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The Time is Right for Reparations

Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. | 5/3/2012, 12:08 p.m.

For more than 45 million black Americans, there are many issues that unite or divide us. Undoubtedly, the issue of reparations for African people in general and in particular for black Americans is an issue began as a divisive topic but now receives support from a board cross-section of blacks in America.

Of course, there are some who wanted to table a national discussion of reparations in the aftermath of the election of President Barack H. Obama. Yet, there were many others who have argued that now is the most propitious time to accelerate the national dialogue about reparations because there is a "brother" in the White House.

This is a pivotal year because of the November elections. Any issue that is related to race will be used by those who oppose to President Obama. The goal of conservatives is to polarize American voters to vote their racial prejudice instead of voting their conscience about the future of the nation as an inclusive participatory democracy.

Given the recent polarization around the calls for equal justice and fairness in the Trayvon Martin killing, it would be nave to think that race will not play a factor in the upcoming elections. The truth is race is just not a problem that crept onto the national scene accidentally. Race has been a social, economic, and political problem in America for more than 200 years. This is nothing new. What is new, however, is how the victims of racism see themselves, and how the perpetrators of racism view themselves.

Fortunately, renowned legal scholars such as Harvard's Charles Ogletree and others have articulated a rational defense for reparations, which would be therapeutic not only for black Americans, but also for all Americans.

I have consistently supported the call and the demand for reparations that go beyond whatever monetary compensation. Reparations are also about "repairing the damage" that was done to millions of African people, not just in America, but in the Caribbean, Central and South America, in Africa and throughout the rest of the world.

The United Nations is slowly working on establishing a permanent memorial to the victims of the infamous trans-Atlantic slave trade. In Washington, D.C., the construction of the African American Museum has begun. The United States Senate has issued an "apology" for slavery. And in my home state of North Carolina, Gov. Bev Perdue has just called for the state to spend $10.3 million in "reparations" to the victims of a vicious eugenics state program that sterilized thousands of people against their will. Most of those who were unjustly and savagely sterilized were black. Again, no amount of money could ever justify or rectify that awful and callous past. Still, Gov. Perdue's actions are the right steps at the right time. Healing is a long-term process. It takes time. The perpetrators of racism need a "repairing" of their minds and hearts.

It is interesting to note that even amidst a recovering of the American economy from the threshold of severe economic ruin, billions of dollars are being spent by candidates and campaigns for political office throughout the U.S. like they have unlimited money-trees to spend without reservation or limitation. The point here is so much of the "old money" and ingrained wealth of the nation came directly from the systematic economic exploitation of African people during 500 years of slavery and post-slavery institution-building. That is why it will take a tremendous calculation to determine a full accounting of the financial and human toll of the slave trade and its aftermath. Harper's magazine did a study that concluded that the U.S. owes black Americans more than $100 trillion in reparations. It is probably more than that.

This may not be the perfect time to raise this issue. Judging by the past, there is never a perfect time. Today is as good as any time. Let's work harder on the issue of reparations. We can begin by supporting the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA), which will hold its national convention in Philadelphia, June 22-24. Reparations for black Americans should be supported by all Americans.

Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is president of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) and Education Online Services Corporation and serves as the national director of Occupy the Dream. He can be reached at drbenjamin.chavis@gmail.com

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