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It's not charity; it's an outstanding debt

Illustration by Cody Angell
By Laura Winsky
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday Mar. 25, 2002

This column, shaped by nearly two years of research, is about a sensitive subject. It is with hope that the following is an academic and logical approach to the issue. It is by no means complete and written from an outside perspective, but offers a sketch of the debate and a look at future possibilities.

The United States currently holds many developing nations to outstanding debts which in turn often causes these nations to put off healthcare and education costs to continue to try to repay the balance. Many call this unjust, but it is also highly hypocritical. The U.S. government itself has an egregious, outstanding debt that it has not begun to acknowledge, let alone pay back. Our colonial-era economy was forged with cotton cultivated by the hands of free labor - quite a rewarding investment, and one which we continue to profit from today. Thousands of "Americans" spent their lives in a farming "career," and they were never paid a dime for their work. Discussion of lost wages has been documented in several ways including letters between "employees" and "employers" such as the following dated Aug. 7, 1865 from Jourdan Anderson in Tennessee:

"Sir: I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars." (Taken from "The Debt," by Randall Robinson, 2000).

Slavery has been discussed through the decades as unethical, but not as financially unsound. Today's African Americans are grouped together as a part of a large minority of peoples, when financially, they remain a distinct part of society: a group that has yet to be paid for the labor of their ancestors. The debt must be paid in full, and paid now. The "it's too late" argument, is not an acceptable answer, for there is a body of international precedents that makes an argument for it even after the passage of time.

Under pressure from the United States, the German government and 16 private German companies created a $1.7 billion- dollar fund to compensate Holocaust victims (cited in Robinson). Fifty-six years after his liberation from Dachau, Boris Abel received a $4,454.38 check cut by the German government on Feb. 16, 2002, as part of Germany's "Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future" program (Arizona Daily Star, Feb. 24, 2002). It is peanuts, but at least it's acknowledgment.

Should the U.S. start cutting checks? No. But multicultural programs and affirmative action do not qualify as payment toward the debt. Leading economists should estimate the wages that were earned, then cut a slice of the budget to be reserved as a 10-year fund for African Americans. The logistics of this aren't important - the motivations behind them are. Those who disagree with the fund would by no means be required to take part, but others will benefit.

Here's the connection to the university system. This column belongs in a university paper for two reasons. One, education might be the primary goal of the fund. Since education of slaves was prohibited, and forms of self-education were illegal, then today education should be freely accessible and highly encouraged. African Americans prepared to go to college should do so absolutely free. How? The debt money could be used as if a trust fund had been set up for the young by their hard-working, long-deceased ancestors.

Two, this column is necessary because across the nation, we are beginning to hear the opposite from the university system. For instance, Fred Mohs, a UW-Madison regent has recently unleashed an onslaught of guest opinions on the city's papers arguing against affirmative action (which is state law). He has horrified the community with some of his ideas about race and education, including "We need to shed the belief that blackness is an irredeemably tragic and permanent condition", and "young black students have become culturally disinclined to dedicate themselves to school as much as other students do"(WSJ, Feb. 23, 2002). We know that more understanding is needed, even for those we trust to be more knowledgeable - like university regents.

Officially apologizing and acknowledging slavery's wrongs is a must and will be done so through the restitution that has been called for since slavery ended. The U.S. government has sponsored nothing as positive as to begin to match the powerful negative that occurred. As Norman Francis, president of Xavier University has said, a counter-force is required "as strong as the force that put [them] in chains."

That force remains to be the wages owed. The time is now - for interest is accruing.


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