I recently heard an interview with the editor of "Without Sanctuary," a collection of postcards made from photographs taken of lynchings in the United States. He described one postcard of a black woman and her son hanging by their necks from a bridge over a river.
Her husband was suspected of a crime, and when the lynch mob failed to find him at home, they hung his wife and child instead. After they were lynched, the citizens proudly lined up along the length of the bridge to have their pictures taken with the bodies dangling below. The idea of someone sending a postcard like this is shocking enough, but the fact that until 1908 they were mailed in the U.S. mail was even more disturbing.
This led me to read other books on African American history, including one demanding that the U.S. government reimburse African Americans for loss of wealth and apologize for its role in slavery and segregation. The argument lies in the fact that slavery and segregation excluded African Americans from the democratic process, depriving them of equal opportunity, and stole money from the free labor of blacks for the financial benefits of whites. Moreover, the overt role of the U.S. government in the creation and perpetuation of these institutions made this theft possible, and the government should therefore be held directly responsible for the damages.
I bristled at this idea. After all, I was not guilty for what happened 350 years ago. I had never hurt anyone of color. Moreover, I asked, "Why can't blacks improve their conditions like other minorities?" Comparisons like these are often made between African Americans and other minorities who have come to this country and climbed their way out of poverty.
The difference is African Americans came to this country as slaves and had to leave behind their language, culture, families, and legacies. Their family structures were destroyed for hundreds of years. One need only look at the slave-for-sale advertisement that said "mother and two children, 8 and 10 for sale. Can be sold separately" to find the compassion needed to understand this unique national tragedy.
If the reparations were limited to slavery, there would be little relevance, as slavery ended 135 years ago. The problem for African Americans lies in the continuance of their rights being denied under segregation. Segregation simply perpetuated the oppression and exclusion by denying African Americans access to basic assets and tools afforded other citizens. If you couldn't vote, for example, you were unable to get a voice in how tax dollars were spent. Therefore, when it came to improving roads, hospitals, or schools, white districts got all of the expenditures. Due to prejudicial and restrictive lending policies, African Americans were largely excluded from owning their own homes. Lack of home ownership is a big reason for the gap in wealth between blacks and whites. Injustices like these were not corrected in the law until the civil rights acts of the 1950s and '60s.
The payment of reparations is not a new concept for the United States. After the Revolutionary War, we asked for compensation from the British for the slaves that escaped to England. We have worked aggressively to see that victims of Nazi persecution receive compensation for personal and financial losses. We have paid money to Japanese Americans for unjust incarceration. We have tried to find ways to compensate American Indians for the 2 billion acres of land taken from them. Why is it so difficult for the United States to admit its role in this severe and unjust travesty of discrimination and make restitution to African Americans?
In the end, it may be impossible to find a way to compensate African Americans for the cost of their exclusion from our society. The idea is for the U.S. government to acknowledge its past unjust policies and to take steps to redress these injustices.
Bob McLalan is an account manager with the investment banking firm of Robertson Stephens in San Francisco.