Many years ago, one of my professors at law school, Boris Bittker, wrote a book called The Case for Black Reparations. Bittker was known mostly for his work on taxation, but he cared and wrote a great deal about race. One year at Reunions, he took my wife and me to see a pair of very interesting films about the confinement of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast in internment camps during World War II, and the experience of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, many of whom served in the American military. Bittker’s book on black reparations went through the issues in a very lawyerly way as if he were arguing to a court. But let me describe it on a very human level.
First the white slavers stole the freedom of Africans. Then they stole many of their lives, and, of those who survived, they stole the fruits of Black labor. When finally, the slaves were legally freed, White Supremacists stole it all again: the lives of African-Americans by lynching, their labors by a century of intimidation that virtually re-enslaved them. And when finally they found places where they could prosper, White Supremacists, many in the white robes of Klansmen, burned those places to the ground – the Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Rosewood in FL; changed election results by murder in places like Colfax County, Louisiana, and Wilmington, North Carolina; and went on murderous rampages in a number of northern cities. When whites made programs that helped build white wealth – like Social Security and Unemployment Insurance – jobs held by Blacks were excluded by statute. When Blacks sought good jobs, discrimination shut them out. When segregation finally became illegal, African-Americans had to start again on the ground floor of white men’s businesses, where once again they were given little for their effort – how many times do Trump and his white supremacist supporters insist on making their own wealth by stealing the labors of African-Americans?
And when they engage in peaceful protest, they’re told it’s unseemly behavior. Heaven forbid a Black man take a knee, or complain that Black Lives Matter. We aren’t supposed to focus on righting the wrongs to our African-American friends, colleagues, clients, customers and citizens.
So yes, there’s a strong case for reparations. I understand we’re not equally responsible nor equally beneficiaries of the wrongs done. But we Americans quite ordinarily help each other when we can. And, anyway, that’s a problem for the tax code – if the rich make the poor pay for reparations, it will be just as unfair as everything else the rich make others pay for. It matters how it’s done.
I have, however, one reservation. The most important thing that we can do for our African-American brothers and sisters is to secure their safety. We’ve all been talking about that nonstop for quite a while as each new case surfaces of African-Americans viciously and needlessly killed. I’ve been commenting about that for years and have worked to fight it in the courts. I’m not sure what road gets there first, so that my friends, colleagues and former clients can enjoy their lives, family, property and careers in safety. That will take more than money. It will take effort and commitment to turn so-called law enforcement around so that it enforces the law for the benefit of everyone, including people of color. Few things would give me greater joy or peace of mind than to be able to share this life in peace and justice with all of you.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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