Edieth Y. Wu
excerpted from: Edieth Y. Wu, REPARATIONS TO
AFRICAN-AMERICANS: THE ONLY REMEDY FOR THE U.S. GOVERNMENT'S FAILURE TO
ENFORCE THE 13TH, 14TH, AND 15TH AMENDMENTS , 3 Connecticut Public
Interest Law Journal 403 -429 (Spring, 2004) (187 Footnotes)
This article takes a hard look at U.S. history: the political, the
social, and the legal landscape after the passage of the 13th, 14th, and
15th Amendments. The author wholeheartedly believes that the Reparations
dialogue must continue. Many, including well-educated Americans, are
solidly divided on this important issue and have taken the position that
Reparations should be buried because American slaves are buried. In
spite of the difficulties, we must
study and question the societal norms that led to major changes in the
United States and forge ahead to find a solution to the issues that
adversely affect a major portion of America's citizenry. Reparations
have been used internationally as well as domestically and are not novel
The U.S. has not realized the great society that so many projected
was possible for this nation. Like the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission in South Africa after
Apartheid, the U.S. must come to grips with its failures and
shortcomings as they relate to a major sector of its population.
Therefore, this article first examines the 13th Amendment, its purposes,
and failures. Next, the 14th Amendment's
purposes and failures are analyzed.
Third, the 15th Amendment is analyzed.
Finally, the article concludes that
Reparations is the only remedy for the federal government's egregious
breach of the protections that are guaranteed by the Amendments.
African slaves were subjected to extreme conditions, as well as
continued acts of violence long after
they were freed and in spite of major legal advances. Today, "when
African Americans [descendants of the African slaves] say the word
'reparations,' you'd think they had suggested something completely
outrageous." To the chagrin of
many, "the concept is legitimate."
Fifty billion dollars in restitution was paid by Germany to the Jews
after WWII, and Japanese Americans received twenty thousand dollars from
the U.S. government as a result of their confinement in camps during
WWII. The request for "reparations
aren't some extralegal remedy that belongs to the past, but a process
that is the usual means to resolve harms done by a nation against a
people. The penumbras of the post
slavery Amendments and the Government's failure to enforce the
Amendments support such a process.
II. THE 13TH AMENDMENT'S PROMISES AND FAILURES
Two years before the ratification of the 13th Amendment, African
slaves in many parts of the U.S. had learned about The Emancipation
Proclamation, which freed slaves in
designated parts of the United States. "Neither slavery nor
involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the
party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United
States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
Congress had the power to enforce this article by appropriate
legislation. "Emancipation, while
it may have ended slavery - did not bring freedom
to the African [slaves]. It was after slavery that you get some of the
most barbaric, uncivilized manifestations of hate and of the sense of
white superiority." This
unfortunately continues in modern times. As recently as December 2003,
the FBI investigated a situation where threatening letters were sent to
prominent black men in sports and other prominent careers.
These letters included threats of being shot, castrated, or set on fire
if Black men refused to stop having relationships with Whites.
After freedom, Blacks were brutally segregated and relegated to hard
times and conditions. Due to many
changes in America, "Black rights became vulnerable to compromise
and sacrifice. By the late 1800's Whites began to insist on formal
racial segregation, which had long been practiced in fact; segregation
was given official status to show whites that they were indeed superior
to blacks." The Black Codes
were a constant reminder to Blacks that "freedom was not as they
had anticipated." The Codes were
used to inhibit freedom by dictating all aspects of the ex-slaves'
lives, from work hours and duties to behavior,
especially when Blacks had to deal with Whites or when they were in the
presence of Whites. Blacks were often arrested when they solicited
services from restaurants that were open to the general public.
States usually had statutes that made it a misdemeanor to refuse to
leave the premises of establishments when requested by the owner to do
so. These statutes were used to protect
Whites from the inferior Blacks. In Georgia v. Rachel,
the defendants argued that "their arrests were effected for the
sole purpose of aiding, abetting, and perpetuating customs, and usages
which have deep historical and psychological roots in the mores and
These were common types of prosecutions that were unfolding throughout
the country. Blacks were barred from
towns after certain hours and could not reside in certain towns and
cities. Under Jim Crow, many
"Black males were expected to tip their hats in the presence of
whites, even if they were walking on the opposite side of the
street." The Codes were
implemented in the late nineteenth century and, unfortunately, lasted
until the 1960s. Neither Blacks nor
Whites could easily disregard this 'Code Mentality'; thus, the 'Code
Mentality' had a profound effect well beyond the 1960s because people
who had lived under that system refused to relinquish what they had come
to know as the 'norm.' "[L]egalized segregation could not achieve
its purpose without imposing inequality,"
and grave inequity. "The purposeful creation and maintenance of
inequality" was sanctioned and
upheld by the U.S. government to the detriment of the freed African
slaves. The judicial branch of the U.S. Government put its stamp of
approval on separate but equal when it made it the law of the land. The
Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, put its
stamp of approval on the "superiority" of Whites. After the
Plessy decision, Whites had a "legal right" to a separate
lifestyle. Though many services and amenities were financially supported
by the federal government, it nevertheless decided to enforce white
rights at the freed African slaves' expense.
"De jure segregation in the South constituted
one of the material benefits of racial exclusion and subjugation which
functioned to stifle class tensions among whites."
This government sanctioned exclusion highlights the government's failure
to treat its new citizens equally by providing protection only to the
Early in American society and especially after the abolition of
slavery, "white privilege" became an expectation. Whiteness
became the quintessential property of personhood.
The societal sentiment of the day, which was legally supported by the
Codes, elevated "whiteness" to an "object" over
which continued control was expected
and, in reality, obtained. Whites were expected to use this privilege,
and they did - it was accepted as a right because they were
"White" and that had value, which brought benefits. The
"law recognized, either implicitly or explicitly, the settled
expectations of whites built on the privileges and benefits produced by
white supremacy, it acknowledge[d] and reinforce[d] a property interest
in whiteness that reproduces Black subordination."
With this type of support for White supremacy and domination, the freed
African slaves' path was severely jeopardized.
As a result of the passage of the 13th Amendment, additional
legislation was passed. Unfortunately,
progress was further hampered because the judicial system failed in the
art of genuine interpretation, which is to uncover the rule the lawmaker
intended to establish. Notwithstanding positive
laws, slow progress was recorded for ex-slaves after their emancipation.
Additional amendments were adopted, but
bias continued in the courts immediately after Emancipation and that
bias still exists today. Thus, "it takes legislative [and judicial]
support and public concern to bring about changes,"
not only in the judicial system but also throughout the fabric of
America. In spite of setbacks, ex-slaves remained optimistic that they
would soon be accepted by White society, and they continued to work
toward that end.
III. THE 14TH AMENDMENT'S PROMISES AND FAILURES
In 1865, African slaves were finally made citizens of the U.S. They
could finally drop
the 'slave label' and accept themselves as American African citizens
or African Americans citizens.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to
the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the
State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which
shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United
States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or
property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its
jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.
Congress had the "power to
enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this
article." The 14th Amendment and
subsequent legislation were intended to impose a new political and
economic view on a country that had,
prior to the Amendment, conducted itself without much restraint. During
the early periods after the 13th and 14th Amendments were passed, courts
offered little assistance; thus, oppression and violations of civil
rights continued. These results were
not part of the Amendments' vision of the new order. This "spurious
interpretation" and disregard for
the Amendments' purposes continued up to, through, and beyond the
passage of the 15th Amendment. As a
result, the law was brought into disrepute, the Court was placed under
extreme political pressure, and the personal element was highly visible
in the judiciary.
The courts' refusal to uphold the intent of the legislation
reinforced the African Americans' view that courts make and unmake the
law at will. Many courts buckled under pressure and "adjusted[ed]
constitutional provisions to the exigencies of [the] current
policy." Public sentiment that was
not always favorable to the African American was, nonetheless, often
interspersed into final decisions. White supremacy and "white
privilege serve[d] several functions ... it provide[d] white people with
'perks' that [they did] not earn and that [African Americans did] not
enjoy" and still do not enjoy to
date. "Whiteness as property has carried
and produced a heavy legacy .... It has warped efforts to remediate
This "legacy" also affected the new African American
citizens' hope that expanded educational opportunities would be
available now that they were citizens. In spite of roadblocks that were
set up to thwart educational opportunities, the Court determined that
mandating equality of education could rectify past denials.
The Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of such programs in
higher education in Regents of the
University of California v. Bakke. In
upholding the University's position, the Court specifically stated
"that race can be used to remedy disadvantages cast on minorities
by past racial prejudices." Since
1980, the demise of affirmative action became more evident as decisions
to enforce the equal protection clause came under attack.
Many middle-class Whites summarily reject all types of affirmative
action programs for African Americans while selectively forgetting the
reality that they did not get where they are today based on the virtues
of "[m]erit-hard work, intelligence, pluck, and maybe a little
luck. And while we [whites] may be sympathetic to the plight of others,
we close down when we hear the words 'affirmative action' or 'racial
preferences."' We worked hard, we made it on our own, the thinking
goes, why don't they? After all, the Civil Rights Act was enacted almost
40 years ago." This view led to an
all-out attack against affirmative
As a result, projections are made that affirmative action programs
may not be upheld if a compelling interest is not shown.
For example, a Texas law school's attempt to "remedy past
discrimination (through affirmative action) in the Texas school system
and to increase the diversity of the law school"
was assaulted because it exemplified affirmative action. Specifically,
in Hopwood v. Texas, white plaintiffs
argued that the University of Texas Law School's admissions policy was
using an impermissible quota system.
This decision came in spite of the knowledge that the American Bar
Association's "academic standards create a system that without
affirmative action, would have allowed only 22 percent of the 8,375
blacks who applied to law school to be accepted at even the least
selective school. The remaining 6,554 blacks would not have qualified
for admission at any school."
"The underrepresentation in the legal profession oppresses blacks
in pervasive, insidious ways." The
Court agreed that race was being used impermissibly.
Fortunately, a positive change in African Americans' struggle to obtain
equality in education came with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in
Grutter v. Bollinger, where it held
that "The Law School's narrowly tailored use of race in admissions
decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational
benefits that flow from a diverse student body is not prohibited by the
Equal Protection Clause, Title VI, or § 1981."
As a result, the Court definitively clarified the rule concerning the
use of race, which was not uniform in the circuit courts. Race can be
used to correct past harms as well as to provide educational benefits to
Affirmative action helps alleviate segregation in higher education.
In public elementary and high schools around the nation, segregation
continues to be a major issue. Sub-standard public schools contribute to
ill preparedness for those students who want to attend institutions of
higher learning. "Minority students in high poverty areas are not
getting a quality education."
Thus, a strong argument has been waged that merit should not be equated
with performance on standardized tests
because they are unreliable in determining who will succeed in college.
Likewise, they not only prevent capable students from attending college
but they also fail to accurately predict persons who will perform well
in future jobs. One study has shown
that Blacks' social disadvantages are reflected in low SAT scores and
high school grades but do not hinder their success if they are admitted
to good schools. The graduates, more
often than not, take active roles in society and become important
leaders both within the Black community and in society at large.
Usually, the affirmative action argument normalizes and legitimizes
procedures for selection that are not fair or functional.
This is done in spite of the education that Blacks
receive or fail to receive in the public school systems. Blacks and
other ethnic minorities are expected to compete with students who are
afforded educational opportunities that were envisioned for the freed
slaves, but which have not been realized to date.
"Every passing day denies these children their constitutional right
to a substantially equal educational opportunity"
and perpetuates the imbalance in education and economic advancement.
A recent study has shown a deeper problem in the education system
that creates a labeling bias which
usually only affects African Americans. For example, Black boys living
in wealthier communities with a majority White student body are found to
be at a greater risk of having schools label them as mentally retarded
and, as a result, Black boys are often sent to special education
classes. After being placed in special
education, African American children are far less likely to be part of
the regular classes than similarly situated White children.
These decisions have long-term effects that affect the employability and
economic potential of Black males.
The assault on affirmative action is analogous to the government's
passing laws that have the pretext of providing opportunity, yet in
actuality fail to protect the pretextual opportunities. Studies have
shown that "Actual performance often correlates best with on-the
job training." The people
who do well usually learn on the job; the ones who are given the
opportunity to learn on the job usually do well.
Opportunity is so often what has been denied to descendents of
ex-slaves. If Black students are labeled as mentally retarded, they are
denied opportunities on several levels. "Assessment through
opportunity to perform works better than testing for performance."
Blacks have been excluded and marginalized
in the workplace and in schools. This marginalization is insidious and
affects all aspects of life; it prevents Blacks from becoming integral
links in society, especially economically. African Americans do not
enjoy equal opportunity in the U.S., which is undeniably reflected in
the unemployment rate. The jobless rate for African Americans in 1998
for 20-24 year-olds was 16.8%. Although down from 24.5 percent in 198l,
the prospects for employment are grim for African Americans. Even though
the jobless rate has gone down, that means little to Travon Netherly, a
student at L.A. Southwest College. Recently, says Travon, four of his
brothers applied for a job at an Orange County amusement park. Despite
the help-wanted ad in the window, all were turned away. My brothers were
willing to take anything, even wear one of those Snoopy costumes, says
Netherly, who bitterly adds, it don't take skills to be Snoopy.
This type of blatant rejection of young African Americans sends a
clear signal that the time has come to bury the property interest in
because it profoundly affects Blacks. Affirmative action is a "must
tool" in that task. Affirmative
action is consistent with equality and is essential to ridding America
of the legacy of oppression against
African Americans and the elimination
of "whiteness as property." The U.S. government played a major
role in discriminating against African Americans. Not only did the
Government neglect issues that affected African Americans, it also
inconsistently enforced the laws in favor of private citizens who
developed elaborate plans to prevent Blacks from exercising their
rights. For example, the Department of
Agriculture agreed to compensate Black farmers for discrimination that
the Department inflicted on them. The
settlement was a result of a lawsuit that alleged that the government
used more restrictive terms for loans to Black farmers than to White
farmers with similar credit histories.
This treatment impacted the farmers' economic situation. As a result of
this discrimination, to which the government admits, the percentage of
Black farmers has dropped to 1%. In the 1920's, however, 14% of the
nation's farmers were Black. In spite of the settlement and its admitted
discriminatory behavior, the Government is allowing its past to repeat
itself as a result of the Agriculture Secretary's refusal to terminate
high officials who allowed the discrimination against Black farmers to
take place in the first place. Such
decisions fuel antagonism and send signals to the nation's employers and
private citizens that it may be
worth taking a chance on discrimination. If the Government can do it, so
can others. This complacency "is going to cost taxpayers hundreds
of millions of dollars. It seems that somebody should be held
accountable." This failure to
fully accept responsibility and dismantle the problem from its roots is
analogous to what the U.S. Government is doing in its failure to address
the Reparations issue in a meaningful way.
Blacks are discriminated against by both the federal and state
governments, the educational system,
and employers, especially in the legal arena
which continues to exclude blacks en masse. Blacks are so
underrepresented in the legal system today that Black lawyers are
sometimes mistaken for defendants and restrained by bailiffs when they
attempt to approach the bench. This is
degrading to the Black lawyer and his, oftentimes, Black clients as well
because it highlights the ill-treatment that highly educated,
professional Blacks are also subjected to. When Black clients witness
this, they have little confidence in the judges. Moreover, Blacks
usually receive unequal sentences to similarly situated Whites, and bail
is also granted inequitably. Judges
are also part of the racism that is so overtly reflected in the
courtroom: judges oftentimes "overrule juries' imposition of life
sentences in favor of death sentences for Blacks who kill Whites and
credit White witnesses while discrediting similar Black witnesses."
In 1996, the ABA's Commission on Opportunities for
Minorities in the Profession stated that minorities are
"experiencing legal setbacks that remind them of Plessy."
"The Supreme Court of 1996 seems very similar to the court of
Plessy v. Ferguson." For about
thirty years, statutory protection was afforded to African Americans.
"After 40 years of constitutional rulings ... in the courts, we now
see a sense of fatigue. Currently, the
Supreme Court is ignoring the vestiges of widespread racism in society.
As a result, a trend toward re-segregation is developing.
"The Country is witnessing resegregation without ever having
achieved the goal of a completely desegregated society.
Schools across the nation are being resegregated.
"The resegregation trend picked up momentum as a result of a 1991
Supreme Court decision that authorized a return to neighborhood schools
instead of busing, even if such a step would lead to segregation."
This segregation or "resegregation" extends to all areas of
the society: social, employment, education, and especially the legal
system, which is the last of the citadels.
Perceptions of bias, especially in the legal system, are not viewed
the same by Black and White Americans; a major divide exists. As late as
1999, many African Americans, especially African American lawyers,
continue to believe that racial bias currently exists in the judicial
system. Fifty-two percent of the Black
lawyers, as opposed to six-and-one-half percent of
the White lawyers believe very much that bias exists.
Additionally, "[t]wo-thirds of the black lawyers, about 92 %, said
that, compared to other segments of society, the justice system has the
same amount of racial bias or more. Nearly half the White lawyers
believe there is less." The
Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Equal Justice Project
(EJP) highlights the importance of law schools working with the equal
justice community in order to provide needed services to minorities,
especially Blacks. The public interest and grassroots organizations
provide a range of services to the poor and working class,
many of whom are African Americans with limited resources and education.
Programs like the Law School Consortium Project, the famed Innocence
Project, which provides services to people that claim unjust
convictions, the Equal Justice Centers at the University of California
at Berkeley, Santa Clara Law School, and the University of Seattle have
also created centers to help with equal justice activities in their
schools and communities to provide
services and support for African Americans who have been denied adequate
legal representation based on economic and other factors. These programs
indictate that major problems persist in America, and that they are
inextricably tied to race. They are not only based on economic
inequality but also based on inequality in the justice system and lack
of representation therein. Many African Americans are profiled based on
race. Skin color has been a major
issue in recent police shootings and other profiling related cases.
African American arrests resulting from profiling cases are usually drug
related. Black and White drug arrests
are comparable; nonetheless, Blacks are more often jailed than their
White counterparts for the same offense.
Massive changes have taken place since 1868, when citizenship brought
hope of a better day and better treatment. This hope was fueled by the
prospect of perhaps being able to vote now that citizenship had been
bestowed on "ex-slaves."
IV. THE 15TH AMENDMENT'S PROMISES AND FAILURES
"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be
denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of
race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
Congress has the "power to enforce this article by appropriate
legislation." There is a basic
connection among work, education, and citizenship [which] suggests that
the screening process for employment and education has become the
modern-day equivalent of eighteenth and nineteenth-century screening
processes for voting. In the colonial period and the first decades of
independence, the franchise was generally restricted by race and gender
to landed white males .... In the last nineteenth century, voting was
also conditioned on the capacity to pay and the ability
to read. Voting was not as easy as the
"new citizen" thought it would be. For many years voter
qualifications were tied to their ability to pay a poll tax,
which was based on one's ability to find employment - a most difficult
task for the ex-slave. African Americans struggled to pay because they
realized, and believed, that voting was worth it.
In order to obtain finances to pay poll taxes, Blacks would often try
to separate themselves from White society. Nonetheless, they were often
met with serious racial violence. In 1921, one of the worst cases of
racial violence was manifested when approximately 10,000 Whites invaded
a prosperous Black neighborhood and killed 40 Blacks and destroyed 35
blocks of business and family homes.
Unfortunately, Blacks were reminded that in spite of amassing financial
wherewithal that would allow them to participation in the system, Whites
could easily amass a myriad of roadblocks.
Finally, it was concluded that wealth was not germane to people's
abilities to participate intelligently in the election process;
thus, wealth-based credentials, especially ones with extreme race
consequences, should not forge access to work and education
but which they often do in American society.
Blacks continued to struggle for their civil liberties. By 1963,
"the movement for racial equality was in full flower."
African Americans' zeal and
contributions to getting others to vote came under direct attack.
Voter-fraud investigations were initiated against Black voter advocates
in increased numbers. For instance,
after African Americans began to win a number of offices in the Black
Belt counties, local Whites complained of voter fraud and the federal
government subsequently initiated a voter-fraud investigation against
two local voting-rights activists. The
two were convicted but the case was later overruled with the assistance
of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. In
1985, the federal government also launched an investigation against
Albert Turner, his wife, Evelyn, and Spencer Houge Jr., or the "The
Marion Three," all of whom were civil rights activists. The
Government accused them of fraud in the absentee ballots and forgery of
signatures. This suit ended in an acquittal for all three.
Similar cases have also been pursued in Alabama,
and many Blacks believe that the cases have had a profound impact on the
Black vote in Alabama, which has caused a major reduction in voter
turnout, and which benefits White
Perhaps even more egregious and appalling was when Republican North
Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, trailing a black opponent in 1990, mailed
out postcards to 125,000 black voters implicitly threatening them with
jail if they went to the polls. Helms's campaign settled a complaint
with the Justice Department in 1992, but not before he had won another
term. Many activists believe that
the U.S. government should put a stop to abusive prosecution in the
voter area. They argue, "the rights that blacks have fought hard
for may be in fundamental danger."
The U.S. government must protect the African American vote.
"Voter-fraud investigations and other attempts to intimidate black
voters [is] a stunning reversal of the goals of voting rights, aided by
a willing Justice Department."
Unfortunately, racial conflict, as a result of legal inroads and civil
rights activity, continues to have a great impact in the South.
Getting the vote was nice, but attitudinal vestiges continue not only in
the ballot box but also in the White South's proud use of questionable
symbols that remind Blacks, especially southern Blacks, of the old south
- such as the display of the Confederate flag.
Major discrimination in all areas continues to persist. The laws that
were passed to protect African Americans were not vigorously enforced in
the early years, and many people continue to circumvent these laws
because punishment is often inconsequential.
To date, "civil rights laws, even more than others, are radically
flouted and underenforced."
Unfortunately, even after the passage of the Amendments, African
Americans were deprived of life, liberty, education, and family ties,
and vestiges of these deprivations are still pervasive. As a result of
such demoralizing denials, a few Blacks tried to establish themselves in
American society by adopting the
"whiteness as property" ideal. The so-called Black elite
adopted the "white nice features" - i.e., sharp features -
thin noses, thin lips, sharp jaws, and hazel, green, or blue eyes as
standards for entry to Black "membership-by-invitation-only"
social clubs. These Black elites only
accepted "those who passed the 'brown paper bag and ruler test' -
skin no darker than a paper bag, hair as straight as a ruler."
In other words, like "whiteness," Black elite success was
"a color thing and a class thing. And for generations of black
people, color and class have been inexorably tied together"
because the elite African Americans, like the White American majority,
began to see what color could offer. As a result, America placed value
on color, mostly "white" and
in order to realize benefits, the African American elite bought into the
"white" as property and set up its own system, which mirrored
the White view.
In spite of the progress that a small Black elite may have
accomplished, the masses of Blacks who have not been afforded
opportunities are indicia that the basic principle of equality are still
being denied to African Americans as a people.
Buying into "color," especially "white," was
vividly displayed by Sally Hemings' heirs and other Blacks who
unquestionably accepted the Sally Hemings-Thomas Jefferson story on its
face, and Whites who unequivocally rejected it until DNA gave the final
answer. Being part White translated
into something tangible in the
White world, and later in the Black elites' world. Who can really say
why the Black side of the family so insisted that the story was true?
The "whiteness as property" concept probably has major bearing
on the why. "Perhaps a more historically responsible way to make a
similar if slight different case is to suggest that advancing technology
has at least allowed us to open a window into the covert and concealed
[and often denied] interracial intimacies that have always been there
but that many white Americans have preferred to deny."
Americans' denial of racial injustice persists for inexplicable
reasons. The recent revelation about Strom Thurmond's Black daughter,
which is similar to the Sally Heming's story, illustrates that Blacks as
well as Whites had to know about the daughter, but for inexplicable
reasons decided not to divulge credible evidence. Essie Mae
Washington-Williams also acknowledged in her statement to the press that
"there are many stories like Sally Hemings' and mine."
Ms. Washington-Williams was born in South Carolina in 1925; her mother
was a maid to the Thurmond family. She
admitted that she wanted to end "all the speculation and
questions," the same types of
questions that were raised in the Hemings story. The truth about the
Senator's daughter and the questions raised were kept secret for more
than seven decades. This revelation
has ignited many dormant feelings for many African Americans. Some remembered
that if a Black man looked at a White woman in those days, the Black man
would have been severely harassed or hanged.
This story brings many of the hard issues to the surface. Americans,
both Black and White, made hard decisions during a very tumultuous time
in American history; some of the decisions were detrimental to the
African American, but not all were. Some Blacks reaped benefits from
their ability to use "whiteness."
The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments did not bestow exactly what the
"new citizen" had envisioned, but at least they were starts.
These Amendments inspired and allowed them to work zealously to correct
past injustices. African Americans are demanding
and uniting to pressure the U.S. Government to give its African American
citizens, who are obviously deeply affected by the vestiges of
post-slavery atrocities, the opportunity to at least air their
grievances and receive an apology, as well as ultimately receive
Reparations that would allow closure and reconciliation. Representative
John Conyers introduced bill H.R. 40 in 1989, which urged Congress to
establish a Commission to study the issues.
One germane argument is that the judges allowed Holocaust victims to
pursue restitution in a U.S. court.
Even though the case was settled prior to litigation,
opportunity was afforded to the litigants to have their day in court.
The Reparations Assessment Group has
launched an aggressive effort, though most lawsuits and legislation
dating back to the mid-1800s have not been successful,
to get American Blacks compensated for more than 244 years of slavery.
Most would agree that the Holocaust victims should have had access to
the legal systems. Nonetheless, the U.S. should evaluate its approach to
its other citizens, the African Americans, and concerns about
Reparations. In recent years, victims of atrocities, many of whom are
not American, have filed more than 100 lawsuits in U.S. courts in an
attempt to obtain accountability for offenses against human dignity and
rights. These suits are indicia that
the world has started to recognize such atrocities as legitimate legal
issues and also that victims should have recourse, yet some U.S. judges
have refused to adopt this position. For example, the United Nations
World Conference Against Racism recently "declared slavery a crime
against humanity." The U.S. needs
to embrace this position as well.
No nation can enslave a race of people for hundreds of years, set
them free bedraggled and penniless, put them, without assistance in a
hostile environment, against privileged victimizers, and then reasonably
expect the gap between the heirs of the two groups to narrow. Lines,
begun parallel and left alone, can never touch.
Reparations suits are being filed in U.S. courts, but the Supreme
Court has not allowed them to proceed to trial.
Reparations supporters are not looking to place a check in the hands
of every African American, but
they "envision reparations being used to fund education, improve
health care, create cultural facilities and buy and expand businesses in
the [B]lack community. At the very least they hope the government will
issue a formal apology for the institution of slavery."
Black organizations have been created to assist African Americans in
realizing their dream to enjoy their rights as freed citizens, including
the right to vote, the right to obtain justice, and ultimately, the
right to achieve equality of opportunity.
"Slavery's aftermath ... deserve[s] to be met with the same sense
of public penance that the nation eventually applied to its wartime
failures in having imprisoned Japanese-Americans and in ignoring
evidence of the Holocaust in Germany."
Unfortunately, "white" skin continues to open doors in the
U.S. for Whites because dominance has been conferred on them.
Whites continue to enjoy unearned skin privileges because
1. [They] can take a job with an affirmative action employer without
having coworkers on the job suspect that [they] got it because of race.
2. [They] can choose public accommodation without fearing that people
of [their] race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places [they]
3. Whether [they] issue checks, credit cards, or cash, [they] can
count on [it that their] skin color will not work against the appearance
of financial reliability.
Obliviousness about White advantage and Black disadvantage is kept
strongly inculturated in the U.S. in order to maintain the meritocracy
myth. They are constantly being
challenged because they are used as a
pretext for not opening doors of opportunity to African Americans. Like
South Africa, America needs to unite
the country and courageously accept the undeniable truth that cruel acts
were committed against its former slaves, later its ex-slave citizens,
and now the children and grandchildren of these ex-slave citizens.
African Americans, the descendants of ex-slaves, may not have direct
recollection of the specific cruelties, but they have faced severe
limitations as a result of years of de facto practices and de jure laws
that affected their liberties and unfortunately persisted for many, many
"The United States government is a continuous, living body that
must be held accountable for all its previous actions and make amends
for past mistakes." After the
passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the U.S. allowed its
[White] citizens to continue to exploit and destroy a people; as a
result, "it owes them"
because the effects of this exploitation continue. As late as 1995, a UN
report estimated that American Whites would lead the world in well-being
if they were a separate nation,
but African Americans would rank 27th worldwide. It is interesting to
note that the report's measures were based on life expectancy,
educational achievement, and income.
"Full equality still is a distant prospect in the United
States." Nonetheless, some have
decided to assist in the move toward equality. In 2000, Chicago became
the fifth city to endorse national hearings on reparations,
and in 2001, the California Legislative Assembly joined the list making
California the forerunner of all the states.
California's Resolution urges "Congress to apologize to Black
Americans for the "fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and
inhumanity of slavery."'
The reparations cry is definitely gathering momentum. "America
will continue to be haunted by slavery [and its aftermath] until the
government makes amends" and
addresses the issue because "the truth is quite crucial to the
process of reconciliation." This
process would allow the U.S. to "shut the door on that past."
This may be a past that we may not want to remember, but remember we
must. An apology must come. The nation must send a message to its
citizens that will lead to racial harmony. "The debate over slavery
reparations should be viewed as a means toward improving race
relations." We must resist
allowing the public to turn the issue into "a shouting match about
paychecks and forty acres."
"America will continue to be haunted by slavery until the
government makes amends beginning
with a formal apology."
[a1]. Interim Associate Dean and
Associate Professor of Law, Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas