It is not uniquely American to believe that all the world's inequities and woes can be ameliorated by money, but it certainly is quintessentially so. Thus what is really surprising about the campaign now underway to pay "reparations" to African Americans for the ills of slavery is not the campaign itself--seeking cash for what lawyers and insurers call "pain and suffering" is as American as ambulance-chasing--but that it took so long to materialize.
Whatever the explanation for the belated emergence of this movement, the one certainty is that almost anything anyone says about it will be misunderstood and/or misinterpreted. We tread here not merely on the slippery ground of race but in the misty precincts of history; the first subject raises the hackles of all Americans, whatever the color of their skin, and the second takes Americans into places about which they are willfully ignorant. The chances of having a civilized and unemotional national discussion of the subject are somewhere between slim and none.
Such a debate, we are to believe, is the dream of John Conyers Jr., the Democratic congressman from Michigan who, after a long career as political hack and power broker, has made a leap onto the moral high ground. Conyers regularly places before Congress a bill that, as reported by this newspaper, "would establish a commission to examine slavery and its lingering effects on African Americans and contemporary U.S. society." A federal law authorizing reparations would not necessarily be the result of such an inquiry, but Conyers and some other prominent African Americans, most notably Randall Robinson, believe that is what should come to pass.
Yet as regularly as Conyers introduces his bill, Congress ignores it; in an institution whose members eagerly climb aboard each other's bandwagons at every available opportunity, Conyers has been able to round up only 31 co-sponsors, and their numbers are most unlikely to increase significantly. Introducing the bill no doubt pays political dividends for Conyers back home in Detroit, but it flies in the face of the larger political realities of this country, its potential for divisiveness is considerable, and it is simply wrongheaded.
As it happens I write these words only a couple of days after reading advance proofs of a book called "Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market," by Walter Johnson, about which I will have more to say when it is published early next year. Suffice it for the moment to say that it served as a highly detailed and sobering reminder--as if one were needed--of the injustice and brutality and horror of slavery. That a nation founded upon a commitment to freedom and liberty could have permitted the enslavement of human beings is a stain that can never be removed; it is central to our history.
But history, though it has lessons to teach, is history all the same. Yesterday is not today. For more years than any sober person can care to contemplate, white Americans forcibly imported and enslaved black Africans, but they do not do so now. Whether the sins of the fathers are in fact visited upon the children is for philosophers and theologians to debate, but the inescapable truth is that a vast majority of Americans decline to accept the proposition that they, living many generations removed from the country's slaveholding past, are responsible--least of all in a pecuniary way--for that past.
Another truth is that although the American majority may decline to accept blame for events of long ago, it has in fact shouldered much responsibility for what happened then. The great civil rights laws of the 1960s were--and remain to this day--guarantees by the country as a whole of rights and opportunities for black Americans that had been all too imperfectly protected during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era. This is not to say that the implementation of those laws itself has been perfect--far from it--but that they are concrete, purposeful and immensely significant attempts to eliminate all vestiges of slavery, to make the country equally free for all its citizens.
The effect of those laws has been incalculable; the country has changed so much in the 3 1/2 decades since the first was passed that it is almost unrecognizable. But if those changes have moved millions of African Americans into the mainstream, they have also aroused widespread frustration and dissatisfaction. Not all the expectations raised by the laws have been met; grievances still linger and fester, and suspicions about the good faith of the majority remain.
It is to this, I suspect, that the reparations movement can be traced. Social change never takes place as rapidly and all-pervasively as its intended beneficiaries expect. People become impatient and seek other forms of progress and redress. The labor of slaves went uncompensated, so why shouldn't their descendants, struggling for justice and opportunity, be compensated in their stead? After all, weren't Japanese Americans interned during World War II compensated only a decade ago to the tune of $20,000 apiece?
Yes, but those payments were to the survivors, not their heirs. There are no surviving slaves, so there is no one with a just claim on reparations; probably reparations in some form should have been paid in 1865, but this is 1999 and the case is closed. There are, by the same token, no surviving slaveholders, so there is no one upon whom blame and responsibility can be fixed. In brief, there is no point in having a "conversation" or "debate" on this subject, for there is nothing to discuss.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.