German companies recently made payment for slave and enforced labor during World War II. The US government paid Japanese American citizens interred in camps during that war. It is time for the United States to do the same for African Americans brought forcibly to this continent 350 years ago, African-American activist Randall Robinson told over 100 people crowded into a near-downtown Minneapolis restaurant recently. He predicts the social issue of the next 10 years will be understanding and agreeing to reparations for African Americans for the 246 years of slavery and the following 100 years of damage freed slaves and their descendants suffered and continued to suffer.
"We counsel other countries that they cannot have stable futures unless they are courageous enough to come to terms with their past," Robinson said, listing nations from Japan and Germany to Canada, South Africa and Bosnia. But in the US, "it is as if slavery never happened," he said, noting that no national monument, "no tablet, brick, statue remembers the 50 million who died in the middle passage alone, died during the 246 years of slavery and the 100 years of government sanctioned segregation and discrimination."
Robinson recently wrote The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. He is founder and president of TransAfrica, a lobbying organization dedicated to influencing US policy toward Africa and the Caribbean. He was an original organizer of the early 1980s boycott of companies doing business in South Africa. Now he making the case that the United States owes a huge debt to blacks for the damage they suffered and continue to suffer as a result of slavery.
Neither the federal or any southern state governments, or any companies, north or south, who condoned and profited from slavery, have recognized their roles and apologized, Robinson claims. "The America that convinces other countries to come to terms with their past hasn't found the courage to come to terms with its past," he said.
He has done massive research, telling his audience that cotton exports were the oil of its day. Profits dwarfed all other export earnings combined. The entire economy was part of the slave and cotton trade: ship builders, parts suppliers, insurance companies, railroads, and banks. Many present day fortunes and corporations date from those times. "The people who produced cotton were never paid, and everyone else got rich," Robinson pointed out.
"The fight for reparations is more than a claim for what was stripped away from us," Robinson said. "It is a struggle to teach our children their history."
"Progress is never about individuals," Robinson told the jammed restaurant audience. "Never let people divert us by dangling success stories about Oprahs and Michaels." Those opportunities do not exist for most blacks, who today are worse off than the white mainstream was in 1972.
"We cannot catch up. We were not meant to catch up. This gap is structural," Robinson said. He recounted the economic purpose of lynching: 70% of people lynched in the early 1900s were businessmen. Laws favored plantation owners. Southern blacks have had the right to vote only since 1965.
Today, hundreds of thousands of blacks have been pushed into poverty; prisons are filling up with black prisoners, primarily over drug addiction, an illness, not a crime; and blacks overwhelmingly are on death row. The litany of challenges facing the black community, from low education levels to high unemployment, is long. "All these don't happen to blacks because there's something wrong with the victims," Robinson said.
He believes reparations is an issue whose time has come. "It needs to be made a popular movement with children. We got to take it to campuses. We have to do scholarship on this. There is no substitute for information," he said. Recalling the long uphill fight boycotting American companies doing business in South Africa over 15 years ago, he stressed that "you don't start any struggle at the end of it, you start it at the beginning."
Robinson predicts that lawsuits will start to be filed in 2001 against the federal and state governments and against companies involved in various aspects of slavery. The United States is a litigious country, and it is though court proceedings that the case will initially be made. Law suits will move the issue into the court of public opinion, also, and the majority white population will start to learn about the issue.
Robinson is traveling the country promoting the reparations issue, a cause already familiar to most in the African American community. US Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has repeatedly introduced a resolution calling for a national commission to study slavery's effects in the United States. The Republican-Southern Democratic dominated Congress has not seen fit to pass that resolution.
Robinson is also building new allies, telling the overwhelmingly Democratic-supporting gathering that he supported Ralph Nader and co-chaired his recent presidential campaign. "Increasingly I cannot tell the difference between Republicans and Democrats," he said. "Nader was not only for reparations for African Americans, but for Native Americans as well, all on their terms." Robinson suggested rejecting alliances where there is no real help forthcoming, noting "I am 59 years old and for the rest of my life I am only going to support those people who support me."
Robinson noted the refusal of Gore or Bush to seriously discuss the state of race relations, or poverty, in the recent presidential campaign, saying it was a sign of the low priority of race relations. "This country is increasingly in denial," he said.
While monetary payments is the biggest issue for whites, Robinson sees it differently for blacks. "The big issue coming up is about an apology," he said, for that recognizes the injustice done and the responsibility of all parties.
Robinson understands the long term, philosophical and historical purpose of this effort, saying "if we accomplish nothing else we will at the very least have discovered ourselves." He reminded people that "atonement, the need to do it, never expires."
Ken Jerome-Stern is a writer in Minneapolis. Pulse of the Twin Cities, a Minneapolis weekly, ran a shorter version of this.