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E-Letter To The Boston Globe And Jeff Jacoby Re: The Hefty Bill For Slavery - And Freedom

We think your recent column, "The Hefty Bill For Slavery - And Freedom" is a welcome addition to the evolving public discourse on reparations. And we think that you make a very good point in pointing out that affirmative action programs are a form of reparations, even though Dr. King indicated that they were the lowest form of such. However, your opinion continues the long trend of commentary on the subject that admits that slavery was horrible or "hideous" but which proposes nothing in order to reverse its effects or which fails to point out, in American history, what has ever been done to successfully reverse its effects.

You speak as if there are no barriers that government can remove that would help to uniquely "repair", in some measure, the condition of Black America. We heartily disagree.

Instead of acting on your own admission you hide behind a convenient and extremely superficial "us against them" argument that gives the impression that Randall Robinson and all of Black America are lining up in order to take turns rifling their hands through the pocketbook, purses and bank accounts of every White American - man, woman and child - in order to see what cash and change turns up.

Your attitude toward the 30 years of affirmative action programs reveals the attitude in the minds of many Whites, identified by Nation of Islam leader The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, when he once said words to the effect that "Whites act is if we have enslaved them for four hundred years and that they now are getting even with us".

No doubt, some Whites will want a national apology for the oppression of White America that has been caused by affirmative action, over the last three decades.

This attitude and argument are getting a little tired at this point, having become the official stump speech of "angry white males", even among otherwise thoughtful white male conservatives.

Black Americans know better than anybody that a cash payment is not going to restore the heart, mind, soul and health of an entire people. Blacks even realize that justice under the law, if it were applied perfectly tomorrow would not heal all of the wounds that slavery inflicted.

As 1998 Nobel Prize Winner Armatya Sen has written, for all of the financial riches that Blacks in America have obtained they still have a mortality rate that is lower than Blacks in other parts of the world and of people who live in impoverished developing nations.

Surely, a cash payment for reparations isn't going to solve that problem. Nor is it going to address the higher instances of diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer and high blood pressure that Black men and women have in higher proportions than other groups, as a result of the slavery and the sub human diet and lifestyle that came with it.

But what of the fact that slavery was a massive transfer of wealth from Black to White and that this wealth was inherited across generations? And what of the fact that Blacks have been prevented by slavery and government laws from inheriting the intellectual and material wealth of their ancestors.

Surely any reasonable person, White or Black, will admit that this accounts for much of the economic and educational disparity between Black and White today.

Otherwise, how do you account for the vast disparities in poverty, education and illiteracy rates between Black and White?

We argue that if you do not trace these legacies back to slavery and government barriers you are either of the belief that Blacks are genetically inferior or are shiftless and lazy. It is one of these three options: slavery, genetics or poor human character. There are no other options. We certainly see slavery as the dominant factor in explaining the disparities in critical areas although there are certainly more than a few lazy Blacks to be found, as there are in other ethnic groups.

It is interesting to see how laziness or "victimization" is attributed to Blacks who speak of discriminatory barriers propped up by government and which go all the way back to slavery but this counter argument is never applied to those white conservatives who cry of oppressive government regulations and tax burdens and the need for these barriers to be removed.

Why the double standard?

Slavery was causal in many of the disparities that exist between Black and White, particularly in the area of wealth creation and accumulation.

We can almost rest our case on the vast gap that exists between the participation levels of Blacks and Whites in the stock market. We ask that you go deeper than surface arguments and get at the root of Black America's reliance on debt and its disconnection from equity tools.

Today, for the most part, taxes are not on accumulated property but rather on income. So, if Blacks were denied an income as well as the right to accumulate and inherit property for several generations, and only have income that is taxed away, how can they ever accumulate property?

Blacks more than any group of white conservatives or libertarians have been more adversely affected by oppressive American tax burdens; excessive regulations and monetary policy blunders which have led to the confiscation of those earnings; the prevention of retained earnings being transformed into financial assets; and those assets being compounded and inherited.

And this all began with slavery and the laws that formed around it and supported it.

It is so interesting to us that the same White Americans who believe that this entire universe formed from an atom or big bang theory; and who claim to have traced the origin of human life to tiny microbes can't connect the dots between Black poverty, illiteracy and poor health and slavery.

It actually is hard to believe that such arguments that don't connect the dots are sincere.

See, to us this argument isn't about a monetary shakedown as you and so many others have framed the reparations argument. It is about repair, justice and equity and that requires responsibility for slavery and its legacy to be shared by Whites and Blacks.

To the best of your moral standards and knowledge, what policies can government enact that remove barriers to education, economic growth and improved health among Black Americans?

That is the question that should be asked by all, including white conservatives, liberals and libertarians.

But to say that slavery is wrong and stop there; to say that slavery caused harm and then not prescribe actions and policies that remove barriers to good health, education and wealth creation among Blacks is disingenuous at best and outright evil at worst.

You made a very powerful point when you wrote,

"But let's be clear, then: If reparations are going to pay the bill left by slavery and its aftereffects, affirmative action is superfluous. If reparations are on the table, everything else is off: no more preferences, no more race-norming, no more minority set-asides, no more group rights, no more "plus factors," no more counting by race. Even the biggest debt only has to be paid once."

You are correct and most Blacks understand that the American political establishment will only consider reparations if it guarantees an end to affirmative action programs. In this way America is only interested in exchanging a "payment" in the present if it ends all "payments" in the future.

Ultimately, and possibly, in a time of great social unrest a reparations deal may be made between Black leaders and the US government that would in effect, trade affirmative action programs in perpetuity for reparations in the present.

That approach may have merit.

As an example, we think that if Blacks were exempt from payroll, income and capital gains taxes for a generation, 20 to 25 years; received sufficient funding for the education of Black schoolchildren, doctors nurses and Black inmates; and received clean and unused federal land (even conservative commentator Walter Williams is tempted to accept this aspect as reparations), for the purpose of home construction and agribusiness; and the removal of all government barriers to small business development, particularly in distressed inner cities and rural areas, it would make for an impressive program that would result in more repair than have the thirty years of affirmative action programs.

Our goal is increased education, an end to recidivism, improved health and capital formation.

The above list of policies are what government can do to help. And of course, it would take the White American electorate and white politicians to agree that such policies were good or acceptable in order for them to become law.

And Blacks have their own responsibilities to repair the legacy of slavery by ridding themselves of bad habits and destructive behaviors that destroy the Black family and the lives of one another. They have a responsibility to remove the barriers that prevent unity and progress in their own community. This is something that the government and White America have nothing to do with.

And beyond our focus here, there are significant international factors involved.

No reasonable person in the Black community places the responsibility for repair solely on the shoulders of Whites. On the contrary, I often find that it is white intellectuals such as yourself who appropriate that position to all Black people.

So Mr. Jacoby, while you indicate that you believe that slavery is a negative event with a devastating impact, rather than propose a remedy or indicate that one has already been applied to the problem, you deny that a "debt" is owed.

While you certainly have a moral standard and value system by which you live your life and have a body of knowledge, you do not contribute such to the debate, preferring to engage in an exercise of denial and dismissal.

That is unfortunate but we still think that there may be hope for you.

We suggest that you read our editorial "Do We Really Want Class-Action Lawyers Leading The Movement For Reparations?" .

You may be surprised to learn, from behind the comfort of your computer terminal, that there are some Blacks who sincerely want repair from slavery and not a robbery of White America, as you have led your self to believe or imagine.

Who knows, maybe after your reading of our editorial and becoming more familiar with what everyday Black Americans really think about this issue you may wish to actually contribute to the reparations discussion between White and Black America rather than to dwell on its emotional surface.

As we are sure you have noticed, it is easy to write anything on a hot topic like reparations and get plenty of reader response. It is another to contribute thoughtfully and constructively to the resolution of America's racial divide.


Cedric Muhammad

Tuesday, February 13, 2001

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