In his column "Reparations: It's Too Late" [Style, Nov. 29], Jonathan Yardley writes that American blacks do not have a just claim for reparations because there are no surviving slaves. He says that because slavery was an ancient sin of this nation, the moral statute of limitations has run out.

But any institutional behavior that encompassed millions of people for three centuries cannot simply be stopped in its tracks.

Indeed, evidence exists and was reported by Len Cooper in your paper ["The Damned: Slavery Did Not End With the Civil War," Style, June 16, 1996] that some black Americans experienced slavery in this century right up until the Second World War.

Yardley also states that because there are no surviving slaveholders, "there is no one upon whom blame and responsibility can be fixed."

Part of the angst many Americans feel about the claim for reparations flows from their perception that they are being held personally responsible for slavery. But the mechanism for reparations in other cases has been governmental.

The governments of Germany, the United States and Switzerland led the way for Jewish reparations; the Japanese government settled the claims of the Korean "comfort women"; and the American government compensated Japanese Americans for removing them from their land during World War II. In none of these cases were the actual soldiers who killed Jews or had sex with comfort women or guarded the internment camps held liable. Even though individuals were personally complicit, governments assumed the obligation to make the victims whole.

Slavery was a product of state action, a public policy of the U.S. government that permitted individuals to practice it from the inception of the nation as authorized by the Constitution. Lax government enforcement of the 13th Amendment even permitted slavery to operate after 1865.

Therefore, restitution for slavery is just as much a modern public policy responsibility as the numerous other issues that enjoin government to assume responsibility, regardless of whether individual citizens have either benefited or been harmed.

Finally, one could also make the case that although Jews and Asians in America have benefited from the normal course of their nation's progress, the government nevertheless recognized their special historical circumstance. The most enduring American dilemma is the special circumstance of slavery and its contribution to the disparities of wealth and social equality and the racial discrimination faced by blacks today.

Indeed, the irony of the context of this debate of compensation for the past is that government programs designed to foster equality for blacks are either being dismantled or challenged. This contributes to the support for reparations by most black respondents to opinion polls, who feel that their special circumstance has not yet been recognized or compensated for.

--Ronald Walters