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Sorry Isn't Good Enough

A simple apology for slavery leaves unpaid debts

By Jack E. White

TIME magazine

(TIME, June 30) Okay, Mr. President, I'll accept your apology for slavery. Now where's my 40 acres and mule? I'm referring to the land and farm animals freed slaves like my grandfather George White expected to get after the Civil War to help them support themselves and make their new liberty real. For most of them, of course, the promise never materialized, even though the Freedmen's Bureau had the authority to rent abandoned or confiscated Southern farmland to freed slaves until they could afford to buy it. If that brave promise had been kept, Mr. President, you wouldn't be embroiled in the latest debate about a government apology for slavery. If the freedmen had become landowners instead of penurious laborers, their descendants would be prosperous enough today to be, well, conservative Republicans.

Without some form of reparations, apologizing for a historical wrong is an empty gesture. For one thing, both the slaves and the slave owners are long since dead, and you can't repent for the sins of others. And even if you could, our legal system recognizes that repentance without compensation serves only to make the apologizer feel good while doing nothing for the victim. It's why the U.S. government not only apologized but paid $20,000 apiece to Japanese Americans who were sent to concentration camps during World War II. And why Germany not only apologized to the Jews for the Nazi Holocaust but sent more than $60 billion in restitution. Mr. President, if slavery was as big a historical crime as you suggest--and it undoubtedly was--those precedents ought to apply. But you've made it clear that you oppose reparations. If you're serious about being sorry, you should rethink that stance.

To be sure, it would cost you. Figure it this way. The first slaves arrived here in 1619, and emancipation came in 1863. That's 244 years of unpaid labor by a total of, say, 10 million slaves. Multiplied by 25 [cents] a day, the going rate for unskilled labor back then, it amounts to $222 billion. Throw in another $222 billion for pain and suffering, and you get $444 billion. At 3% interest compounded over the 134 years since emancipation, that adds up to $24 trillion. Serious money.

The second issue is how to distribute it. As the grandson of a slave, I naturally favor dividing it into lump sums and giving them to my generation of the slaves' descendants--but that would be too much like hitting the lottery. So here's another idea. Use the money to uplift those who have been most hurt not only by the legacy of slavery but by existing discrimination and poverty: the urban and rural black poor. Put the money into a fund--call it the New Freedmen's Bureau--to finance the construction of schools, housing, transportation grids, factories, you name it, in the most depressed areas where the descendants of slaves are a majority. Use it to help finance new black-owned companies, to put poor black kids through college and endow cash-poor historically black universities, to run drug-treatment and job-training centers. Since the government is too deeply in debt to put up the whole sum at once, it could pay it off in installments over, say, the next 244 years. With a program like that, Mr. President, you could scrap affirmative action, welfare reform and the entire host of Great Society programs. You'd be fighting present-day injustice and social ills instead of futilely trying to atone for the sins of the past.

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