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Pendle Hill forum deliberates the difficulties of historical justice

By
February 4, 2005

Several members of the Quaker community and a handful of students gathered in a Science Center lecture hall last night to attend a panel discussion entitled, “Doing Historical Justice: Reparations and Other Remedies.” Part of a series of forums called “Decisions for America,” hosted by the Pendle Hill Peace Network (PHPN), the panel broached the topic of the possibility of making reparations for historical injustices perpetuated in America, specifically upon African American and Native American communities.

Four panelists from a range of different perspectives were featured, each broaching the topic individually first, and following up with debate and discussion, moderated by Joey Rodger, executive director of the PHPN.

Alfred Brophy, professor of law at the University of Alabama, started the discussion by laying out some of the “key points of contention” in the debates about making reparations to descendants of African American slaves. He spoke of the great differences between those in favor of reparations, who emphasize the horrors of slavery; and reparation skeptics, who highlight the opportunities available to African Americans today and lay the blame on African American culture for any perceived social inequities. Pro-reparations himself, Brophy asserted that one in four African Americans live in poverty, and explained that “if we didn’t have these inequalities, there would be no talk of reparations.” Brophy saw the best chance for reparations in legislation and private action, citing the J. P. Morgan Company as a heartening example of the latter. According to Brophy, J. P. Morgan recently issued a public apology after investigating its history and confronting the fact that their predecessor company used slaves as collateral for loans. Acknowledgment of this history also led J. P. Morgan to institute a college scholarship program for African Americans in Louisiana.

Aura Kanegis, director of communications at the First Nations Development Institute, a support organization for Native Americans, spoke of the situation of Native Americans in relation to the question of reparations. “For tribes,” she said, “it comes down to two words: in perpetuity.” The many treaties the U.S. signed with native tribes, she explained, exchanged land for protections of sovereignty, welfare and education ‘in perpetuity,’ or forever. Kanegis noted that there is always a fear for tribal communities that reparation legislation will become an extinguishment of all claims and the end of the trust relationship the U.S. government has maintained, at least in name, for years. She argued that rather than viewing reparations as undue entitlement, they could simply be seen as payment of rent.

Raymond Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, also expressed the view that reparations are a matter of justice, not corporate handouts. He addressed several claims made against reparations, including those who say, “Let’s forget about it and get along as a people,” a stance which he described as the “Rodney King defense.” If they ask us as Americans “to remember the Alamo, the Maine, the Fourth of July,” then “let’s remember all of it,” he advocated. Rather than dividing America further along racial lines, Winbush said, reconciliation is important for white and black Americans alike.

Gregory Kane, a columnist for the Baltimore Sun, was the last panelist to speak, and the only who professed to be against reparations. “I don’t believe in the sins of the father syndrome,” he explained. Kane cited many examples of injustices perpetuated against white Americans and argued that to make reparations, America would need to “cherry pick the injustices” that it wanted to atone for, leaving many others unaddressed. Rather than reparations (though he expressed some support for reparations to very impoverished African Americans), he stressed the need for “a warmer world.”

The panelists’ responses to each others’ comments focused on the difference between collective and individual history. Winbush argued that governmental culpability is “the entire issue” and that “we always individualize it but this has to do with nations.” The truth commissions of South Africa were cited as a productive starting point, with Winbush emphasizing that the history of slavery has wrought psychological damage on white Americans as well.

The night ended with the panel answering questions submitted from the audience, and each panelist giving those in attendance a quick piece of advice as to what they could do. Winbush said to “read thirty minutes a day about enslavement in America,” and Kanegis urged the audience to “write to your members of Congress early and often.”

A streaming audio version of last night’s panel will soon be available on PHPN’s website, http://www.phpeace.net. PHPN will be sponsoring another forum on March 3 on “Our Media and a Healthy Democracy.”