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Jewish World Review Feb. 17, 2000 /11 Adar I, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Pay the gripers? -- SHOULD AMERICA PAY REPARATIONS to the descendants of African slaves forcibly brought here 300 or more years ago? It's a question that has been raised many times since the 13th Amendment abolished slavery some 130 years ago, and has most recently gained attention because of a book written by Randall Robinson, "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks."

Robinson, the president of TransAfrica, is not a man to be dismissed lightly. Perhaps more than anyone outside South Africa, he is responsible for ending apartheid in that nation through his unrelenting effort to promote economic sanctions against the government there. But is he right now to argue that America should pay today for sins committed more than 100 years ago? And how do we decide when to compensate victims of a terrible wrong perpetrated by the government itself?

The idea of giving money to individuals who have suffered some grave wrong is well-rooted in the American legal system. It is, after all, the basis of our civil-tort law. Our system even provides for compensation to the direct descendants and heirs of actual victims, for example, the spouse or children of someone killed in an airplane crash involving some negligence on the part of the manufacturer or airline.

Moreover, the United States government has paid reparations before, $20,000 each to some 82,000 Japanese Americans forcibly removed from their homes during World War II, and sent to internment camps in several states. So, why not do the same thing now for blacks, as Robinson and others argue? There is no question that what was done to blacks was incomparably worse than anything suffered by Japanese Americans or anyone else in America for that matter.

The problem is time. It is simply impossible to right an injustice committed in the distant past, and any attempt to do so can create as many difficulties as it alleviates. It was possible to repay Japanese Americans for the property they lost and the time they spent in the camps, because we knew who they were and could document their actual losses. But it is nearly impossible to know generations later what a particular loss or gain to an individual might mean for his descendants.

Of course, that does not stop someone whose ancestors were mistreated from feeling resentment -- and wanting some satisfaction for the wrongs done. And this seems to be at the root of what Robinson hopes to achieve, a kind of national catharsis over slavery. "If you're ever to get past this, it must be gotten out and dealt with. Whatever awful thing was done to you must be drawn out and exorcised," he writes.

But his prescription for how blacks should deal with the pain of the enslavement of their forebears is a recipe for racial hatred, not healing. "You are owed," he tells blacks. "You were caused to endure terrible things. The fault is not yours. There is nothing wrong with you. They did this to you." Does Robinson really believe that any amount of money -- or government social programs, which is what he hopes will emerge from this dialogue -- can compensate for the resentments toward all whites that such talk engenders among blacks?

Americans are often accused of having short memories, and indeed, we do, perhaps because we are such a young nation. But memory can be a bad thing as well as a good one, especially if the memories we choose to forget are a litany of injustices, slights and wrongs done to our ancestors. Such memories are the cause of wars, feuds and racial animosity. Just look at those places where such memories are constantly reinforced and renewed: Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Rwanda, the Middle East.

No, the time for reparations for slavery has long since passed. The nation might well have been a better place if, immediately after the Civil War, every former slave had been given 40 acres and a mule, as the government promised. But the best we can hope for now is that we recommit ourselves to the simple goal of treating all men as equals, and affording every American equal opportunity to achieve what he or she can.

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