Matthew Hunter: Repairing racism

BY MATTHEW HUNTER

Published January 20, 2009

Last month, I worked on a column for the Daily that explored affirmative action — one of America’s infamous racial stalemates. I learned that some University students were so reluctant to talk about race, they would only comment anonymously.

While affirmative action may make some people fraught with anxiety, reparations are affirmative action to the 25th power.

Reparations involve the American government offering some form of compensatory justice to African-Americans for infractions that include the three-fifths clause in 1787, institutional slavery, decades of Jim Crow laws and the blind eye that many courts have shown vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Research has shown that Americans don’t like discussing reparations. The idea controversial and highlights a disparity between whites and blacks. A 2002 CNN/USA Today Gallup poll reported that 90 percent of whites believe the government should not pay cash reparations to slave descendants, while 55 percent of black respondents said the government should.

Aetna, an insurance company that was sued in 2002 for “their corporate predecessors’ roles in the slave trade and conversion of the value of the slaves’ labor into their profits,” responded, “We do not believe a court would permit a lawsuit over events which — however regrettable — occurred hundreds of years ago. These issues in no way reflect Aetna today.” The courts dismissed, the case against the company.

Some critics of reparations may wonder: What exactly do we give African-Americans who are the descendants of slaves? What do we give biracial blacks? What do we give Oprah? Furthermore, who pays? Or, more bluntly, who is punished? The fact is, all black people living in America right now experience the social dysfunction that has resulted from America’s sordid racial past and deserve compensatory justice from the American government.

As for payment and punishment, I don’t believe that many of my white classmates who shiver beside me as I walk to class are the same people who constructed the peculiar institution of slavery. In fact, I believe a majority of my white peers would stand in solidarity with me if explicitly racist policies emerged today. However, for whites today to believe that a vast majority of them have not benefited economically from these past incidences of racism is to believe a fairy tale.

To be clear, it is the responsibility of both whites and blacks to seek justice where there is injustice. Many blacks have been active in their own recovery from past injustices by taking responsibility for their present socioeconomic statuses. And many of the racial policies that have been forged in America have been the result of black, brown and white coalitions. It is our responsibility as Americans to better understand the nature of the social status of the oppressed and not simply blame them for something that is inextricably linked with white oppression.

To answer the harder question, that of what to give, I propose something we are all too familiar with: a government stimulus package. It would consist of money dedicated toward repairing damage dealt to African-Americans. The money should not simply be given to individuals — it should be allotted to state governments to rebuild their oppressed communities. With this, we could see drastic improvements for schools, jobs, rehabilitation programs, community infrastructure and African-American morale.

A 2003 New York Times article titled “The Cost of Slavery” estimates that, after inflation, payment for lost wages to slaves would be between $2 trillion and $4 trillion. Would a $4 trillion stimulus package be an appropriate allocation to make up for the past? Either way, it should serve as a number that reminds us of the seriousness of slavery and lasting oppression. And, if this is a stretch, what public policy measures could mitigate the oppressive damages of more than 300 years? What can the government do to help heal the wounds and correct the dysfunction?

Perhaps the words of President Obama are fitting in this case: “I consistently believe that when it comes to whether it’s Native Americans or African-American issues or reparations, the most important thing for the U.S. government to do is not just offer words, but offer deeds.”

I hope he lives up to his words — we need big deeds.

Matthew Hunter can be reached at majjam@umich.edu.