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
"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
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
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
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
[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
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
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
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