DOES THE second-class social and economic status of many African Americans today have any connection to the brutal and dehumanizing system of slavery?
Is segregation in any way to blame? What about the myriad other forms of discrimination once sanctioned by our government?
My answer is yes, on all counts. But until recently, I mostly ignored those who want to press the U.S. government to pay compensation to the victims of those injustices. The whole notion struck me as laughable, a waste of valuable energy and, more to the point, unrealistic.
"I don't believe that this issue has passed the political laugh test," agreed Wade Henderson, the NAACP's chief Washington lobbyist. "There are many people who do not believe the reparations movement has credibility."
Not that Mr. Henderson doesn't think that can change. He is part of a small but growing movement vying to move the discussion of reparations for African Americans out of the domain of militants and nationalists and into the mainstream of political debate.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the NAACP, Coretta Scott King, and several members of the Congressional Black Caucus support the idea of compensating African Americans for past, government-sanctioned injustices.
And after really listening to the argument for the first time at last month's black caucus conference in Washington, I think there is a strong case to be made for reparations.
But in a political environment where social programs aimed at preventing crime are derided as "pork," and where even modest attempts to address past discrimination -- such as affirmative action -- are attacked, it seems clear to me a reparations bill has little chance of winning approval in Washington.
But reparations proponents press against the odds. In Detroit last summer, black activists from around the country gathered for the fifth annual convention of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. And a forum on the subject is now a fixture at the black caucus' annual legislative conference.
Reparations is a long-held concept that has been upheld by international courts. For example, Jews collected reparations from Germany for the Holocaust. Japan has compensated several of its neighbors for its transgressions in that war. In 1988, Congress passed a bill authorizing payments of $20,000 each to surviving Japanese Americans who had been held in detention camps in the United States during World War II. Several Native American groups have been paid for land snatched from their ancestors.
"Reparations really grow out of a very simple concept in the law," Mr. Henderson said. "For every wrong, every injustice, there should be a way to be made whole."
Few would question that African Americans have been wronged in this society. Still, the idea of reparations being paid to the descendants of slaves usually brings rolled eyes, pained expressions or, as Mr. Henderson points out, laughs.
"People say, 'why don't you just let bygones be bygones?' " said Adjoa Aiyetoro, executive director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and a reparations proponent.
The problem, of course, is that the damage wrought by slavery and the systems that followed have very real consequences, even today. If nothing else, a full-blown discussion of reparations would give Americans -- many of whom are baffled by the hopelessness engendered by segments of the African-American community -- a fuller appreciation of the centuries of wide-ranging oppression directed at blacks.
But many African Americans do not want to be associated with a movement that threatens to underscore the stereotype that blacks only want a handout. Many think reparations is just a far-fetched distraction. They believe blacks would do better to emphasize more realistic avenues for improving their lot -- thrift, hard work and family and community cooperation, values that have already lifted so many out of poverty.
There also is the question of what would constitute adequate payment to America's more than 30 million blacks. Tax amnesty? Free college tuitions? Or some derivative of the 40 acres and a mule passed by Congress but vetoed after the Civil War by President Andrew Johnson?
Since 1989, Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, has been pushing a measure that would establish a national commission to study reparations. But the legislation has never gotten a hearing in Congress and probably never will.
"Opponents of this commission argue that the transgressions of slavery took place 150 years ago and we owe nothing to victims' descendants," Mr. Conyers said. "[But] African Americans are still victims of slavery as surely as those who lived under its confinement. Just as white Americans have benefited from education, life experiences and wealth that was handed down to them by their ancestors, so too have African Americans been harmed by the institution of slavery."
Despite the multitude of blacks who are successful nowadays -- two-thirds of blacks are not poor -- a disproportionate share are mired in poverty and despair, a condition reparations proponents attribute to slavery and its equally crippling successors that for generations excluded many blacks from jobs, educational opportunities and full citizenship.
And while there has been undeniable improvement, blacks continue to lag far behind whites socially and economically, a fact documented by many economic indicators.
Disproportionate numbers of blacks drop out of school, go to prison, and end up on welfare. Black median income of $21,500 a year was 57 percent of the white median of $38,000 in 1991. Similarly, unemployment was 14.1 percent for blacks and 6.5 percent for whites in 1992.
Reparations proponents say they know where to place the blame for that gap and that only government acknowledgment -- and payment -- would repair the damage. It is an argument that should not be laughed off.
Michael Fletcher is a Washington correspondent for The Evening Sun.