Debt wrong

David Horowitz is incorrect. It's time for the United States to pay up for slavery.

By Earl Ofari Hutchison

Published June 5, 2000 7:09PM (EDT)

Former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion gave the best answer to David Horowitz's straw man question, "Does Oprah need reparations?" In 1952 Germany agreed to pay reparations to Israel. Ben-Gurion called it "collective reparation" not just for the Holocaust survivors but for "a people that have been persecuted, oppressed and plundered for hundreds of years." He understood that collective suffering and victimization demanded collective restitution. A half century later the Israeli government still receives billions in payments from Germany, even though most Israelis weren't even born during the Holocaust and many of them are prosperous and successful professionals and businesspeople.

The rest of Horowitz's long-winded diatribe against reparations is a mix of misstatements of fact, distortions and jumbled logic. But when you strip it all away there are four reasons, not 10, why Horowitz does not believe African-Americans should receive reparations for America's history of slavery.

Argument No. 1 -- A handful of Southern planters, not the U.S. government, business or whites in general were responsible for and profited from slavery.

The U.S. government encoded slavery in the Constitution, and protected and nourished it for a century. Traders, insurance companies, bankers, shippers and landowners made billions off of it. Those ill-gotten profits fueled America's industrial might. Meanwhile, white labor groups benefited for decades after slavery insured that blacks were excluded from unions and the trades and confined to the dirtiest, poorest-paying jobs.

While many whites and nonwhite immigrants did come to America after the Civil War, they were not subjected to decades of relentless racial terror and legal segregation as were blacks. This gave them the political and economic breathing space needed to open businesses, gain access to public and private education, enter the professions, and the freedom to buy and rent in neighborhoods of their choice. They had another advantage. Through the decades of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, African-Americans were transformed into the poster group for racial dysfunctionality that Horowitz giddily reminds the world of. The image of blacks as lazy, crime and violence prone, irresponsible and sexual predators has stoked white fears and hostility and served as the standard rationale for lynchings, racial assaults, hate crimes and police violence.

Argument No. 2 -- Slavery is long past, blacks are living better than ever, and besides, they have already gotten their payback with welfare, social and education programs, civil rights legislation and affirmative action programs.

Really? So why did a recent poll by the National Conference for Community and Justice, a Washington, D.C., public policy group, find that blacks are still overwhelmingly the victims of racial discrimination? Even this is too charitable. It's not, as Horowitz implied, some deep-seated victim neurosis that blacks suffer from. They are victims of the hideous legacy of slavery.

The result: Blacks make up more than half of the 2 million prisoners in American prisons. They receive stiffer sentences than whites for possession of drugs and petty crimes. They have the highest rates of poverty, infant mortality and HIV/AIDS affliction and are more often victims of violence than any other ethnic group in the country.

They are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods, be refused business loans and attend decrepit, failed public schools, than nonwhites. The beatings of black motorist Rodney King, the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the torture-beating of Abner Louima and the racial profiling of young black males by the police are ample proof that African-Americans are still at mortal risk from police violence. This raw, naked institutional racism is the ugly byproduct of slavery.

Argument No. 3 -- Reparations will make everyone hate blacks more.

Most Americans agree that slavery was a morally monstrous system that wreaked severe pain and suffering on America. Even Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, no bleeding-heart liberal, in a recent candid moment said: "You apologize for a wrong," Daley declared. "Slavery was wrong ... Slavery has had an enormous effect on generation after generation."

Also, there was no national yelp when Japanese-Americans interned during World War II and Native Americans and Philippine veterans who fought with the U.S. Army during World War II received special indemnity payments, as well as land and social service benefits for their past suffering. Most Americans agreed that the U.S. government was liable for their suffering and must pay.

Argument No. 4. -- There's no precedent for paying blacks for their suffering.

This again is dead wrong. The U.S. government admitted it was legally liable in 1997 to pay the black survivors and family members of the two-decade-long Tuskegee, Ala., syphilis experiment. The testing, begun in the 1930s by the U.S. Public Health Service, turned black patients into human guinea pigs. The 399 men were the victims of a blatant medical atrocity conducted with the full knowledge and approval of the U.S. government.

The state legislature in Florida in 1994 agreed to make payments to the survivors and relatives of those who lost their lives and property when a white mob destroyed the all-black town of Rosewood in 1923. This was a specific act of mob carnage that was tacitly condoned by some public officials and law enforcement officers. Florida was liable for the violence and should have paid.

The Oklahoma state legislature is now considering reparations payments to the survivors of the Tulsa massacre of 1921. Reparations advocates do not call for simply dumping money into the pockets of all blacks including the Oprahs, the Cosbys and the Jordans. They propose the creation of a development fund to provide more job, education and service programs for the black poor.

Despite Horowitz's rant against reparations, the harsh fact is that the cornerstone of America's racial woes remains its brutal mistreatment of blacks, and this can be directly traced to the monstrous legacy of slavery. That's why many Americans agree that if it is legally and morally right to pay other victimized groups for their suffering, then it is right to pay blacks for theirs -- Oprah notwithstanding.

Earl Ofari Hutchison

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