Reparations will pave the way to justice for all
CHICAGO -- In the spring of 1995, I sat in a stuffy classroom studying "Literary History of England, from Beowulf to 1800," while overlooking Southern Illinois University's iconic Pulliam Clock Tower.
I was on the verge of boiling over. Somehow, the lone Hispanic (me) and the lone black person in the tiny class were engaged in a shouting match over reparations for slavery.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., had just introduced a bill for a commission to study reparations proposals for African Americans and, apparently, it was such a hot topic that it made its way into our classroom discussion on "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."
Though I can't remember the student's exact words, they ran along the lines of blacks being owed by the U.S. for the forced labor and suffering of their slave ancestors. I felt targeted, because I had been braver in expressing my opinion than the handful of my white peers nervously sitting out the whole conversation.
"Why are you looking at me?" I shot back at my classmate. "My parents came to this country in 1973, long after slavery ended. They don't owe anyone anything!"
Thank goodness I'm no longer as young and ignorant as I was in 1995.
I think it's appropriate that the issue of reparations has now come back into the national debate. Several of the 2020 presidential candidates have embraced the idea of using federal funds to acknowledge and compensate those affected by the ongoing legacy of slavery, including discrimination and white supremacy.
Yes, in case you hadn't realized it from the bounty of research on the black-white gap in educational attainment, gainful employment, homeownership, health outcomes and a dozen other data points -- this legacy lives on.
Randall Robinson, author of the book "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," argues that acknowledgment of the nation's debt to African Americans for slavery, subsequent segregation and continued exploitation would help heal our country's racial divide. "It's foolish to argue that the past has nothing to do with the present," Robinson was quoted as saying in 2001 in the Congressional Quarterly. "There's a reason why so many African Americans are poor: It's because a terrible wrong occurred in our history that produced a lasting inequality."
The question of whether reparations would actually help African Americans improve their social and economic status is hotly debated, but the question that really fires people up is who should have to pay.