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Vernellia R. Randall
Professor of Law
The University of Dayton






Art Alcausin Hall

excerpted from: Art Alcausin Hall, There Is a Lot to Be Repaired Before We Get to Reparations: a Critique of the Underlying Issues of Race That Impact the Fate of African American Reparations, 2 Scholar: St. Mary's Law Review on Minority Issues 1, 22-32 (2000) (295 Footnotes Omitted)

"You don't simply say 'I'm sorry' to a man you've robbed. . . . You return what you stole or your apology takes on a hollow ring."

History cannot be undone; anything we do now must inevitably be an expression of regret and an affirmation of our better values as a nation, not an accounting which balances or erases. . . . That is now beyond anyone's power.


The politics of race with respect to African American reparations might begin with an analysis of one root of the continuing problem of race in America - that found within the White American community. Since the generation of racial tension by historic White America, this country has continued to show "a particular reluctance to absorb people of African descent." While progress has and continues to be made, this progress has been slow, cautious, and incremental, resulting in fragmented and often incomplete gains. The reluctance on the part of White America has again become obvious in the movement for African American reparations.

A. Lack of Responsible White Congressional Leadership and the Politics of Power

While the courts have suggested African American reparations would be better achieved via congressional legislation, the white congressional leadership has been reluctant to even discuss the possibility of reparations for the past wrongs of America, indeed White America.

In response to the reluctance of White America to absorb Black America through reparations, one commentator questions "Where is the responsible white leadership? . . . When I think about the Southern Baptist Convention's apology two years ago for its defense of slavery in the past, I am hopeful that something more positive is happening out in the rest of America than here in official Washington." Once African American reparations legislation moves from committees to the congressional floor for debate, there can be more opportunity for review, discussion, and consideration of the issue. If nothing else, the existence of continuing race problems and their underlying sources and contribution to the perpetuation of race problems today can be acknowledged and addressed.

And, while leadership is one of the cruxes of the problem, the issue of reluctance within the general white community is felt even deeper - grounded in fear and ignorance. The existence, or even the discussion, of the politics of inclusion, and the reality of changing demographics threatens the status quo power structure and its components. Power is a tremendous tool, but the fear of losing that power is even more potent. With White America having founded the power structures in the United States and presently, for the most part, directing and controlling them, there exists a fear of increased competition and the possibility of sharing, or even losing that power and control to others.

African American reparations requires an admission of wrongdoing and an attendant guilt, which are in-and-of-themselves difficult for White America to accept. In addition, this admission, particularly because of the expansiveness and depth of the past and persistent wrongdoing, even when compared to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, threatens the very structure that the wrongdoing created and maintains. In determining the willingness to discuss and then accept the alternative of reparations, the repairing group must come to terms with the leveling effect of reparations, thereby creating a tension between the morality of repairing those harmed and the possibility of sharing power and control with those it has and continues to oppress and disqualify.

As such, this is a difficult position for White America, and the record of the white congressional leadership reveals little effort or even interest in repairing or discussing reparations - the justifications, the continuing problems, the "pros" and "cons" of reparations, and the potential alternatives. When legislation for a simple one-sentence official apology to African Americans was introduced in Congress in 1997, by Tony Hall, an Ohio Democratic Congressman, polls showed that 61% of those surveyed did not favor such legislation, although the African Americans surveyed favored the legislation two-to-one. "Whites in America are already visualizing themselves as a racial minority. They fear their status is eroding and that people of color are usurping their traditional positions of power and privilege."

These fears are evident in court decisions and legislative action. Fearful of the approaching status of white Americans as a minority, the Supreme Court has worked to include White Americans as potential victims worthy of protection of the same laws originally designed to protect African Americans and other racial "minorities." One authority stated, "This bait-and-switch maneuver - using a multiminority context to assert the rights of whites as if they were no different from any other minority group - has become a signature of recent Supreme Court cases."

For example, although the Court in United Jewish Organizations v. Carey implied that white subgroups, such as the Hasidic Jewish plaintiffs, might not be regarded as racial "minorities," the Court seemingly reversed its position sixteen years later in Shaw v. Reno. The Supreme Court in Shaw, a white vote dilution case, included whites as potential victims of racial discrimination when it argued for the elimination of all overt racial classifications as part of the effort to develop and maintain a multiracial, colorblind democracy. The notion that whites should be included as potential victims to be protected was recently supported by the Court's decision in Adarand, as white plaintiffs successfully challenged a federal program aimed at promoting subcontracting with small businesses controlledby "minority" or other disadvantaged individuals.

In response to this reaction by the Supreme Court, one author declared,

[T]he Court's current equal protection doctrine exploits the increasingly multiracial character of American society to the detriment of minority groups. . . . [T]he Court uses the image of a thoroughly multiracial America to recast whites as just another group competing with many others. By transforming whites into a victim group with the same moral and legal claims as any other minority group, the Court gives intuitive plausibility to its attack on racial set-asides, majority-minority voting districts, and affirmative action programs that burden white economic interests. Put bluntly, the nation's new awareness of minority conflict has translated, not into tools to improve minority participation, but into stronger protections for white entitlements.

The manipulation of rules to maintain an unjust or ill-acquired status quo is unjust. While resentment in the repairing group may lead to further maneuverings and division between the groups rather than cohesion, this is no defense to a morally just solution, and the concerns of the prospectively repaired group must weigh in significantly to the resolution equation. Without an admission of guilt and at minimum an official apology, there can be little meaningful accomplishment of reduced racial tensions that persist.

B. Counterattacks of "Reverse Discrimination"

Instead of working to repair past wrongs and absorb African Americans, many have turned to degenerative terminology and efforts to weaken the strength and forward progress of African Americans. The tables are often turned to blame African Americans for their progress by asserting claims of being unqualified, and requests for reparations are termed reverse discrimination and their proponents racists. These counterattacks seemingly aim to maintain the status quo discrimination.

Some have called the reaction of White America typical in the phenomenon called "the angry white male." Cornel West argues,

In white America, cultural conservatism takes the form of a chronic racism, sexism, and homophobia. . . . Like all conservatisms rooted in a quest for order,. . . America fans and fuels the channeling of rage toward the most vulnerable and degraded members of the community. For White America, this means primarily scapegoating black people. . . .

Derrick Bell writes,

Lulled by comforting racial stereotypes, fearful that blacks will unfairly get ahead of them, all too many whites respond to even the most dire reports of race-based disadvantage with either a sympathetic headshake or victim- blaming rationalizations. Both responses lead easily to the conclusion that contemporary complaints of racial discrimination are simply excuses put forward by people who are unable or unwilling to compete on an equal basis in a competitive society. . . .

On the one hand, contemporary color barriers are certainly less visible as a result of our successful effort to strip the law's endorsement from the hated Jim Crow signs . . . . Indeed, the very absence of visible signs of discrimination creates an atmosphere of racial neutrality and encourages whites to believe that racism is a thing of the past. On the other hand, the general use of so-called neutral standards to continue exclusionary practices reduces the effectiveness of traditional civil rights laws, while rendering discriminatory actions more oppressive than ever. . . .

Modern discrimination is, moreover, not practiced indiscriminately. Whites, ready and willing to applaud, even idolize black athletes and entertainers, refuse to hire, or balk at working with, blacks. Whites who number individual blacks among their closest friends approve, or do not oppose, practices that bar selling or renting homes or apartments in their neighborhoods to blacks they don't know.

Both West and Bell suggest that the counterattacks and resulting hypocrisy that emerge from the tension between reparations and its leveling effect do little to solve the racial problems that continue in this country. Absorption of African Americans must be complete and unequivocal, and an apology and some form of reparations are good starting points for today's efforts.

C. Difficulty Connecting Past to Present

Part of White America's reluctance to absorb African Americans and grant reparations stems from not merely its unwillingness to acknowledge past wrongdoing but its unwillingness to associate at least some of the present racial ills to its past injustice. To begin, some ignore the fact of present discrimination today. These naysayers might argue that the laws have changed, sufficiently eliminating any official discrimination. The unofficial, subtle discrimination that exists is minimal and insignificant at best, attributable to personal preference and impossible to discharge.

Similarly, White America has refused to acknowledge the role of "whiteness" in benefiting some, or "blackness" in hampering others. White Americans fail to acknowledge the advantage they have gained in being white. Randall Robinson, the author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, argues, "Denial not only causes those cocooned to see no evil through the opaque walls of their shells but, oftener than not, obliges the self-deluded to paint pleasing murals of faux reality upon the walls."

What has resulted is a neo-conservatism, in which White America today attempts to distance itself from both the "sins of slavery" and of its forefathers, in an effort to deny responsibility for the past and present problems associated with race. Opponents of African American reparations contend that slavery and past injustices by White Americans were not conducted by individuals living today, but rather by individuals long dead. Henry Hyde, Republican congressman from Illinois and Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, several years ago, stated,

The notion of collective guilt for what people did [200-plus] years ago, that this generation should pay a debt for that generation, is an idea whose time has gone. I never owned a slave. I never oppressed anybody. I don't know that I should have to pay for someone who did [own slaves] generations before I was born.

However, this argument, proponents of African American reparations assert, does not comport with other comparative issues, including the national debt, for which all Americans must continue to pay despite its partial creation by other generations. In addition, these arguments of the injustice of shifting generational responsibility were ignored when reparations for Japanese Americans were paid by all U.S. citizens through taxes. In 1988, one-third of the tax-paying population, who contributed to reparations that were given to interned Japanese Americans, were born after World War II. And, those taxed in 1988 helped pay for Japanese American reparations whether or not they supported the government's mandated internment.

Opponents also argue that African Americans today were never slaves and did not directly experience the injustices of slavery and its effects and thus are not entitled to any form of reparations. However, the effects of slavery are still prevalent and other more recent bases of reparations have been highlighted by African American reparations advocates.

D. Fear of High Costs

The reluctance to absorb African Americans, evident in White America's lack of acknowledgement of the present realities as an extension of past and perpetuated wrongdoing, becomes more adamant when the extent of monetary compensation is considered. Probably an overriding factor in the development of reparations is the potential cost of the reparations bill to taxpayers. While reparations to Native Americans and Japanese Americans have been achieved, reparations to African Americans could possibly amount to trillions of dollars.

There are 22 million African Americans in the U.S. When one considers today's market value of 40 acres and a mule, the total projected bill of reparations is quite high. While figures on the amount of reparations differ, Dorothy Benton Lewis, the leader of Black Reparations Now, says the U.S. government owes descendants of black slaves several trillion dollars.

Nonetheless, no amount can assuage the fact and extent of the injustice to African Americans. The fact that the bill is so high is evidence of the severity of the ill and a reminder of the urgency of the need to repair. And, whatever reparations or alternatives are considered, more and complete efforts need to address present persisting racial ills and the anger and frustration that have resulted from the extensive delay.

E. Lack of Change

The lack of leadership, fear, and ignorance in this new wave of neo- conservatism lead many to argue that no basic level of change has emerged from the days of slavery to the present. Some may argue that the United States is impossibly struggling against the permanency of racism. Because of the unwillingness of many in positions of power to share their position in spite of the wrongdoing that was invoked to achieve and maintain that position, past or present, Derrick Bell argues that racism is permanent and will never subside in this country: "[R]acism in America is not a curable aberration - as we all believed it was at some earlier point. Rather, it is a key component in this country's stability. . . . [R] acism is permanent."

More and more meaningful steps must be taken by White America to resolve the issue of race in America. These steps will be difficult, but recognition and resolution of the underlying problems could make the United States a morally and economically healthier land. Descendents of those previously wronged become victims themselves if the wrong is not addressed.

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