An Original Sin

Oct 6 2016 - A recent report by a UN-affiliated group refuels the long-standing debate over reparations for African-Americans. The group of experts which includes leading human rights lawyers from around the world presented its findings to the UN Human Rights Council recently, showing a link between the present and past injustices against the black people in the United States. The history of slavery in the US justifies reparations, they argued.

A terra-cotta statue of a child slave inside the main house at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace Louisiana. Photo: Reuters

A terra-cotta statue of a child slave inside the main house at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace Louisiana. Photo: Reuters

“In particular, the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the United States remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent,” the report stated. “Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching.”

The issue is hardly new. In every Congress since 1989, John Conyers, a Democratic Congressman from Michigan, has introduced a bill that recommends forming a commission to study reparation proposals. H.R. 40 does not require reparations or authorise any payments. It simply calls for ample research into the nature and financial impact of African enslavement as well as the ills inflicted on the blacks during the Jim Crow era. Based on the findings, remedies can be suggested.

But every year, the bill stalls. It’s hard to understand why, though. Polls suggest that racism is on the decline—the young are far less prejudiced than the old. In today’s America, if anyone expresses a racist opinion at work, it will almost certainly end his or her career. Companies caught discriminating are punished by the legal system as well as customers. Obama’s rise to the US president from a junior Senator from Chicago was not based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. Americans wanted change.

In MLK’s day, interracial love was illegal in many states. Today, more than 15 percent of marriages cross racial lines. Segregation was the law in the South and the custom in the North. Today, all-white neighbourhoods are virtually non-existent and segregation is declining in all metropolitan areas. The median earnings of black and white women with college degrees are about the same.

And yet a humiliating gap has opened up between the promise of the ideals and the reality of the time. According to available data, black median household income fell significantly between 2000 and 2011. The traditional black family has collapsed. In the 60s, many called it a crisis when nearly 25 percent of black children were born out of wedlock. Today it is more than 70 percent (for whites, about 30 percent), and most of these children are being raised by single mothers living alone. Lacking the safety net that a second adult provides, they are hit the hardest by the economic crisis.

Some say blacks themselves are to blame for these dismal figures. Aren’t individuals ultimately responsible for their own fate? If new immigrants can make it big in America, then why can’t they? Answers to these questions tend to fall into two camps. The lingering effects of racism are hard to shake off. Poverty begets poverty. Those who struggle at school are lagging further behind in the workplace. Black schools are underfunded; the criminal-justice system is biased against blacks. If this analysis is correct, the best solution may be more funding for inner-city schools, stricter enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and more training for police officers and judges.

Skin colour is nothing like the barrier it once was in the US. But slavery remains America’s original sin. “An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane,” writes the indispensable Ta-Nehisi Coates in his 2014 cover story in the Atlantic. “An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”

Coates does not insist that US Federal Government—and presumably, various state governments—should give money to descendants of slaves. Instead, he just tries to show the hollowness of believing “that a society can spend three-and-a-half centuries attempting to cripple a man, 50 years offering half-hearted aid, and then wonder why he walks with a limp.”

While many whites consider reparations to be too radical, white politicians, judges and ordinary citizens have accepted the principle of reparations for certain past damages. The current worth of all black labour stolen by whites through the means of slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination, interests included is estimated by some economists in the range of $6 to $24 trillion. Many wonder where the money will come from. Well, did the US government not find more than a trillion dollars to bail out private companies in the Great Depression and trillions for recent unjust and irresponsible military actions?

The US has a moral and constitutional obligation to mend its shameful past.

The writer is a member of the Editorial Team at The Daily Star.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

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