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Our country has paid bill for slavery

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© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- It is astonishing to read the Declaration of Independence and reflect that the nation to which it gave birth practiced slavery on a vast scale. To that point, slavery had been the British government's moral responsibility. Thereafter, it became ours, and we haven't quite come to terms with that burden even now, almost 150 years after abolition.

The slaveholders and their enablers, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, relied on racist claptrap to rationalize the "peculiar institution," much as the Nazis were later to deny the humanity of all those whose rights they were determined to disrespect. The racism was more durable than the institution, and it continues to poison our economy, schools, justice system and self-respect.

"I see slavery is in retreat," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the United States in 1865, "but the prejudice from which it arose is immovable."

So when a biracial and bipartisan group of House members including Tony Hall of Ohio and John Lewis of Georgia propose that Congress apologize for slavery and establish a commission to remedy its effects, they deserve to be taken seriously. It is about making all of us whole, including the many whose ancestors, like mine, immigrated long after the Civil War. A stake in your country's history comes with its citizenship.

What Hall's resolution does not propose, significantly, is that the United States pay reparations for slavery. This won't satisfy activists who are clamoring, here and abroad, for reparations on a broad scale.

That debate has taken place largely beneath the radar of the establishment press, but this won't be the last you hear of it.

Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, says it's useful to talk about reparations although he adds that nobody has "any great dreams or high hopes" that the government would ever pay any. The discussion, he said Friday, would at least "help to put a lot of the hurt, the pain, on the table, and we need to do that," he said. He doesn't fear that having that unrealistic goal on the table would backfire on the apology resolution and help to kill it, but I think proponents should seriously consider that possibility.

Reparations also have their problems on the merits.

First, because there is no precedent. Every example supporters cite is for a fairly contemporary offense, such as Rosewood, the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Holocaust, from which original victims survived to be compensated. Payments to Native Americans have been for land, not genocide.

Secondly, because of the daunting questions of how much to pay and who should get it. Would Thomas Jefferson's descendants qualify for full shares? Do Gary Sheffield and Michael Jordan really need the money?

Thirdly, because it conflicts with policy measures that could -- and should -- be implemented, such as breaking cycles of poverty, reforming the justice system and seeing to it that no one's education, job opportunities or housing is inferior because of race.

But the ultimate argument against reparations is that they have already been paid.

They were paid at First and Second Manassas, at Shilo, Antietam, Chicamauga and Gettysburg. They were paid at Andersonville. They were paid in the Wilderness and at Cold Harbor, at Vicksburg and Petersburg, at hundreds of other battlefields large and small, and in festering hospitals where disease claimed more Civil War soldiers than Minie balls, sharpened steel and artillery.

More than 600,000 Americans died in that war and at least 300,000 more suffered wounds. Were the same proportion of today's population to become casualties, they would number more than 7-million.

Slavery caused that war, whether all those who were doing the dying knew it or not. Their deaths were the price the United States paid for the Declaration's failure to renounce slavery and for the compromises at Philadelphia that wrote it into the Constitution in ways that Congress might never have been able to erase without the provocation at Fort Sumter.

Four years later, in his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln indelibly defined the war as retribution for slavery.

"Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away," he said.

"Yet if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.' "

Historians have remarked how the passage blamed neither the North or the South, and in David Herbert Donald's view, "absolved both . . . of guilt for the never-ending bloodshed." But conversely, it held both accountable for the cause of the war.

The bill for slavery has been paid. Not so the bill for racism. It is overdue.

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