Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Despite naysayers, push for reparations will forge ahead
BY MARY MITCHELL, Sun-Times Columnist
I wouldn’t be so quick to say reparations won’t happen.
This isn’t a subject that is going to go away just because a lot of white people and some blacks oppose it. The reason it’s not going away is because slavery and its aftermath is this nation’s unfinished business. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to deal with it.
Although some ridicule the federal lawsuit filed on behalf of slave descendants, and a federal appeals court may throw out its claims, that won’t end the matter any more than ridicule and dismissals stopped the battles to end school segregation and separate accommodations.
Legal battles over blacks’ rights are nothing new.
In From Slavery to Freedom, acclaimed historian John Hope Franklin describes the course of white supremacy -- which used the court system to uphold its racist policies. After the Civil War, state constitutional conventions wrote into their law a guarantee of white supremacy, Franklin noted.
“Once the Negro was disfranchised, everything else necessary for white supremacy could be done,” Franklin said. With the adoption of new constitutions, the states firmly established the color line by the most stringent segregation of the races; and in 1896 the [U.S.] Supreme Court upheld segregation in its “separate but equal” doctrine in Plessy vs. Ferguson.
“Separate but equal” was simply morally wrong.
So while white racists reveled in their victory for decades, the legal challenges continued despite the naysayers. In 1952, the NAACP brought things to a head with five cases it gathered from across the country that challenged the concept of separate but equal. In 1954, the Supreme Court outlawed segregated public schools.
A critical voice removed
That's how it’s been for black people.
They have to go to court to ensure their rights as a group.
So it really doesn’t matter what individuals think or that some black people agree with whites on the reparations issue.
As long as there are soldiers like Antoinette Harrell, Queen Mother, Dr. Delois Blakely and Deadria Farmer-Paellmann -- some of the plaintiffs in the current reparations suit -- who are willing to bear the barbs and suffer the disappointments, the reparations movement will continue.
My only disappointment was that Appeals Court Judge Ann Williams, the only African-American jurist on the court, recused herself from the case. She did so without offering an explanation.
That leaves us to speculate that Williams removed herself because she’s a black woman and most likely a descendant of slaves. I called her office on Monday looking for clarification. Williams declined to comment, and thus far, she has not issued a statement about her decision.
That’s unfortunate because hers was a critical voice.
Indeed, Judge Richard Posner’s question to the plaintiffs shows what plaintiffs are up against.
“If you think you’ve been wronged, it shouldn’t take 100 years to investigate the conduct of the accused companies,” he said at last week’s hearing.
The argument that a people who were still fighting for civil rights could wage a simultaneous battle seeking redress for slavery may be legally relevant, but it defies common sense and mocks America’s violent racial history.
Can you imagine what would have happened if such a suit were filed in 1906? Instead of nasty e-mails to newspaper columnists sympathetic to the cause, there would have been lynchings.
A wide gap between blacks and whites
It also isn’t surprising that some black people are siding with whites who oppose America paying reparations for slavery.
There were black people who didn’t want to leave the master’s plantation when slavery ended. There were blacks who didn’t want to agitate for the right to vote, or join the demonstrations at lunch counters.
There were blacks who thought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a rabble-rouser.
And there will always be whites, like some of those who responded to my column, who think blacks, as a race, are undeserving of reparations.
For instance, Billy G. wrote in an e-mail: “The Jews have been successful in the face of all the difficulties you list. Blacks despite enormous wealth in Africa and government assistance for many years are unable to even care for themselves for the most part …”
And this one from Donald N. in Alsip: If living in America is so woeful for yourself and other blacks why don’t all of you just pack your bags and leave? How many more years will you use the excuse of slavery for black crimes and black underachievement in academics?
I could go on, but I won’t. The words are different. The tone is the same.
When it comes to reparations, there’s still a wide gap between blacks and whites.
Still, whites can’t see into the future any better than I can.