Blacks Eye Shoah Model In Slave Reparations Bid:Lawmaker; ‘Give Us a Hand’
With the ink still fresh on a series of multibillion-dollar Holocaust
restitution settlements, demands are mounting among African Americans for
reparations to be paid to the descendants of slaves. While black
reparations advocates have generally avoided comparisons with the Holocaust
settlements, that could be changing.
For the most part, the issue has failed to garner significant support, even
among blacks. In recent months, however, reparations have gained new
momentum and visibility — and a growing association in some minds with the
cause of Holocaust restitution. Looking to the successes of survivors and
their advocates, particularly the role played by class-action lawsuits,
some black activists are preparing to emulate the relatively new and
Reparations also returned to the spotlight thanks to David Horowitz, a
California neo-conservative who recently placed full-page advertisements in
several campus newspapers attacking the notion of slavery reparations,
causing a furor.
The reparations issue, which has percolated quietly since the Civil War,
has slowly gained ground during the past decade thanks to the actions of a
small group of prominent black lawmakers and activists. Most say their
inspiration comes not from the Holocaust but from the successful drive by
Japanese Americans for reparations to the victims of America’s World War II
internment policy. That campaign ended in 1988 with a $1.6 billion
settlement. Shortly thereafter, the cause of slavery reparations was taken
up by one of the black community’s savviest political organizers, Randall
Robinson, whose Trans-Africa organization led the 1980s campaign against
South African apartheid.
No major Jewish organization is known to have taken a position for or
against reparations. Most say the discussion is unnecessary, noting that
black reparations remain a long-shot at best. A recent Time magazine poll
showed 75% of all Americans opposed reparations. Even Bill Clinton, a
president viewed as unusually sympathetic to black community concerns,
openly opposed reparations for slavery. Moreover, Jewish leaders note,
mainstream black organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League have
not voiced support for slavery reparations.
“We are still far from a unanimous position within the black community, so
the Jewish community is able to keep away,” said Rabbi Mark Schneier, head
of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
But because of their recent successes with Holocaust restitution, some say
the time is fast approaching when Jewish organizations may be asked by
African American leaders to endorse their cause and provide expertise.
Moreover, some say, if they answer in the negative, this could revive
tensions between the two communities.
Direct contacts between Jewish and black community leaders over the
reparations issue have been extremely limited, both sides agree. Last year,
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, one of several black lawmakers pressing
for reparations, discussed cooperation during a luncheon in Washington,
D.C., with Rabbi Schneier and the leaders of the World Jewish Congress,
Israel Singer and Elan Steinberg.
“This issue is very important for us,” Rabbi Schneier quoted her as saying.
“The Jewish community championed the cause of reparations, so can you give
us a hand?”
“I think this is an issue around which both communities could coalesce,”
said Rabbi Schneier, who heads a WJC intergroup affairs commission. “Once
they have clarity, we Jews can provide some guidance.”
Mr. Steinberg, however, was dubious. “There is an obvious difference with
the Holocaust reparations, because the latter aimed at compensating
survivors and not far-removed descendants,” he said.
And yet, there are those who say the issue could be forced sooner than
anyone expected by the Horowitz controversy.
“Horowitz could cause some resentment, and I think the Jewish organizations
should distance themselves in the same way they asked us to distance
ourselves from Farrakhan,” said Clarence Wood, chairman of the Chicago
Human Relations Commission, a leading civil rights group.
Mr. Horowitz is a onetime New Leftist who broke with his roots in the late
1970s after publicly accusing the Black Panthers of murdering a friend of
his. Last month he submitted advertisements to some 50 college newspapers,
opposing reparations for slavery. Among the arguments he presented were
some common critiques of slavery reparations: that whites were not the only
slave traders, that whites were not the sole beneficiaries and that most of
today’s white Americans are descended from immigrants who came here after
slavery was abolished in 1865.
The ads also went on to claim that the black community should be grateful
to white Americans for abolishing slavery and showering them with trillions
of dollars in government benefits, including welfare.
Because of the inflammatory nature of those claims, most papers refused the
ads, and the ones that accepted them met a wave of protest from student
activists accusing the papers of publishing racism. Some papers apologized,
and were in turn criticized for caving in to “political correctness.”
Spokesmen for Jewish and black organizations insist nearly unanimously that
Mr. Horowitz’s ethnic background should not be linked to his views on
slavery. “He is just a sideshow and was only made relevant by the media
coverage,” said Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist
who is active in several pro-reparations groups.
It is estimated that some 3.5 million Africans and their descendants were
enslaved in what is now the United States between 1619 and 1865, when
slavery was abolished. In 1867, in the framework of the post-Civil War
Reconstruction, General William Sherman promised that every freed slave
would be given “40 acres and a mule,” but the federal government failed to
follow through. “Forty acres and a mule” has since gained currency as a
slogan in black activist circles, and is the name filmmaker Spike Lee chose
for his production company.
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, has
presented a bill every year since 1989 demanding the creation of a
commission to study the consequences of slavery. It has never won a formal
hearing, reflecting the widespread opposition to slavery reparations in
Several cities, including Washington, Detroit, Atlanta and Chicago, have
recently called for the establishment of such a commission. The Hartford
Courant, a leading Connecticut newspaper, published a front-page apology
late last year for having run ads for the sale of slaves in the past.
Hartford’s Aetna Insurance Co. issued its own apology last year for its
role in insuring slaves. California enacted a law in January requiring
state insurance companies to disclose whether they insured slaves in past
On the international level, several African countries are discussing the
possibility of calling for slavery reparations from Europe and the United
States. The issue will be debated during a U.N.-sponsored conference
scheduled for September in Durban, South Africa.
The most promising development, from advocates’ point of view, could be the
filing of class-action lawsuits by two advocacy groups, TransAfrica and the
National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA).
Last year, TransAfrica asked Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor, to
set up a “dream team” of lawyers to prepare the suits. He founded the
so-called Reparations Assessment Group, which includes Johnnie Cochran,
Alexander Pires Jr., William E. Gary and Denis C. Sweet III, all of them
lawyers who have won $100 million-plus lawsuits in recent years. The legal
strategies and the identities of possible defendants are not yet clear.
“We are now looking at multiple defendants and the suits will be filed in
2001,” said C. K. Hoffler, an assistant to Mr. Gary.
Most observers continue to believe the likelihood of winning compensation
six generations later from slaveholding corporations or families — much
less the federal or state governments, which are normally immune from
lawsuits — is remote at best. Moreover, they note, the issue is still
divisive in the black community and is overwhelmingly rejected by most
But reparations advocates voice confidence. “Of course, not everybody
agrees,” said Mr. Wood, the Chicago civil rights leader. “But I have never
seen the issue so high on the agenda. Besides, not all Japanese Americans
and Jews agreed with the idea of reparations.”
As for white support, added Mr. Walters: “Don’t forget most Americans were
opposed to the civil rights movement. This is just a question of educating
(Tags: Black, Slavery, America, Reparation)