser incarceration rates, better textbooks, more access to and – in some cases – first dibbs on available resources.

In 2000, I was jumped by a group of eight Black women outside of a club, so I also understand what you are saying about being fearful and in some cases being discriminated against. As a white journalist who has worked for Black newspapers and who has experienced reverse discrimination firsthand, I definitely agree that white people often find themselves in an awkward position. But what I have come to understand and to believe is that those of us who are chosen for this work are often forced to experience situations that might be reflective of the ones that Blacks have had in America so that we can begin to understand the pain that they have endured. Though it took a couple of years to come to terms with it, I have come to grips with the fact that what I experienced was the wrath of not only eight individuals who might have had unjust dealings with Whites in their own lives, but who also bear the weight of over 400 years worth of similar experiences on their shoulders and in their psyches as well.

You must understand, the residual effects of slavery still linger in today's America and affect all of us, whether we realize it or not. Me, I'm a big believer in needing to understand the historical context of any situation if you truly seek to comprehend exactly what it was that happened. Have you ever seen the film American History X? It was the first piece of media I've ever seen that really addresses these modern-day issues. If you haven't seen it, check it out; it might help you put some things in perspective.

The idea of reparations being a handout is ridiculous. If you look outside of the traditional sources, you'll find many documented cases of what the after-effects of slavery on those of African descent look like. They run the gamut from intense self-hatred to forced assimilation to individual and situational or mass accounts of discrimination, all of which contribute to a lack of economic independence. Do you write your congressman letters telling him how much of a waste it is to throw billions of dollars away on a space program when we have issues like the race divide here on the ground to deal with? Probably not. Yet as you yourself have said, you've had to deal with situations ignited by race on at least a few occasions. Wouldn't the money be better spent by dealing with the issue of race on an official level? Take a closer look at history. There's a lot more there than just that which you are currently aware of.

The Story of CURE

by Ida Hakim

Reparations advocacy, for me, has been a journey into awareness. Before entering this journey, I was like the oblivious fish, swimming in water and yet completely unaware that water exists. Today, as a white American advocating Black Reparations, I have entered into another people’s ocean, and that in itself causes an awakening. As of this writing I have been an active reparations advocate for fourteen years. The work has been at times enlightening and exhilarating, and at times a great struggle. All in all, life in these waters is a rich experience.

I wish to begin by thanking the black women and men who have been willing to teach me about reparations. I would like to offer to them and to all descendants whose ancestors were subjected to slavery in the Americas, the following words: Thank you for allowing me in your midst, and for your willingness to educate me about life from your perspective. Thank you for telling me how you truly feel about me and the things my people have done to you. I know these things were done to you in my name and for my benefit. And not only they, but I, in my ignorant state, have wronged you. Although I do not expect forgiveness, I apologize for the lingering effects of slavery that continue to cause you pain. I am here to do whatever is required to change the circumstances that you confront, and see to it that you receive justice.

It has been more than ten years since members of CURE last undertook writing a book on reparations. The first book from this organization, written in 1992, was controversial because white Americans were so unlikely at the time to advocate Black Reparations. In my television and radio interviews on behalf of the book, I was accused of being deluded. Now, years later, I have come to know many white people who support Black Reparations. As this current book demonstrates, they are not deluded. In my view, they are the best of white people, willing to tell the truth on themselves in order to help create a just world. I am proud to stand among them as an advocate of reparations.

A few years after CURE’s first book was published, I noticed how my chapter outlining the various reparations organizations had become outdated due to the growth of the movement and the existence of many new organizations. Today, so many years later, the movement is still rapidly growing and changing. It is likely that we have not yet seen its full glory, as it has the potential of tipping the scale of justice toward balance in a world badly out of balance. Knowing this, it seems wise to give an account of CURE’s first twelve years before moving forward into the next phase of growth of the reparations movement.

When I began advocating reparations, it was not an idea that arose from within me. I had no awareness of the movement until I received some life-changing guidance in1989. The circumstances were as follows: I was married to a black man, Khallid Hakim, whose spiritual belief centered around the teachings of Black Muslims. As I went through everyday life with him and saw the racism and other injustices that he had to live with, I began to feel a deep sadness and guilt. I realized that I hadn’t cared to know about or do anything about the America that he and his family and friends experienced, and I felt responsible. My feelings caused me to ask the Muslim leader, Mr. Silis Muhammad, what I could do to try to make amends. Mr. Muhammad responded with a recommendation that white people support reparations and support his efforts to obtain reparations. When he told me this, it was my first time hearing of the Black Reparations movement. My immediate thought was that white people will never pay. My second thought was that they would kill me for trying to make them pay. Nonetheless, I began to read whatever I could find on the subject, and I mustered up the courage to start writing letters to newspaper editors, identifying myself as a white person advocating Black Reparations.

In 1991, after I had experienced some success in getting reparations advocacy letters published, Mr. Muhammad recommended that I establish an organization for white people who support reparations. I knew several people who were willing to join me, so I came up with a name, Caucasians United for Reparations and Emancipation (CURE), and incorporated the organization as a non-profit. It is important for me to state, at the outset, that my first counselors on how a white person and white organization might best be involved in the reparations movement were Mr. Muhammad, and Attorney Harriett AbuBakr Muhammad, his wife. They have always been willing to defend me and defend CURE, and help me learn how to take direction and gain insight from black people and black leaders. Of all the people that I must thank, they are at the top of the list.

CURE organized its first public event in 1992 by inviting a spokesman for the National Commission for Reparations (NCR), Attorney Theodore Eagans, to lecture on the legal basis for reparations under international law. At the time the NCR was in the process of preparing a reparations petition for presentation to the United Nations under a communications procedure called “1503.” Eagans’ lecture was full of information and insight. Two CURE members also spoke at the event. One was Dr. Dorothy Fardan, a sociology professor and author who had been a supporter of the Nation of Islam for a number of years. The second was Len Moritz, who had been accepted as one of the few Caucasian members of the African Hebrew Israelite Community. By all accounts, their statements were considered courageous and inspiring.

After the event, I arranged a television appearance for Eagans, which turned out to be one of the most interesting reparations debates I have seen. The speaker who opposed him was a white man who represented President Reagan’s administration at the UN. This former UN delegate argued against reparations, but finally ended up stating that the UN will most likely be forced to deal with reparations.