Setup for reparations discussions anything but fair for the con side


I WALKED OUT of New York's Penn Station right into a horde of bodies that couldn't quite avoid smashing into each other along 7th Avenue near 34th Street. After about 20 minutes, I figured the driver who was supposed to take me to Queens wasn't going to show.

So down into the subway I went, to hop one of those cars to Queens that former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker said were so horrible. (The ride wasn't that bad.) My debating partner, Congress of Racial Equality national spokesman Niger Innis, picked me up in Queens, and the two of us headed for the Rev. Floyd Flake's huge church.

The debate topic was reparations for slavery. This day would be my third foray into the Reparations Wars and Tour of 2002. Innis asked me to be on the panel when debate organizers, with at least five pro-reparations speakers in the lineup, told him they had difficulty finding a second person on the con side.

I immediately empathized with Innis, having been to another such "discussion" at the University of Maryland, Baltimore last month. Ron Walters, a University of Maryland, College Park professor who is staunchly pro-reparations, gave a 20-minute overview. There were eight other speakers. I was the only one anti-reparations.

You have to admire the pro-reparations folks' notion of fair odds, if you'll forgive me for borrowing a line from The Magnificent Seven.

Here's the way forums in the Reparations War and Tour of 2002 have worked so far:

The pro-reparationists get about five, six, or seven on their team. They square off against one or two on the con side. The audience is usually predominantly black and pro-reparations. Members of the audience clap and hoot wildly whenever they agree with something - usually it's everything, no matter whether it's valid or downright absurd - the pro-reparationists utter.

When the evening's over, all those black folks for reparations figure the thing is a done deal, that reparations are surely going to come and that white Americans have absolutely no say in the matter.

Quaint idea, isn't it?

During all the cheering, applauding and whooping it up for reparations, the black folks in these distinctly African-American settings figure their views will prevail out in places such as Iowa, Montana, Minnesota and other states where there are Caucasians for miles upon miles. They figure these whites - who get maligned by pro-reparationists in every forum - will really write their representatives and senators and urge them to vote for a huge sum of money to be paid as reparations for slavery.

Mind you, no one on the pro-reparations side of this debate has uttered one word that will encourage whites and other non-blacks to do this. And the debate at Flake's church was no different.

On the pro side was Charles Barron, that classy gentleman who took the podium in August at the Millions for Reparations rally in the nation's capital and threatened to slap a white person "for my mental health."

Joining him were U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, Deadria Farmer- Paellmann, who has pushed for lawsuits against corporations that profited from slavery, and Roger Wareham, the attorney who filed those suits.

None of them said anything you haven't heard before. Black America, they contend, is in an awful state, afflicted with poverty and misery and injustice.

The notion borders on calumny.

Some 50 percent of blacks are in the middle class. In 1995, only 26 percent of African-Americans were below the poverty line. Recent census figures show that number has dropped since then, to 22.5 percent.

Congress, Meeks contended, has never acknowledged or apologized for slavery. Congress didn't have to, I countered. President Lyndon Johnson acknowledged slavery and its ill effects on black Americans when he signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and in his famous Howard University commencement address that same year.

When Innis pointed out the reluctance of the pro-reparationists to demand reparations from Arabs and Africans who traded in black flesh for far longer than Europeans ever did, he was met with a curious reaction.

Barron all but denied such happened, claiming, against reliable historical data, that the African involvement in the slave trade was "minimal." Meeks' argument was that New World slavery was much harsher.

You have to figure that the works of Afro-Caribbean author Maryse Conde -who has written historical fiction about how harsh the intra-African slave trade was - and Hugh Thomas' work, The Slave Trade, are not on the pro-reparationist reading list. But we know which book is.

It's that well-known epic, Whitey Is Evil.

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