by Dr. Boyce Watkins
Most Americans are fully aware of the long history of the United States government supporting the institution of slavery. Those who are deeply familiar with the depth of this 400-year holocaust understand that there was a multi-trillion dollar wealth transfer that occurred during this time period, largely from the use of unpaid labor, in addition to many other acts of theft and oppression occuring over a long period of time. Beyond these damages are the impact of denied justice and trauma experienced by people of color in the US, with much of this injustice existing until this day.
This holocaust had a far greater reach and magnitude than any other in American history, and perhaps throughout the world. Many of the institutions that profited from these atrocities exist today, along with the wealthy descendants of those who made a living by stealing wealth from black people.
It’s long been easy to prove that African Americans deserve reparations for what our ancestors lost. As a result of this systemically unethical behavior, median white family wealth is roughly 20 – 25 times greater than that of African American families. A gap this broad doesn’t come into existence overnight, nor is it merely the result of bad money management. You usually have to work overtime to ruin the lives of others in order to get this much of an economic head start.
Due to this socio-economic terrorism, we live in a world where whites control nearly EVERYTHING: The media, leading universities, banks, real estate, major corporations, etc. White children receive inheritances regularly from their parents and grandparents, and many black people don’t know anyone who has ever inherited a large sum of money. Our schools are the worst because black communities don’t typically have the tax base to support better ones. We fill up the prisons because we can’t afford adequate legal representation. You can continue this line of logic when it comes to healthcare, violence, and nearly every other facet of American life. The gap is clear and appalling, but the fundamental question is: Are we strong enough to do something about it?
One ray of hope might be the army of talented and capable African American attorneys that have been produced by our community over the last several decades. These men and women are trained with knowledge of the law and resources necessary to take on a fight of this magnitude. Anyone able to conquer such a case would go down in history as the winner of arguably the most important victory in black American history. This is either a job for a legend or someone who wants to become one.
According to the Associated Press, the late Johnny Cochran was preparing to take on this fight with a group of other leading attorneys. According to Reunionblackfamily.com:
“A powerful group of civil rights and class-action lawyers who have won billions of dollars in court is preparing a lawsuit seeking reparations for American blacks descended from slaves. The project, called the Reparations Assessment Group, was confirmed by Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree and appears to be the most serious effort yet to get American blacks compensated for 244 years of legalized slavery. Lawsuits and legislation dating back to the mid-1800s have gone nowhere.”
“We will be seeking more than just monetary compensation,” Ogletree said. “We want a change in America. We want full recognition and a remedy of how slavery stigmatized, raped, murdered and exploited millions of Africans through no fault of their own.”
“Ogletree said the group, which includes famed attorney Johnnie Cochran, first met in July and will hold its fourth meeting in Washington D.C. later this month. “This country has never dealt with slavery. It is America’s nightmare. A political solution would be the most sensible but I don’t have a lot of faith that’s going to happen. So we need to look aggressively at the legal alternative,” Ogletree said.
“Ogletree said the Reparation Assessment Group includes attorneys [Johnnie] Cochran and Alexander J. Pires Jr., who won a $1 billion settlement for black farmers who claimed discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Richard Scruggs, who won the $368.5 billion settlement for states against tobacco companies; Dennis C. Sweet III, who won a $400 million settlement in the “phen-fen” diet drug case; and Willie E. Gary, who won a $500 million judgment against the Loewen Group Inc., the world’s largest funeral home operators.
“Also in the group is Randall Robinson, president of the TransAfrica Forum, a think tank specializing in African, Caribbean and African-American issues. Robinson recently wrote the book “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks,” which argues for reparations.”
The question that we must ask is this: What happened to this reparations effort and can it be renewed? In fact, can it be renewed with a national push greater than any collective black effort of the last 50 years?
There is no doubt that a reparations lawsuit would be justified, for even the most determined racist can’t deny what’s been done to black people over the last 400 years. What’s interesting, however, is that America has been led to believe that you can erase an atrocity by simply not repeating it. You cannot make amends for damage you’ve done to others by pretending that it didn’t happen and promising that you’ll never do it again. You must start with a sincere apology and then begin the process of reversing the harm that has been done. America has refused to do this.
What’s also interesting about the reparations struggle is that we are probably NEVER going to get white America’s blessing to pursue this fight. People will never like you for taking money that they think belongs to them, and will always find counterarguments to explain why nothing is owed to black people for what we’ve gone through. You’ll be accused of being a trouble maker, race-baiter and all the other terrible names black people are called when they simply demand fairness.
Therefore, the battle is not just a legal or economic one, but a spiritual one, only designed for those who have the fortitude to care enough about their community that they are willing to upset some powerful people and close friends in the process. Battles like this aren’t won by a simple measure of right and wrong. They are won by those who accumulate the power to impose their will on those who seek to contain them.
When I served as the keynote speaker at the National Black Law Students Association Convention in 2008, I noticed there was an interesting mix of young legal professionals. There were some who understood their role as champions for the black community, and there were some who did not. My greatest concern was that I saw quite a few young students who’d been trained to live a docile, meaningless existence as the cog of a giant wheel within any law firm that paid them the most money. They didn’t seem to care what kind of work they did, as long as they had a chance to drive a Mercedes.
I’m a Finance Professor, so I know the value of money. But as a human being, I also know the limitations of living a one-dimensional lifestyle, where money drives your passion. Instead of letting the tail wag the dog, it might be more fulfilling to let your passion drive the money instead. Our young people will never learn this if we continue to teach them that the goal of any educational experience is to be a “good boy” so that a friendly white man will hire you to do meaningless work that does almost nothing for your community.
This is not to say that money doesn’t matter, this entire article is about money. But money must also be attached to MEANING. What I respect the most about the Willie Garys of the world, along with Ogletree and others is that they’ve been able to become wealthy attorneys while still doing work that matters. I make this point to reiterate that the attorneys who win the reparations battle aren’t going to necessarily be the ones with the most legal skill. Instead, it will be won by the attorneys who understand the importance of targeting your skill and energy toward work that will impact the lives of those you care about. That’s the difference between a decent career and one that is truly transformative.
Who will be our next Johnny Cochran?