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View Point

By Andre Wooten

Saturday, November 25, 2000

America must pay
for 400 years of slavery

IN a Nov. 7 editorial, your newspaper showed how predictably short-sighted and self-centered it is by not supporting compensation for the historical victims of slavery in America. The issue requires a more thorough presentation of the facts.

As Charles J. Ogletree of the Reparations Assessment Group put it, "This country has never dealt with slavery. It is America's nightmare. A political solution would be the most sensible but I don't have a lot of faith that's going to happen. So we need to look aggressively at the legal alternative."

Ogletree is a Harvard law professor and among those leading the effort to get American blacks compensated for more than 240 years of legalized slavery.

We all know the dream that Martin Luther King Jr. had for America. He wanted this country to have a black community treated fairly and equitably by a government that had legally discriminated against dark-skinned people from Africa in the past.

Dr. King gave one the greatest speeches in the last century to a live audience of a million people. In the meat of the famous speech, he talked about a promissory note owed to kidnapped Africans forced into 400 years of labor, torture, rape and murder.

This country followed slavery with more than 100 years of legal racial segregation and discrimination of one variety or another. It was only in 1965, after nearly 350 years of racial suppression, that America enacted the Voting Rights Act.

Virtually simultaneously, however, it began to walk away from the social wreckage that centuries of white hegemony had wrought. Our country then began to rub itself with the memory-emptying salve of contemporaneousness.

The rationale goes like this: If the wrong did not just occur, then it did not occur in a way that would render the living responsible.

Unfortunately, just looking at the hard cold facts, it is becoming clear to African Americans that there will never be justice and equity in this country for the black man until Congress passes at least a token financial reparations bill for the descendants of former slaves in America.

No amount of money can repair 400 centuries of damages. But the act of assessing, examining and paying reparations will be a healing process for the United States.

It is a way to honestly deal with the financial debt and get beyond this morass of guilt, economic deprivation and stagnation. The United States must finally pay the bill owed to the descendants of former slaves who were forced to build this country.

MANY people will say, "That's not my responsibility," or "I didn't enslave anyone." But Japanese-American victims who lived four years under internment during World War II have been paid a significant although token amount.

And Germany is now getting ready to pay reparations to Jewish victims for the atrocities of the Holocaust after six decades of evasion.

So there is no reason the United States should not confront its own debt so the nation can move on both spiritually and economically. Undeniably, it would also be a great economic stimulus to the revitalization of families, businesses, neighborhoods, economies and institutions of inner cities.

Bigots need to understand that, in the real world, peace is only possible when the prosperity of all people in all communities is addressed and made a part of the plan.

A blood debt is owed. A blood debt must be repaid.

Andre Wooten is a Honolulu attorney and vice president
of the African American Lawyer's Association.

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