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Posted November 16, 2008 in Race, class, ethnicity, and stereotyping
Lee Hubbard, "Debating Reparations with Horowitz and Ogletree," May 1, 2002

Reparations for American blacks was a sideline issue for most African Americans until the publication of Randall Robinson's The Debt. The book helped bring the reparations debate to a larger audience, introducing the wider black community and general American population to a notion long discussed at black nationalist meetings.

Others began taking action. Deadria Farmer-Paelmman, a legal activist, conducted extensive research finding that Aetna issued policies on slaves in the 1850s; she has since filed suit against the insurance giant and other corporations, requesting that they compensate African Americans for "stolen labor" and "illicit profits." Another group, headed by Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree and lawyer Johnnie Cochran, is still formulating strategy for gaining some form of reparations through the courts, while Congressman John Conyers has long argued for legislative action on the subject.

A backlash was inevitable. Just as reparations ideas began proliferating, David Horowitz, a neo-conservative intellectual provocateur, began railing against the issue, taking out ads in college newspapers declaring reparations to be "racist" and unfair. Reaction to the ads set off a chain of high-profile rifts at colleges across the country, as students academics and intellectuals squared off on race, reparations and free speech.

I spoke with both Horowitz and Ogletree on the reparations debate, asking each the same series of questions. Below are their very different answers.

David Horowitz is president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture and editor of Front Page Magazine (

What do you think about the reparations movement?
I think that people need to remind themselves that it was a fringe leftist movement for over 40 years. This was not embraced by any significant civil rights leader between 1969 and 1989. No respectable civil rights leader embraced or endorsed this, from 1969 when James Foreman announced this. This was the first time that reparations were proclaimed as a demand. For 20 years, no civil rights leader proclaimed this. When the Japanese got their reparations in 1988, this triggered the John Conyers bill a year later. I don't think that until Randall Robinson's book, The Debt, that reparations was embraced by the mainstream black organizations. There was a reason that it was a fringe movement. That is because it is so destructive and such an absurd idea, because there are no slaves alive. It has already isolated the black community.

Why did you decide to get involved in opposing this movement?
I was familiar with the characters who were pushing reparations. They were fringe black leftist. Whenever I encountered it they were fringe leftist, not Jesse Jackson or Mfume, but obscure leftists. But then in May of 2000, I saw a story about how the Chicago City Council had passed a bill modeled on the Conyers bill that passed 46-1, which is absurd on the face of it. There is nothing that gets voted on 46-1. The one guy that voted against it said, all of my constituencies are white ethnics, whose ancestors came to this country after slavery was over and they won't understand this.

What do you say to those people who are for reparations?

This will hurt the black community. This will pit, or set the black community, or that part of the black community that supports reparations, against every other ethnic group. When you are trying to achieve something, you try to build as broad a coalition as you can, especially if you are a minority. Reparations for people who are black, which is what this is about, has the smallest base of support that something can have. It narrows a base of support tremendously.

The reparations movement is making black people look like whiners, hucksters and shakedown artist.

If you look at reparations, there are two aspects to it. One is to get recognition of the black past in this country. Of the suffering of black people in this country and its history. They want America to deal with slavery and so forth. The second half of this argument is to get money for inner-city projects, black education and other things. They want a fund for black causes. The money part is much easier to get by saying there is a problem here, and as American citizens we ought to help. That is how a lot of social programs are funded. In that way, you are not saying that you are all racists and you have all been involved in slavery. You are saying that every American should want to help people who are falling behind and suffering. You want money for education and programs, you ask for it. You can bring up historic injustices. But with reparations, you have to identify a guilty party and make them pay.

So, with the Holocaust Jews, the Germans felt really guilty and they just committed one of the world's greatest crimes. The problem with reparations is that most people in America today do not feel guilty in the way that Germans felt guilty. It is too far in the past, and their ancestors were not even here then. It does not make sense. If you want to get money for good causes, ask for money for good causes, or even demand it, but don't call it reparations. If you want to get people to honor and understand black history in this country, let's build an African American history museum on the mall [in Washington]. JC Watts and John Lewis have a bill for this, which I will help raise money for. This is a worthy idea. From a political point of view, all of the goals of the reparations movement can be achieved by taking a more positive approach. Randall Robinson is an American hater. You read his book, and all that comes through is hatred of America. The only country that he praises in the book is communist Cuba.

Is reparations racist?
Randall Robinson is a racist. Reparations, as formulated, is racist. Not the idea of reparations, but the argument is racist. That is because all black people will be paid on the basis of their skin color. Not on the basis of what has happened to them. Not only will it be on the basis of skin color, it will be on the basis of the one-drop rule. One of the crimes of slavery was that slave owners had their own way with black women, because they owned them. Who is black anymore, who is not involved? There is a lot of white slaveowner blood within the black community.

Another reason it is racist is that it does not give any credit to non-black people for the good that they have done, like ending slavery, which they did not start. Slavery existed in Africa for a thousand years, before the first white person set foot there. The point is that if you look at America, you will see that once America was created in 1776, it took 89 years to end slavery, the slave trade and slavery in the Western Hemisphere. America led the anti-slavery movement, which ended 89 years after America was founded.

There are a lot of white people who over hundreds of years have fought to liberate blacks. They have given them the same citizenship that they have. Not only is this a one-sided view of history, but it makes blacks focus on the past instead of today. This is important, because this is 2002. When I turn on my television, I see a black woman speaking who is running our national security policy. If I am not seeing Condoleeza Rice, I am looking at Colin Powell negotiating in the Middle East. This is of huge historical significance. These are not token people. The reparations movement would have been an important and progressive movement in the 19th century, but in the 21st century, it is blinding those who listen to it, and preventing them from seeing a moment of great triumph for black America, today. Power in Washington, celebrity and status in Hollywood. Black people have the best claim on being Americans. They were here before everyone else. If you don't find a way to identify with American history and you think negatively about your own country, you are making yourself homeless. There is no need to do this. America has done a lot of tremendous things. Black people should insist on their American heritage.

Now, 2002, is not the time to give up on America.

What about reparations from corporations?

Let me explain this. Let us take Aetna, the insurance company. Slaves were insured because they were property. If you look at the policies of Aetna, the clauses in the policies said we will not pay if the slaves were lynched or overworked. Aetna insurance today has nothing to do with Aetna of 150 years ago. The people, who are suing the corporations, they are arguing as if the company is a pot of gold. If you look at Enron, at one time, they were the seventh-largest company in the world. Today Enron is zero. When you sue Aetna, you are suing living employees, directors, stockholders and their customers, many of whom are black. Nobody you are suing has anything to do with slavery. Aetna has already given $34 million to black causes. Now you are going to kick them in the teeth. You are now tarring their image by saying they were involved with slavery. What the reparations lawyers are doing is taking away allies of the black community - a company that has given the black community $34 million - and making them adversaries. Is that something positive?

Do blacks need reparations?

Well, I think it is wrong to talk about blacks in a group. Fifty percent of the black community is middle class. In cities like Atlanta, the city establishment is black. If 70 percent of black America is poor, it would make sense. But only 26 percent of black America is living below the poverty line. If you are looking at that statistic, they are all single-parent families. That is the reason they are poor. A crusade for marriage would do more to improve the lot of inner-city blacks than any reparations. You also have to remember that $1.5 trillion has gone into the inner city in the past 30 years. What the discussion needs to be is, what will work in the inner city?

What do you think about those who are for reparations?
I try to understand emotionally the feelings behind it, but I think that it is politically very misguided. When you see those poor southern blacks who have been scammed by people on the reparations.... The victim mentality is a crippling mentality. There is a danger of having a collective pity party. The danger is that you become immobilized, or that you put all of your energies into campaigns that cannot succeed. If you want money for programs, ask for it. If you want a reckoning with the moral arguments about slavery let's work together to build a museum on the mall.

How is this the same or different in regards to reparations for the Jews and Japanese?
In both cases, the victims were still alive. That is a big difference. I am for reparations for slaves and the children of former slaves. But all of the victims of US slavery are dead, so you cannot pay them. Not all Jews got reparations. I am a Jew, and I did not get reparations. Jews got reparations if they were direct victims of the Nazis. Then the German government could make you whole. Not all of the Japanese received reparations. Only those that were relocated, on the West Coast. The point is that you had to be a direct victim.

What do you think of Charles Ogletree and his fight for reparations?
I don't think much of Charles Ogletree. Ogletree is a prestigious black professor at Harvard. The people who will be hurt by reparations are the people who are living in Roxbury. They will suffer because Ogletree is pissing off natural supporters of the black community. I actually chuckle that they will sue USA Today and Harvard. I do not like it when Ogletree speaks and says that all of the disparities in America are the result of white racism, slavery, segregation and de facto discrimination. Who in the black community would like to release all of the black felons in maximum security prisons? Would this help black people? There is a crime problem in the black community, that really hurts black people, but suing Aetna and Harvard will not help those people. The reparations movement is derailing the civil rights movement.

What do you want to be remembered for in this reparations fight?

It is not a fight that I wanted to undertake. People will never believe this. I had no idea that this would cause the ruckus that it did. What I would like to accomplish is to get people to see that there are two sides to these issues that are legitimate, and that people need to think things through before they go running around breaking things. I got into this because I saw that no one was able to criticize reparations and so people were going ahead with a very destructive movement. People do not want to criticize black leadership because they do not want to be called racists, and if they are black they don't want to be called Oreos or be trashed. When you have a movement that cannot handle criticism, you know it will run into a wall sooner or later.

Charles Ogletree is a professor of law at Harvard University.

What do you think about the reparations movement?

Reparations is the most significant race issue of the 21st century. It is an issue whose time has come. It contains historical fact, an analysis of slavery and it covers many issues of social science, which will reveal the disturbing issues of racial disparity. Issues such as health care, education, housing, employment and the criminal justice system. It is a growing a grassroots movement and it is currently being discussed and debated at every level in our society. It is a healthy and necessary discussion that is needed in America today.

Why did you decide to get involved in it?
I have been interested in reparations since I was a student at Stanford University in the 1970s. I met Queen Mother Moore, the matriarch of the reparations movement, and she made it clear that in the 20th century we need to move beyond the African plea for self-rule and the African American effort to promote civil rights, to engage in the debate of reparations for slavery for the descendents of African slaves. More recently, my work with Randall Robinson on TransAfrica's board confirmed in my mind that there were valid reasons, that there were legal arguments to pursue reparations. I discussed the matter with a lot of lawyers, scholars and activists and I was persuaded that it was an effort I should support and offer whatever I could that was possible.

What do you say to those people who are against reparations?

I am not surprised that people are against reparations. It is an understandable position. The easiest way to look at this is to ask three questions. Was slavery morally objectionable in our society? There is little doubt that people will disagree with that. Given the fact that Africans played a central role in building this country, is it responsible to suggest that slaves who built this country should be entitled to compensation? What is the only viable and sensible mechanism to meet the objectives of remedying the past harms of slavery? My analysis would suggest the civil rights era, affirmative action and integration have benefited a small percentage of African Americans. The argument for reparations is to make sure that any remedy for the past sins of slavery and segregation goes to the poorest of the poor, the most deserving of reparations. By focusing on the most despised and oppressed, and marginalized segments of the African American community, we can solve the American problems of disparities in education, health care, employment, housing and criminal justice practices.

Some opponents say that the fight for reparations is racist. Is it?

No. This is a comment that does not deserve a response. This is anti-intellectual and anti-factual. Slavery in America was based on race and it was racist. People say this out of ignorance and a lack of an appreciation to solve this remedy. Was it racist for the American Government to give reparations to Japanese who were placed in internment camps? Was it racist to give benefits and some form of sovereignty to American Indians? The argument represents race-baiting by people who do not have a clear and cogent critique of the reparations movement.

What about reparations from US Corporations?

There clearly is growing evidence of the corporate role in promoting and assisting slavery. These same entities will be the subject to the same legal steps in the reparations effort. The evidence against many of the corporation is quite compelling and irrefutable.

Do blacks need reparations?
Yes. We see the same level of disparity on the basis of race in the 21st century that slaves and freed slaves during the period of Jim Crow laws experienced. The fact that these problems have persisted 140 years after slavery suggests that we have not done our job to adequately rid our society of the vestiges and badges of slavery.

How is this the same or different in regards to reparations for the Jews and Japanese?

It is similar in that in both cases governments accepted responsibility for conduct that targeted people on the basis of race and national origin and treated them unjustly. The difference is that, unlike the Jewish and Japanese victims, the African slaves were denied the reparations they were promised, and so due to government delay, they were deceased before they could receive them. The claims are no less valid with the passage of time.

What do you think of David Horowitz and his role against reparations?

His silly ideas and public posturing has actually placed the reparations debate back in the mainstream dialogue in America. Now, by trying to sell books that attack reparation supporters he has generated more public dialogue, more understanding and more support for an idea that was once thought of as being extreme. He has contributed to a deeper understanding of reparations based on the simplistic notions he promotes.

What do you want to be remembered for in this reparations fight?
Nothing. I have no personal agenda or expectation of being remembered in this reparations battle. What I do hope will happen is an American appreciation of the enormous courage, and convictions of African slaves who gave their blood, sweat and tears to build this country but never had the opportunity to live the American dream.

First published: May 1. 2002

Category: Race, class, ethnicity, and stereotyping