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Payback's A Bitch


Every so often the issue of reparations for slavery comes up in popular discourse, and then it dies away again because there's a crucial problem hindering it: who's going to pay the reparations? You certainly can't just say, "OK. All white people will pay a part." After all, as most white people are quick to point out, they've never owned slaves. Since it's already questionable whether the descendants of slave owners should have to pay reparations, it's even more dubious that the descendants of non-slave owners should have to. Plus, making all white people pay a flat fee or tax or whatever would be unjust -- what about all the socio-economically disadvantaged whites out there? Then, you get to the issue of who is white anyway, since there are few Americans who are "racially pure" in any sense of the phrase these days.

So how about the government paying for the reparations? Well, uh, last time I checked, the government was the people, including whites, blacks and the infamous "others." Although some people have managed to completely extricate the government's existence from their own, you can't really extricate your paycheck. So government-paid reparations aren't going to work.

The latest idea is to sue corporations who may have made money off of slaves, or were founded by former slave owners. This is the most practical idea yet, but it's not exactly perfect either. Little as I like Reaganomics and trickle-down economic theory, I admit that those theories are occasionally relevant. In this case, suing corporations for huge amounts of money would likely hurt or destroy said corporations, which would then put workers out of their jobs. This is what would happen because, as we saw with the Enron disaster, you can bet your ass that the top executives aren't going to sacrifice one dollar of their profits to "save the company" or any crap like that. In our current economic climate, nobody really wants to be jobless. Except the people who prefer to sit around and watch the Cartoon Network, I mean.

So the current venture -- the lawsuits filed against Aetna, an insurance company, FleetBoston, a financial services group and CSX, a railroad company -- on behalf of the descendants of slaves in the United States, aren't actually going to work out, either. The lawsuits accuse the three companies of making profits due to the work of slaves. But at least it does cause people to start arguing about the issue of reparations; these kinds of discussions can ultimately be productive.

Frankly, though, I was angry last week when I heard a local talk show host wonder aloud why anyone would want to take a dollar they hadn't earned from somebody who had earned it. That's a dumb comment because, of course, this is exactly what was done to the slaves. They were forced to work without pay, providing free labor that harvested crops, built buildings and created income for the white slave owners. So it's not so absurd to think that black Americans are owed some money. The problem comes in deciphering who owes it and how to get ahold of it without making matters worse. And by the way, even if the money was attained, there's the issue of distribution. Who would get to be in charge of all that money? The current lawsuit states that any money awarded for damages would go toward improving the housing, education, etc. of blacks, but the issue of who exactly would get to benefit from the money would be complicated.

Not making matters worse is the main point, as I see it. Blacks and whites must get along at this point in history. We live in the same country, we're all Americans and we have to continue to search for common ground. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, there's already plenty of crossover between black and white American cultures. Cultures cannot exist in close proximity to each other for so many years without having some kind of effect on each other. There are certainly independent cultural elements, and there should be, but I don't see why we can't recognize similarities as well.

Despite my basically cynical nature, I honestly believe there are white people who would give every penny in their bank accounts if it would end racial discord. Unfortunately, there is no amount of money that can end racism, just as a single apology for such a terrible thing won't solve anything, either. Which isn't to say that I don't think part of the issue is money. It is -- people who say that corporations or the government should be sued for one dollar and an apology just come off sounding naive. No apology will help, and the root of the problem is economics. After all, slavery was begun for economic reasons, and blacks continued to be exploited after slavery was abolished -- for example, in the practice of tenant farming, which continued to maintain the pattern of oppression. It was very difficult, if not impossible, for freed slaves to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps," so yes, it's an issue of economics.

Although I appreciate the subtleties of the situation, I am not in favor of economic reparations. I realize that, as a white person, it is problematic to make such a statement, but I believe the issue of reparations is more likely to cause further strife and division. Resentment between the races will continue, and even escalate, if the issue of reparations is continually pursued. It may be time to look ahead instead of staring out the back window.

Slavery is a terrible blight on American history. But unfortunately, reparations won't solve the problems created by slavery. The only things capable of that are time and open-mindedness. *

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