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"Who Really Can Claim Innocence?,"

by john a. powell November/December 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

Ain't nobody paid for slavery yet, about my forty acres and a mule.
- Oscar Brown, Jr.

The question of whether African Americans should receive reparations, raised a number of times in the past, has been criticized, rejected, or simply ignored. It may be time to raise the issue again.

However, if we are to raise again the question of whether African Americans should be awarded reparations, it is important to reframe the issue of reparations so as not to focus solely on slavery. In discussing reparations, we must also examine the aftermath of slavery and the institutions and distributional structures it created, including an analysis of the numerous ways in which the American government and the larger society have economically subordinated and disenfranchised African Americans.

Reparations, in and of itself, may not produce the forty acres and a mule promised to freed slaves, nor may it compensate for the trillions of dollars African Americans may be owed for their exploited labor and cultural uprooting. Nonetheless, these cannot be reasons not to consider seriously reparations. Nor is the argument that all former slaves are dead and therefore will not themselves receive compensation a reason not to consider reparations. The structure that creates and distributes wealth in the United States continues to be based on a racial hierarchy that was established by the slave system.

Consider that most wealth held by Americans is in the homes they own. However, for the last 50 years in particular, the mortgage lending and real estate markets have been permeated by rampant racism, sponsored by the federal government and its finance branches and by private banking, lending, and real estate interests. The government introduced redlining to the lending industry and explicitly required racially segregated neighborhoods. Only recently have such initiatives as redlining been ferreted out as industry norms. The federal law ordering segregated neighborhoods to open their borders to African Americans did not pass the Congress until 1968, and almost all experts agree it has been ineffective in altering the segregative housing pattern in our society.

Nonetheless, the wealth distribution by now is well established. Prime rates extended to veterans, for instance, after World War Il, coupled with redlining, settled many whites into secure home investments and homogeneous segregated neighborhoods. Playing fair now is not enough to put African Americans in comparable position to accumulate wealth today. Acknowledgement of wrongs such as redlining is also not going to allow African Americans to begin to accumulate wealth in homeowning. The structure is already set, and it is set decidedly against African Americans and in favor of whites. The wealth structure of this society does not just affect individuals, it affects groups and communities. It rings hollow for opponents of reparations to suggest that after years of excluding African Americans based on their group membership it now is acceptable to claim that any benefits accorded to African Americans cannot be based on their group membership.

All the writers on reparations seem to recognize that mainstream approaches, such as affirmative action, will not, regardless of how well they are applied, begin to address the underlying inequalities confronting African Americans in our dominant white society. Even so, these plans are being attacked daily as being special treatment for undeserving African Americans, awarded at the cost of so-called "innocent whites." However, who really can claim innocence?

White society may decline to pay for slavery and its aftermath. My guess is that it probably will. Just raising the claim that African Americans should receive reparations will anger some whites. Even without raising reparations, conservative whites have been able to generate racial hostility and polarization. For the most part, at least on the level of individual operation of daily interactions with African Americans, many whites are not explicitly racially exclusionary or supremacist. They are in a sense "innocent." However, on a deeper level, reliance on this narrow concept of innocence is fraudulent and moves the debate away from analysis of the distributional structure that drives our society. It allows for a debate as to whether individual whites or individual African Americans are morally superior or morally blameworthy. It also creates a disjuncture between seeing how the country has benefitted from slavery and how individuals still benefit from the structure. It allows whites to admit that discrimination is wrong, but in the same breath argue for the continuing benefit of this wrong.

Unfortunately, racism and race as a central organizing and structural principle are not things of the past. This is my point. Even if whites, as individuals and as living today, did not themselves create the structure of slavery-surely a defensible and sensible position, given that slavery was formally abolished over 100 years ago-or descend directly from slave owners, they still benefit from the distributional structure it set up and, I believe, they must acknowledge that they continue to derive substantial benefits and privileges from it, especially in terms of economic and social resource allocation.

This is where reparations can serve a legitimate purpose: it forces whites to acknowledge that the current system of economic and social resource distribution enhances their position and that this distributional system is derived in part, possibly in large part, from the structure of racial superiority and system of slavery and racial exclusion created and developed over the last 400 years in this country.

We should not, then, focus the award of reparations on the harm it exacts on innocent whites, but should use it to expose and acknowledge the distributional and structural advantages enjoyed by whites as a result of slavery and its aftermath. The debate cannot center on an empirical evaluation of whether whites today are individually responsible for the ills suffered by African Americans today. It must center instead on exposing how the wrongs exacted by whites in the past continue to privilege and benefit whites today and how those structures that benefit whites still operate to disadvantage persons of color. When one looks seriously at how racial hierarchy has distributed resources, it becomes apparent that non-racism (color-blindness) or even affirmative action is insufficient to the task of addressing the inequities of the post-slavery structure. Instead, we must be anti-racist and structurally oriented.

I have heard the argument that African Americans have by now achieved equality in terms of their place in our present distributional structure. I do not buy that argument. If it happened, I would like to know when. Slavery might have ended in 1865, but it was replaced with an exploitative sharecrop farming system, forced residential segregation and educational segregation, and complete disenfranchisement from the voting process. At some point it may be necessary to forget the past, but not until we have remembered. I believe that far too many have forgotten without ever remembering.

In the meantime, ain't nobody paid for slavery yet.

john a. powell is Secretary of PRRAC's Board, is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School, where he directs the Institute on Race & Poverty (415 Law Ctr., 229 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55455. 612/625-5529, E-mail:

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