Coverage of the Oct. 5-9 slavery conference sponsored by NYU's Institute for African-American Affairs.
Coverage by undergraduate journalism students



Slavery may have ended, but leaders of the African-American community insist its effects are still being felt. Is money the answer?

By Jeff Lieberson

In 1988, the United States Congress atoned for admitted wrongdoing by apologizing and paying reparations to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. More recently, the U.S. government has pushed Switzerland's banks to compensate Holocaust victims for withholding their war-time bank accounts. What about reparations for African-Americans scarred by slavery's brutal legacy?

The Road to Forgiveness:
A Look Back

Throughout the 20th century, apologies and reparations have been offered to numerous individuals and groups for human-rights violations:

The Tuskegee Experiment: For four decades, beginning in 1932, the U.S. government tested the effects of syphilis on black men. The government never obtained consent from the men for their participation in the study and made no attempts to treat them for the disease. In 1974, in an out-of-court settlement, the government agreed to pay $10 million in damages to the men and their families.

Japanese Internment: During World War II, Japanese Americans were evacuated from their homes and forced into internment camps. They were deprived of their property and their freedom in the name of national security. In 1988, President George Bush issued an apology on behalf of the U.S. government. Reparations of $20,000 were offered to each person who had suffered as a result of the injustice.

The Holocaust: In the years following the Holocaust, apologies have come from every direction: the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Vatican, as well as the German government (which made roughly $60 billion in reparations) have issued formal statements to the survivors of Jews and other death-camp victims.

African-American leaders have begun to call for reparations to the descendants of slaves for the inhumanities their ancestors endured as well as for the enormous contributions of African-Americans to American culture in general.

President Clinton's 12-day trip to Africa in the early spring of 1998 generated debate over whether he would issue a formal apology on behalf of the United States for the slave trade and slavery in general. Clinton opted instead to express his regret less formally.

S.E. Anderson proposes a plan for slavery reparations.

S.E. Anderson, an activist and author of The Black Holocaust for Beginners, said he thought a formal apology was far less important to the African-American community than actual reparations.

Anderson, among a host of speakers at New York University's "Slave Routes: The Long Memory," symposium, thinks that even though those who endured the slave experience are long gone, their descendants are entitled to reparations. Segregation, unemployment, poorer health and other disadvantages that African-Americans face, he said, result from "the continuing abuse of power by white supremacists and institutionalized racism that evolved out of the legacy of slavery."

"It is through constant organized struggle and resistance against what seemed to be impossible odds that our ancestors freed themselves from slavery," Anderson said Oct. 9 at the last panel of the conference, "The Ethical, Philosophical, and Legal Basis of Slavery, A Crime Against Humanity."

"That same consistent organized struggle and resistance spirit of our ancestors taken to a higher and more sophisticated level will ensure us that black reparations will be realized for our children," he said. More than 250 people, mostly of African-American descent, attended the session at the stadium-seated auditorium of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City's Harlem. For more than two hours, seven panelists and a moderator discussed the next steps in bringing the demand for reparations before the United States and other countries, as well as the United Nations, the World Court and multinational corporations who used black slaves.

In a post-panel interview, Anderson said that Clinton had side-stepped issuing a formal apology because it would have meant "he'd have to deal with the question of reparations." The apology itself, he said, was "not that important."

How much is due? African-American leaders have tossed around sums in excess of $100 trillion, as the amount needed for just compensation of slavery and its aftermath. The panel's moderator, Elombe Brath, said such a payment is necessary "to deal with what slavery has done to not only wrecking the economy and efficiency of Africa, but also Africans throughout the world to repair damage that has been done."

"The Ethical, Philosophical, and Legal Basis of Slavery, A Crime Against Humanity"
Moderator: Elombe Brath
Panelists: Ronald Walters; S.E. Anderson; John Thornton; Kathleen Cleaver; Oruno Lara; Amadou Mahtar M'Bow

One of the panelists, Ronald Walters put it this way: "I think it's relatively obvious to much of those who look at the tremendous wealth of this country at the end of the 20th century that it did not happen by accident. That it happened on the backs of the people in this room and all of our ancestors. And that wealth is really the heart of the reparations project." Walters directs the African-American Institute at the University of Maryland.

Several panelists emphasized how little notice the reparations movement has garnered, and hoped the conference would bring it attention. "It has to be as popular as people going and buying Nike sneakers," Anderson said. "Everywhere there are black people, there are Nike sneakers. So anywhere there are Nike sneakers and black folks, there should be demands for reparations."

Panelists essentially ignored the role of Africa during the slave trade, which some African leaders have acknowledged. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, for example, recognized this other aspect of the slave trade during Clinton's trip to Africa, saying, "African chiefs were the ones waging war on each other and capturing their own people and selling them. If anyone should apologize it should be the African chiefs."

Response to the idea of reparations isn't always positive. A 1997 article in the Washington Post quoted a Queens College political scientist, Andrew Hacker, saying there are those who would have problems with even as much as an apology.

"Many white people don't want to hear any more about obligations that have not been fulfilled," Hacker told the Post. "People say, 'We have done everything we have to do. We had affirmative action. We supported civil rights. Don't call us anymore.' I sense a lot of that feeling out there."

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Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
NYU's Institute for African-American Affairs
More about S.E. Anderson