Every year since 1989, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has proposed a bill in the House of Representatives that would authorize the formation of a committee to study the issue of reparations for slavery.
That bill, HR 40, has been presented to Congress again this year. But if the past is any predictor, the bill will be dead on arrival.
Legislators are rightly daunted by the mere thought of having to calculate adequate reparation for something so heinous and which lasted so long. But admitting that the task will be hard does not excuse their complete inaction.
Germany worked millions of people to death during a five-year period, and has been paying reparations to Israel every year since the Nuremberg trials. In our own country, reparations have been made to survivors of the involuntary sterilizations that victimized an estimated 67,000 between 1889 and 1930.
Yet, faced with a proposal even to "study" the issue of reparation for slavery, Congress slams the door. It’s no wonder, for remuneration would entail calculating, since emancipation, a century and a half of compounded economic disenfranchisement.
There is a saint of the Catholic church named Saint Jean-Baptiste Vianney, (1786 – 1859), often referred to as the “Cure d’Ars.” A humble village priest, he was known for being a wise and patient confessor.
A woman once presented herself to the Abbe to confess her sins. She owned that she had slandered another townswoman. Part of the sacrament requires the penitent to make reparations where possible. So the priest instructed her to take a pillow up to the church’s bell tower, cut it open, and scatter the feathers into the wind.
Puzzled, the woman nevertheless complied and returned to the priest for absolution. “Well, you haven’t quite finished your penance,” the priest told her. “I want you do go and retrieve all the feathers that you scattered.”
“Collecting all of them would be impossible,” objected the penitent loudly.
“Yes it would,” replied the confessor, but then added, “God forgives you, but I wanted you to see that there is no way you can adequately call back the calumny. Still, you must right the wrong as best you can.”
There is no possible way that our nation ever can make adequate financial reparation to African Americans for the sin of slavery, but we must try as best we can. And the crime is a national one, for it was the work not just of the slave owners in the south, but of the mill owners in the north, as well, who were complicit by their long and uncritical acceptance of slave-picked cotton.
What is possible? Putting a cash “price tag” on the cost of slavery and the resulting harm to descendants today would prove challenging; but Congress could, for example, authorize that a tax-exempt sum of $10,000 be given each year, for the next 10 years, to each African American descended from slaves, or $40,000 to a family of four. That would come to a 10-year total of $400 billion.
Fiscally impossible? Not when one considers that we’ll spend $1 trillion over the next 10 years sprucing up our weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), our thermo-nuclear arsenal.
Leaving aside a cash disbursement, what other measures could Congress take?
For starters, rather than rushing to reverse affirmative action, as some are trying their best to do, Congress ought to be extending it for African Americans both in higher education and in business hiring. Unlike many other advanced European democracies, our government refuses to fund every citizen wanting a college education. One could say that the country owes at least that much to the descendants of slavery.
Secondly, for centuries following a brief period of reconstruction, moneyed white elites deprived blacks of land and capital. This, along with the practice of real estate “red lining,” prevented generations of African Americans from owning their own homes – still the primary way for low income Americans to build equity. For this reason, Congress should enact a bill giving annual housing allotments to African American families – much the same way that it sends Social Security payments to all Americans (payments, shamefully, not originally authorized for menial workers the preponderance of whom were minorities and people of color).
These measures do not even come close to just and adequate reparation. But until even feeble attempts are made at distributive justice, we deserve no pardon for what history will rightly describe as our nation’s most egregious moral failure.
In the meantime, the continuing refusal by Congress even to study the issue is an appalling display of callousness, and provides clear evidence that the majority of our elected officials lack even a scintilla of repentance about slavery. It’s long past time for us to right this wrong.
Joe Moran lives in Durham.