THE DEBT

What America Owes to Blacks

By Randall Robinson

Dutton. 262 pp. $23.95

Reviewed by Frank H. Wu

The title of Randall Robinson's book explains its content. He hopes to persuade a diverse nation that it must make good on the unfulfilled promise of 40 acres and a mule for descendants of black slaves.

"We have been largely overwhelmed by a majority culture," Robinson writes, "that wronged us dramatically, emptied our memories, undermined our self-esteem, implanted us with palatable voices, and stripped us along the way of the sheerest corona of self-definition." Robinson alludes to Lyndon Johnson's familiar metaphor of a shackled runner set free many yards behind after the footrace has started. The remainder of the contest is not fair.

Robinson observes that black slaves who literally built much of our capital city were never paid. The value of their labor went into the pockets of others -- plantation owners, northern entrepreneurs, state treasuries, the U.S. government. The money involved in Robinson's proposal to compensate their progeny for the losses they doubtless suffered could be only symbolic and not an exclusive remedy. The real trouble, as he does not hesitate to call out, has never been adequately confronted and should be addressed anew by each generation: the legacy and continuing manifestations of discrimination against African Americans. According to him, such racism has produced self-hatred as well as what conservative ideologues would denigrate as cultural pathologies.

The growing roster of advocates for reparations must confront not only inflammatory backlash but also intellectual challenges. Cynics suspect that political leaders will promise rewards to their supporters regardless of the merits of grievances, while ethnic activists will pursue raw self-interest. Even modest policies of affirmative action have become politically divisive. Robinson dismisses these remedies as the penny scarcely worth the fight when a fortune is owed.

The reactions against efforts to assist blacks are nothing new. Some objections verge on the ridiculous. During Reconstruction, self-styled moderates opposed any programs for freed slaves as favoritism. Likewise today, the white minority in post-apartheid South Africa has suggested that it is oppressed.

Well-intentioned critics have other doubts about payment schemes. They note that the victims of original wrongdoing and the beneficiaries of later amends may not match up. They are concerned about incommensurability, the impossibility of comparing suffering. They are nervous about the inquiry Robinson broaches with a rhetorical question: Wasn't the practice of slavery at least as heinous as the Nazi holocaust?

An endless series of competing claims may demand attention and action. Native Americans, for example, have suffered injustices that have been barely acknowledged. It was the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which provided Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II the meager sum of $20,000 each for their loss of liberty and property, that gave the impetus to renew the reparations movement. That legislation showed our collective faith in the Constitution and our ability to generate a civic culture that can correct its errors.

Our culture of irony has perfected the art of saying "sorry" without meaning much. Guilty parties can accept responsibility for causing grievous injuries, and even bystanders can be sympathetic without taking blame for unfortunate circumstances. Although most of the population can proclaim honestly that their ancestors were not slave-holders, even Asian immigrants who arrived after the Jim Crow era have indirectly gained advantages from their non-blackness. Their assimilation has been eased because they can and do distinguish themselves from African Americans. Their upward mobility has come, in the words of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, on the backs of blacks.

Robinson is respected for having brought the political influence of the black diaspora to bear on U.S. foreign policy toward Africa. He has met another challenge here: His book is easy to read. His first-person narrative may seem egocentric, with declarations such as "I was born in 1941, but my black soul is much older than that." His style, though, is engaging and conveys his estrangement from the mainstream. Robinson indulges in digressions to compliment Cuba and encourage campaign finance reform, but even these anecdotes support his attempts to reclaim African heritage and empower African Americans.

Academic or radical readers of Robinson may not be satisfied. He does not analyze the legal complications or psychological aspects of his project. He barely mentions the scholarly studies of Boris Bittker and others. He does not give details on grassroots groups devoted to reparations.

But he continues an important conversation. Democratic deliberation helps create a society in which we are all equal stakeholders. The process is as valuable as the outcome. In that context, even if reparations are a lost cause, they are a noble cause.

Frank H. Wu, an associate professor of law at Howard University, is at work on a book, "Yellow: The Race Debate Beyond Black and White."