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There are two fundamental issues regarding reparations for black Americans. First: are black Americans "owed" reparations for 246 years of Slavery? As a black American, I have no doubt that we are. The second issue: will black Americans ever receive "fair and equitable" reparations for twelve generations of Slavery? As an American, I am just as certain that we will not.
This is not the message that most black Americans want to hear. However, if we listen closely, this is exactly what most politicians who "support" reparation are actually saying. It is comparable to proclaiming that "in this great nations of ours, no child should ever have to go to bed hungry." And, yet, millions of black and white Americans suffer the agonies of poverty on a daily basis. Even for those few politicians who would actually cast a vote to pay reparations, the devil is in the details.
The most important "detail" is the dollar amount that would be associated with any settlement. Regardless of the amount, it would be deemed as ridiculously excessive by the anti-reparation forces. They would point out that the payout would break the economy and the money would be better spent saving Social Security. And, regardless of the amount, it would be considered insultingly low by the pro-reparations forces. If I am on the "final approval committee," I certainly would not let America off the hook for the two and a half centuries of pain and suffering of my ancestors in exchange for a few hundred dollars. And for those black Americans who would, be aware that there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who would just as soon shoot it out with the federal government before giving up a single acre or a half-dead mule. If Affirmative Action has taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that there are millions of Americans who are convinced that they should not be required to contribute one thin dime to right a wrong for which they are not personally responsible.
And, of course, there is a long list of "minor details" that would surely take years of bipartisan cooperation on many fronts to resolve if, indeed, it is possible to ever resolve them. To begin with, in negotiating a reparations agreement, who will speak for all past generations, the current generation, and all future generations of black Americans? Should the list include Colin Powell, Jesse Jackson, Ward Connerly, Louis Farrakhan, Clarence Thomas, Al Sharpton, Kweisi Mfume, Alan Keyes, or Charles Sanford? Should all black Americans get a vote? Eliminating the possibility of 35 million black Americans receiving a check in the mail, how big of a federal bureaucracy would be necessary to administer community-based programs? What guarantees would there be that all black Americans would benefit from reparations and not just those black Americans who are "connected?" Can oppressed black Americans at some point in the future again demand reparations by claiming they did not receive their fair share the first time around? Should wealthy black Americans benefit from reparations? Should those black Americans who can prove that all of their ancestors were black receive more consideration than "black Americans" with one black parent and one white parent or one black grandparent and one white grandparent? Indeed, exactly "how black" does one have to be to receive reparations? This list of "minor details" goes on and on and on.
Needless to say, all of the details are moot until we elect a Congress (certainly not this one and not one in recent memory) that would actually pass a reparations bill. The bill would have to be signed by a pro-reparations lame duck President with nothing politically to lose. And it would have to meet all legal challenges including those to a Supreme Court that grows more conservative as the years roll by. Can such a convergence of people, circumstances, and events actually ever come to pass? Forgive me for being a realist, but I just do not see it happening in the America that I have spent more than a half century observing and analyzing.
Perhaps black America's dim prospects for reparations is kismet. Perhaps some higher power is trying to tell black Americans that we should be more concerned about paying our own debts. Black Americans have the worst voting record in America. Thousands of little known or soon forgotten black and white Americans died to guarantee black Americans the right to vote and we are barely paying the interest on the debt that we owe to these courageous and dedicated souls. Perhaps their descendants should demand reparations from black America for squandering the pain, the suffering, and the lives of their ancestors.
Again, I believe that black America are owed reparations for Slavery. And, indeed, if black Americans were doing all the things they should be doing, I would not have any objections to pursuing reparations even though I personally have no 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 given something that will significantly improve their lives. At best, seeking reparations is a distraction from the number one priority that black America should be pursuing. That task is attaining educational parity with the rest of America. Based on percentage of population, white American earns twice as many college degrees as black Americans. 83% of white Americans graduate from high school versus 74% of black Americans. Black Americans are last in reading, math, and science comprehension.
In demanding reparations, black America has only focused on the physical aspects of Slavery - the free labor we were forced to provide and the material possessions we were not allowed to accumulate. What about the education and knowledge that we were cheated out of during the 246 of Slavery that it was illegal to educate black Americans? If this was not the greater injustice, it is certainly now the greatest hindrance to black Americans reaching absolute equality in America. White America has always known that "knowledge is power." This is clearly the reason why during Slavery and the Jim Crow era that followed, white America did all that it could to keep black Americans uneducated and unenlightened.
If black America has not reached educational equivalency with white America, it will not matter if each black American receives a reparations check in the mail. Within a matter of months or years, white America would have most of the money back. Material possessions come and go. On the other hand, the knowledge attained from a quality education is one thing that can never be taken from you. It is knowledge that ultimately offers the best guarantee of acquiring, keeping, or being able to reacquire material wealth.
If black America continues to pursue reparations, the pay off should be a free college education for all black Americans for as long as it takes to reach educational parity with white America. Unfortunately, I do not see America agreeing to this proposal. But, perhaps, that is as it should be because, ultimately, reaching educational equivalency with the rest of America is something that we as black Americans must do for ourselves.
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