My Turn: A case for reparations

  •  DANIEL A. BROWN

Published: 4/22/2021 8:40:23 AM

Barring its current controversies, in the years immediately following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the nation was an impoverished mess. Many of its population were living in tent cities, the infrastructure was in name only and the country suffered an austerity more severe than what Great Britain was enduring. Food rationing allowed each Israeli citizen a meager 1,600 calories a day. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Israel had received no armaments or foreign aid from the United States. The entity that put Israel on its feet was none other than West Germany in the form of reparations for the crime of the Holocaust.

Starting in 1952, West Germany agreed to pay Israel a total of nearly $1.8 billion (in current dollars) over the space of 14 years. These reparation payments transformed the fledgling state. Its electrical grid tripled, new manufacturing sprang up like mushrooms, a national airline, railroad and merchant fleet were established and the overall GNP rose by 15%; 45,000 jobs were created.

One would think that this arrangement would have resulted in a wave of general rejoicing. Instead, negotiating with the Germany caused violent riots in Israel — a county with tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors — by those who refused to take “blood money from Nazis.” Imagine if Osama bin Laden had offered reparations to New Yorkers for 9/11. Israel’s hard-headed and pragmatic leader, David Ben-Gurion, however, turned a deaf ear to the protests, claiming that the survival of the Jewish homeland depended upon these payments.

Despite the different circumstances, the above shows that the issue of reparations can trigger volcanic emotions. It can also bring about much needed justice where it is owned.

Here in the United States, reparations for the 246 years of African American slavery will check both boxes. It is a case of justice long overdue and a cause that will cause deep rifts in the American people.

In 1998, I participated in the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, a year-long walk to face the legacy of this evil institution. One morning, as our multi-racial group was having breakfast at a community center outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, the question of reparations came to the fore. At the time, the concept of paying reparations was unheard of in the public realm.

A local activist, a young African American man clad in a dashiki, was curious to query any white person in our collective about their views on reparations. Being a genuine white person, I consented. Although it wasn’t a topic I was particularly versed on, I gave my off-the-top-of-my-head opinions which were well received by my new companion.

To begin, I believed that reparations were necessary but admitted that the sticking point would be how to implement them. I noted that if you asked every white American to hand over a portion of their money to every Black American, you would have another Civil War on your hands (my exact words.) Even during the Clinton presidency, I was aware that there was still an undercurrent of white racism in America disguised but not extinguished by the phony pretenses of political correctness.

My alternative was to take several hundred billions of dollars from our pork-ridden, military-industrial sinkhole and invest in African American colleges, communities, businesses and other forms of Black-created infrastructure that would yield long range benefits far beyond a single check that vanished after a few bill payments.

Decades later, I feel the same way. America was built on the blood, sweat and tears of its kidnapped and brutalized citizens of African descent and as another North Carolina activist told me, “We Black people have given far more to this country than we could ever possibly take.” And while slavery was abolished in 1865, the pernicious denial of African American rights continues with police shootings of unarmed Black men and women as well as the undemocratic and racist voter suppression tactics of the Republican Party.

The messy part of reparations is that it will not end white racism which has been ingrained in the national character for centuries and is the Gordian knot of the challenges facing the United States. Even in “progressive” Franklin County, it is far from non-nonexistent as those of us who participated in a recent online community forum discovered. Hopefully, in the distant future, humanity will evolve beyond it and future enlightened generations will shake their heads in amused wonder. In the meantime, it is a matter of rendering justice in a tangible form to right past wrongs.

Daniel A. Brown lived in Franklin County for 44 years and is a frequent contributor to the Recorder. He lives in Taos, New Mexico with his wife, Lisa and dog, Cody.

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