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Say It With Dollars

Guest Column
Basil Enwegbara

Let us browse through the debate on slavery reparations with some analytic tools.

Those who did the advertisement [“Ten Reasons Why Reparations For Slavery Is a Bad Idea -- and Racist Too”] said something like: Why reparations to African-Americans? Would they have preferred being Africans as it is today? Hadn’t slavery been the price they paid to become Americans today? Is it not one of them who has now been elected the president of Brown University?

Now let us hope that these must have been the reasons that motivated those who did the ad. But they are wrong to base their arguments on the above-mentioned questions for obvious reasons.

First, apology is a humane attribute. In this case, they could have apologized while at the same time arguing that the past should be seen as the past and those who committed the crime and those who bore the immediate pains were all their ancestors and had gone with their iniquities and their pains. So apology becomes the recognition that something cruel went wrong that could not be condoned in America today.

Second, that Africa was looted both natural-resource-wise and human-resource-wise could justify the present state of Africa with full blame on the West in which America remains the prominent leader. Let us remember that that was why Franklin D. Roosevelt made sure that America had unrestricted access to African resources after World War II, just as the Europeans did before the scramble for and after the effective occupation of Africa in 1885. Therefore, African Americans could base their argument on the simple fact that reparations should be seen as independent of the present state of Africa; after all, the present state of Africa is the outcome of Western greed and sheer unending exploitation of the continent.

The third argument African Americans should have is: has the exploitation and exclusion of African Americans from America ended? What about the present continued and systematic exclusion that still undermines the realization of the potentials in most African Americans -- should that also be the price to pay for coming to America? Have those Europeans that ran to America since the beginning of last century, and particularly those that came after the two World Wars, paid any price for being Americans? In other words, wasn’t it a forceful slavery that brought them to America in the first place? Having an African American as the president of one of the oldest colleges does not change the main structural defects. Can making an African American the president of one college alter the fundamental structures that generate and perpetuate exclusion and racism?

While that change may be a step in the right direction, it is equally important to continue to press for such changes that have historical context -- for a greater good that should no longer be frustrated by the past or by the present. Was it not James Madison, the great architect of the famous Federalist 10, who argued that “the claim of justice must be fulfilled between non-citizens and citizens, no less than between fellow citizens?” And this Madison called “rights of humanity.” It is obvious therefore that the grounds to raise the question of the price to pay or the presidency of Brown University lack strong and noble justifications. In fact, hadn’t these controversies been clarified and settled between John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln over a century ago?

Why can’t we see an apology for the mistakes of our ancestors that have been passed on from one generation to another? Why have generations after Abraham Lincoln failed to put behind them this terrible history? Are we still waiting for Abraham Lincoln to rise from his grave to complete what he strongly pursued? What type of civilization have we built all these centuries, if we still live the past presently? Shouldn’t one peace and justice loving among us, rise above others and say the truth and bring to an end these centuries of agony?

I strongly believe not only that an apology is desirable but also that reparations must follow apology as the only way to recognize the horrible dehumanization that was meted on African Americans by those who forcefully used their labor and sweat to build what we have today as the great America. No doubt that that cannot erase the past, but at least it could prove that justice has been done. So reparation should be part of the process of justice; the cruelty of the past that still horrifies the descendants of Africa. This is an opportunity for President George W. Bush. Let him not miss his destiny with history.

Basil Enwegbara is a graduate student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.