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"Why We Owe Them" by Carol Chedahe

"Stop living in the past and move on after slavery!" This is what we often tell African Americans. Well we certainly forced them to move on. We moved on to Black Codes, Jim Crow, lynching, de facto segregation. We moved on to White knights hiding behind ghosts of themselves while religiously lighting crosses in praise of a Satan they were fooled into thinking was God. We moved on to the cities of Tulsa, St. Louis, and Rosewood where we, apparently, were unaffected by the burned and seared flesh of Black people. We moved on to laws that upheld racial oppression over and over again. We moved on to the many Black men placed on death row because they fit the description. We moved on and made sure that Emmitt Till would not be the last fourteen-year-old Black child whose unrecognizable corpse was the price paid for supposedly whistling at a White woman. We moved on to exclude African Americans from rights of democracy by blocking avenues to employment, education, housing, and civil rights. In the final decade of the last century the slow, consistent racial apocalypse started showing signs of even more things to come when a Black man's head was seen rolling behind a pick up truck in Jasper, Texas. By the time we racially profiled our way from Texas to New York we find a city plagued with plungers and forty-one bullets. Every time Black people have tried leaving the shackles of slavery behind, we find that we were the ones that couldn't stop living in the past.

How dare our own racial arrogance say that reparations are too much of an apology for the Black lives we've tormented. How dare we simultaneously declare that the statue of limitations has expired for African Americans yet is limitless for other people in the world whom are non-Black. Half of the nations in this world are in the midst of fighting long and hard battles to get justice for things that happened in the past. Some of these battles have roots that go back further than the birth of the United States. African Americans' quest for justice is looked down upon in comparison to ethnic groups like Jews and Palestinians. Black people would be ridiculed as unrealistic and outlandish if they were to ask for a piece of land like the Jews and Palestinians have done and are doing. Unlike the Jews and Palestinians, at least African Americans are asking rather than forcing us through the barrel of a gun to take responsibility.

The international stage has taken issues of reparations much more seriously than we have. The Jews received statehood as a form of reparations for their brothers and sisters who were exterminated. Coincidentally, many Jews who immigrated to Israel and benefited from reparations were not even close to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau. Although millions of those whom the reparations were intended for died, that didn't mean that their death equaled an expired statue of limitations for their descendents who were left to deal with the psychological consequences and the nagging fear of what it means to be hunted down and collectively violated because of ethnicity. Jews even went on to win further reparations through lawsuits against corporations such as banks. Again, these demands for justice were instigated by a generation of Jews whom had never even lived in Germany, let alone been there during the Holocaust. The Jewish experience serves as a prime example as to why reparations for African Americans are not unrealistic and outlandish.

Another example is in Asia. There, the Japanese didn't wait until all of the Chinese, Korean, and Filipino survivors, who they enslaved during World War II, to die before settlements toward reparations were received. They knew, at least at an rudimentary level, that to deny a group justice over a given period of time, only to inform them that when justice finally has a forum to be heard that, unfortunately, their statue of limitations has expired is beyond cruel.

Opponents of reparations make a very strong case when they point out the fact that only survivors of atrocities have received monetary reparations in the United States, such as survivors of the Japanese American internment camps and the participants of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Since slavery happened generations ago, there are no survivors left. Thus concluding that since there are no survivors, then the statue of limitations has expired. Essentially, in order to have a statue of limitations applied, a crime has to first be recognized. It was impossible for most people to recognize slavery as a crime back when it was practiced because the Constitution steadfastly protected its very existence. In fact, every racist practice from the Black Codes on was simply not recognized as crimes at the time when they were being overtly practiced. As a result of having an entire society interpret slaves' tears as Sambo's smile, slaves and their offspring were kept busy fighting to be recognized as human beings that they hardly had time to even think about the dignity reparations affords because our system rendered them without dignity in the first place. In essence, there was not a time in history where reparations could be heard because atrocities against African Americans were not considered crimes.

When reparations could have still made the deadline on this ridiculous statue of limitations, it was immediately shot down, as with what happened to politician Thaddeus Stevens when he passionately plead on behalf of the Slave Reparation Bill of 1867. Whites have always had power in this country. If reparations were important, they could have been obtained. It is ludicrous to allow the same race who imposed the original limitations on Blacks to be allowed to enforce the time frame as to when Blacks can challenge past and present limitations. Ultimately, this racist inspired statue of limitations ran out because Whites made very sure that Blacks were limited in their capacity to obtain justice. By the time reparations for the survivors of the Japanese American internment camps and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study was given, grievances even hinting of the institutionalized support of national crimes against racial groups were just beginning to be acknowledged. Therefore, the Black experience in the Unites States is without precedent. Only Native Americans rank next to them in terms of the genocide that occurred.

In a land littered with children of immigrants, African Americans are children of slaves. Therefore, the application of laws and rights ran in different directions for children of slaves versus those of immigrants. Whereas immigrants were able to build a foundation where wealth had the opportunity to flourish, children of slaves are still fighting to get half the respect that immigrants have received in a shorter time. Therefore, since African Americans have been systematically robbed and raped in various degrees of brutality by various White and non-Black ethnic groups, then reparations aren't only to be paid by Whites whose ancestors owned slaves, but it is also to be paid by non-Black people of color who are not of European descent as well. This includes my ethnic group of Arab Americans. Like the majority of Whites who didn't have a knotted family tree of slave owners, most immigrants of color also do not have a history in the United States of owning African Americans. But as non-European immigrants of color, we have made sure to help European Whites to tighten the rope's noose around Black necks. Essentially, a bystander who witnesses a crime and says and does nothing is as guilty as the criminal wielding the sword. We, as immigrants of color, rarely align ourselves with Blackness simply because we are too busy trying to move up the racial hierarchy in order to get closer to the ideal of Whiteness. Therefore, the mere act of supporting the racial hierarchy through selling our color out to the highest bidder makes us accessories to the crime against African Americans.

Isn't it un-American to pay for other people's sins? Crimes against individuals versus crimes against a specific race require very different forms of punishment. For instance, if my brother raped and murdered a woman, then certainly it would be considered unjust to imprison me for his crime. Most would agree that punishment for my brother would either be to simply place him in prison or execute him. It's an easy decision to make because one, the evidence is obvious and two, the accused is alive. In contrast, the punishment for slavery is very complex. We can't place dead place people in prison for the rape and murder of an entire race. Although slavery was paradoxically both violently gory and methodically sterile, its aftermath needs to be paid through the same institutions that legally protected it.

Reparations are not about retribution against individuals who committed a crime against other individuals. Rather, it is interested in seeking justice for crimes committed against a singled out race. Slavery and its consequences were a crime against humanity. The institution of slavery had nothing to do with the American belief in individuality. In fact slavery's collectivizing nature was a crime to our democracy's support of individuality.

In the current political climate of terrorism, we have a nation seeking punishment against groups who vandalized our soil with glimpses of Hell's fire, yet we set a bad example of justice when we can't even apologize to the generations of African American lives who were oppressed by the suffocating fumes of White superiority.

Although slavery ended with the Thirteenth Amendment, the consequences are around us today. The fact that reparations is an issue that creates deep, divided racial lines is proof as to how many unresolved issues are left since 1865. Our racist beliefs have simply metastasized with the time by further permitting us to adjust the depth of our perceived divine rights to believe that Black pain is not real enough for reparations. Let us hope that it won't take the same humbling experiences that Black people have continually faced for us to finally understand the necessity for reparations.

Carol Chehade is an activist and writer with a new book titled, Big Little White Lies: Our Attempt to White-Out America. She can be contacted at:

Carol Chehade

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

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