For Reparations: What Opponents Get Wrong

Among many Americans, the founding of the republic and the drafting of the Constitution are as vivid and relevant as if they happened yesterday.

When it comes to the Second Amendment, for example, they have no doubt what it means now: exactly what it did then. For the Constitution, the passage of 230 years changes nothing.

Slavery is a different matter — so long ago, so far away, involving people we never knew practicing ancient customs. Thomas Jefferson speaks to us, but Sally Hemings is as silent as the grave.

At a recent House committee hearing on reparations for slavery, former NFL player Burgess Owens, who is African American, testified, “What strangers did to other strangers 200 years ago has nothing to do with us because that has nothing to do with our DNA.” Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., who is white, decried “the injustice of monetary reparations from current taxpayers for the sins of a small subset of Americans from many generations ago.”

Actually, what strangers did to strangers 200 years ago does have something to do with our DNA, literally as well as figuratively. Many black people have white ancestry from slave owners who impregnated slaves. Some whites have African lineage.

What strangers did to strangers 200 years ago also describes the American Revolution, which we celebrate every July 4. Not all our forebears fought the British. Some opposed independence; others stayed out of the fight. “A small subset of Americans from many generations ago” did the crucial work, but all of us lay claim to what they created.

Well, not all of it. The nation would not have come into being except for their willingness to preserve African American bondage. If the Bill of Rights and republican institutions are our birthright, we can’t escape ownership of the evils enshrined in the nation’s charter.

Many, if not most, white Americans would like to think this history has no connection to them. Many of their ancestors owned no slaves, including many who arrived on these shores after the Civil War. To say they had no advantage from being white, though, is as implausible as to say that African Americans suffered no impediment from being black.

Those who denounce the very concept of reparations err in focusing solely on slavery, ignoring the multitude of atrocities and abuses visited on black Americans since it was abolished. Illinois was not a slave state. But African Americans endured bigotry and violence here even after emancipation.

When the Great Migration brought them to Chicago, they were not received warmly. One who dared to swim at a Lake Michigan beach claimed by whites drowned after whites hit him with rocks. In the ensuing riots, 23 African Americans were killed, and 1,000 were burned out of their homes.

African Americans who tried to move into white neighborhoods got similar treatment. Threats, vandalism, rocks thrown through windows and even arson were standard responses, which police often overlooked or indulged.

“Chicago is perhaps the outstanding example of a place where racial crimes occurred around housing conflicts over an extended period of time,” wrote legal scholars Leonard Rubinowitz and Imani Perry. “These crimes became the norm in Chicago the way other forms of racial violence, such as lynchings and church bombings, became commonplace in the South.” Note the term: crimes.

When Martin Luther King Jr. led a march for desegregation through one white enclave, he was barraged by rocks and bottles, and one gashed his the head. “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago,” he marveled.

Hundreds of areas had deed restrictions barring nonwhite residents, and the city government rejected the idea of racially integrating public housing. When two black students moved into an apartment in Mayor Richard J. Daley’s neighborhood in 1964, angry whites congregates outside, and police intervened – to evict the tenants. In 1959, a federal report said Chicago was the most racially segregated city in America.

Some of the people injured in that era are still alive, and the broad effects didn’t end when the violence subsided. Nor did the advantages enjoyed by whites because of the obstacles impeding African Americans vanish overnight — or ever.

There are plenty of complicated issues involved in redressing such wrongs and identifying who deserves compensation. But to dismiss these wrongs as irrelevant to our current reality is an act of willful ignorance and blind injustice.

Overcoming the sins of the past is hard. Facing the truth shouldn’t be.

Steve Chapman
Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. His twice-a-week column on national and international affairs, distributed by Creators Syndicate, appears in some 50 papers across the country.