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US Black activists demand compensation for slavery

THE call for reparations for descendants of African slaves grew a little louder last week, when 80 activists met in Chicago to plot a strategy for getting compensation for slavery.

So, too, did the opposition.

While the meeting's attendees left open the form that reparations should take, they left no doubt that they want some kind of payment for the centuries of free labor African slaves were forced to render.

But as they were wrapping up their meeting, a columnist from the Boston Globe lobbed some very verbal grapeshot at their call for reparations. "Reparations for slavery is a dreadful idea," Jeff Jacoby wrote.

Why? Because those African-Americans who would get reparations are several generations removed from the millions of poor black souls who were treated as chattel by thousands of white slave owners who are long since dead, he argued. His words echo those of other opponents who charge that it would be unfair to make those who had nothing to do with slavery pay reparations to people who didn't suffer the indignations of that peculiar institution.

Even if this nation were inclined to make amends for what happened to the millions of people stolen from Africa and herded to this "land of the free," they argue, the call for reparations from African-Americans today comes largely from people whose bloodline, and claim to such payments, has been diluted by race mixing.

'Black Codes' enacted

But these arguments don't wash. While slavery in this country began in 1619 and officially ended in 1865 with the adoption of the 13th Amendment, its oppressive ripple effects stretched well into the 20th century. Southern states enacted "Black Codes," laws designed to keep blacks bound to their former masters. After the Black Codes were struck down, the "Jim Crow" laws that followed relegated black folks to second-class citizenship for nearly a century.

You cannot measure the devastating impact of slavery without taking into account the damage done to African-Americans by its awful progeny. This unbroken chain of legal discrimination (which didn't end till the 1960s, when a series of laws passed by Congress outlawed most forms of de jure racial bias) has touched the lives of most of this nation's current generation of African-Americans.

Few people doubt the harm slavery did, but opponents of reparations question whether any of the guilty parties are still around.

Well, how about the federal government? From the U.S. Constitution's "three-fifth's clause," to the Fugitive Slave and the Kansas-Nebraska acts, the federal government played the central role in maintaining, policing and expanding slavery. It gave legal standing to slavery and later turned a blind eye to the laws that Southern states enacted to maintain African-Americans in a state of neoslavery.

Slavery spawned wealth

In protecting slavery, arguably this country's greatest generator of wealth during the first half of the 19th century, the federal government made it possible for many families and companies to reap substantial financial benefits from the misery heaped on slaves and the generations of dispossessed African-Americans that the Jim Crow period produced.

Some newspapers that are still around today profited from ads they once ran on the buying and selling of slaves or the apprehension of runaway slaves. More than a few people whose family's wealth is rooted in the antebellum economy and benefited from the enslavement of millions of Africans are well off today because of this connection. It's likely that some of this ill-gotten gain has been used to capitalize businesses or endow universities. Some insurance companies, such as Aetna, that insured slaveholders against the loss of their human property benefited from slavery.

They all owe much to the descendants of slaves. This debt should be paid in some fashion to all African-Americans regardless of the mix of their bloodlines. Miscegenation was a spoil of slavery. White slave owners routinely had their way with black women. The linear successors of these offspring are the most obvious proof of the cruelty inflicted upon slave families.

It's doubtful that this nation will ever fully pay the huge debt it owes to African-Americans. But there can be little doubt that the debt exists.

*DeWayne Wickham writes weekly for USA Today

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