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I am a black American who disagrees with Salim Muwakkil's position regarding reparations for Slavery (Chicago Tribune commentary, 2/12/01, "Reparations Part II: The movement's next step"). In particular, I am opposed to his notion that obtaining reparations is "the next step in the movement for black civil rights." If this were true, then, at best, black America would be waiting 25, 50, or 100 years to take that "next step." And, since there is no guarantee that black Americans will ever receive reparations, our wait could result in our becoming a permanent underclass in American society.
In fact, the logical "next step" in black America's struggle for "absolute equality" must be for black Americans to reach educational parity with the rest of America. If the number of black doctors, accountants, and engineers is not doubled in the next twenty years, it will not be because of racism, it will not be because of the lack of civil rights, nor will it be because of uncollected reparations. The reason will be that black Americans are the least educated and least knowledgeable racial group in America. In 2001, black Americans are dead last (behind whites, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics) in reading proficiency, math proficiency, and science proficiency. 83% of white Americans graduate from high school versus only 74% of black Americans. And, based on percentages of population, white Americans earn almost twice as many college degrees as black Americans.
Black America's "next step" in its struggle for absolute equality should be based on a thoughtful, rational strategy. It should not be a gamble. Specifically, the next step should not be contingent upon our explaining to and convincing white America to do something for black Americans. It should be based on black Americans doing something for ourselves. The next step should not be built on a hope and a prayer that it can be and will be accomplished at some unspecified time in the future. The next step should be a positive, obtainable goal that is measurable and has a specified completion date. The next step should not be based on vague speculation that when (or if) it is accomplished that it may make a difference in black America's struggle for civil rights. The next step must be guaranteed to make a significant impact on the goal of reaching absolute equality in America. Reaching socioeconomic equality through formal education is a strategy. Attempting to reach socioeconomic equality as a result of reparations lies somewhere between buying a lotto ticket and hoping to make it big in the NBA.
As a black American and a student of history, I am acutely (and painfully) aware of the debt that is owed to black Americans for our part in making America the greatest nation in the world. However, after a half-century of observing and studying contemporary American society, I am also aware that collecting a "fair and equitable" settlement for this debt will be next to impossible. After all, it was only two months ago that 50% of all Americans voted to elect George W. Bush president. And I have little doubt that Bush would have received 60% of the vote if Al Gore had promised to increase affirmative action and 75% of the vote if Gore had promised to fight for reparations for black Americans.
As a black American, I believe that it is only fair for black Americans to receive reparations for Slavery. And, indeed, if black Americans were doing all the things we should be doing, I would not have any objections to pursuing reparations even though I personally have little confidence in achieving any measurable success. However, the problem is that, in the year 2001, seeking reparations is an unproductive use of limited resources. Seeking reparations creates the false hope that somehow, someday, somewhere down the road black Americans will be handed something on a silver platter that will significantly improve their lives. And, finally, seeking reparations is a distraction from that "next step" that black America should be pursuing: attaining educational parity with the rest of America.
Reaching educational parity is a necessary task, it is attainable, and it is one of the most positive goals ever established for black America. Knowledge is power. And as long as black Americans remain the least educated and the least knowledgeable people in America, with or without reparations, they will remain the people with the least amount of power in America.
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