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Jewish World Review Feb. 9, 2001 / 16 Shevat, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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The debt for slavery -- and for freedom -- THE DEMAND for slavery reparations got a good airing last weekend at a National Reparations Convention held in Chicago. A formal plan for compensating the descendants of American slaves has yet to be drafted, the Chicago Tribune reported, but among the proposals discussed were "grants to individuals and black economic development groups, tax exemptions for individuals of black-owned businesses, allocation of business licenses for blacks, and the redistribution of municipal, state, and federally controlled property." How much this would cost is anyone's guess. Reparations advocates usually start the bidding at about $1.5 trillion.

The justification offered for reparations is that an unpaid debt is still due for the 250 years that Africans were held in bondage in America and for the decades of white supremacy that followed. "When a party unlawfully enriches himself by wrongful acts against another, the wronged party is entitled to be paid back," writes Randall Robinson, author of "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks."

But the idea that blacks are entitled to special benefits in the present to make up for injustice and mistreatment in the past is hardly new. Over the last 30 years, racial preferences of all kinds have become commonplace. From law school admissions to government contracts, from police promotions to teacher layoffs, the practice of "reverse discrimination" has grown so routine that many Americans take it for granted.

To redress the old racial double standard that stacked the deck against black Americans, a new double standard stacks the deck in their favor. Entrance requirements are lowered for black students applying to college. Lucrative contracts are set aside for black entrepreneurs seeking government business. Eligibility standards are eased so that minority hiring quotas -- sometimes explicit, sometimes not -- can be filled. Legislative districts are gerrymandered to ensure the election of black candidates. All this is defended as a matter of racial justice, a way of rectifying the gross unfairness of generations gone by.

These racial preferences and double standards haven't been termed "reparations" -- we call them affirmative action -- but that is what they amount to. Affirmative action's critics and defenders have debated its merits and how long it should last. But they have agreed on this much: It isn't trivial. Yet now the reparations camp claims that 30 years of racial spoils haven't even scratched the surface.

"Affirmative action ... will never come anywhere near to balancing the books here," Robinson says. "I choose not to spend my limited gifts and energy and time fighting only for the penny due when a fortune is owed."

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 color. Even the biggest debt only has to be paid once.

Which brings us to the most compelling argument against reparations: No debt is owing.

At its core, the reparations movement is racist; it treats all blacks as victims and all whites as villains. But all whites are not villains. From the day Africans arrived in America, there were whites who pleaded their cause and fought for their rights. Many paid dearly for their commitment to black freedom. Elijah Lovejoy, the fiery abolitionist editor, was murdered by a pro-slavery mob. William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, was jailed. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was beaten so severely it took him three years to recover.

Americans -- white Americans -- ultimately paid a horrific price to end slavery. The Civil War killed more than 600,000 men -- the death tolls of World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam combined. The Union Army suffered staggering losses: 360,000 dead, 275,000 wounded. The social and economic impacts were catastrophic; the scars of the war lingered for decades. If slavery's awful debt has never been repaid, neither has the debt for freedom.

It should be as plain to us as it was to Abraham Lincoln that the two debts cancel each other out.

"Fondly do we hope," he said at his second inauguration, "fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said: 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

We are one people -- descendant of slave, slaveowner, and liberator alike. We can accomplish nothing by confronting each other with demands for payment. Slavery was hideous. So was the war to end it. Can we not leave it at that, and strive instead to treat each other, as Lincoln urged, with malice toward none, with charity for all?

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment on this column by clicking here.

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