THE BLOG
05/27/2014 08:25 am ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Talking About America's Original Sin

It was inevitable; and, unavoidable. Sooner or later, the 24/7 invisible and unacknowledged issue in every American household would move from the shadows into the sunlight of morality and human decency once again: a national DISCUSSION about REPARATIONS for the successor generation of African-Americans whose ancestors, as slaves, provided centuries of unpaid labor toward the creation of the national wealth of the United States.

"250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of separate but equal, 35 years of state-sanctioned redlining. Until we reckon with the compounding moral debts of our ancestors, America will never be whole. THE CASE FOR REPARATIONS." This is the cover article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic magazine.

"American prosperity was built on two and a half centuries of slavery, a deep wound that has never been healed or fully atoned for... Until America reckons with the moral debt it has accrued -and the practical damage it has done-- to generations of black Americans, it will fail to live up to its own ideals."

The magazine article, like the UK movie director Steve McQueen's Academy Award-winning motion picture 12 Years a Slave, has provoked widespread social media discussion about the institution of slavery and the continuing historical consequences, TODAY, of that legacy.

It has become a "rite of political passage" or measure of political maturity or sophistication among the so-called "Joshua generation" of African-American leaders to dismiss the issue of "reparations" as part of an outdated lexicon used by an earlier "Moses generation." Among the current Obama generation of political leaders, advisers and Democratic campaign speechwriters, "reparations" is no longer deemed "politically relevant." Understandably, the magnitude of the current annual rate of unemployment is immediately more meaningful.

In previous blogs we mentioned that I teach a 15-week course, "From Slavery to Obama," in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of San Francisco. Economic data recited by Mr. Coates in his article is also referenced in our course. "In 1860, slaves were an asset were more than all of America's manufacturing, all of its railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together."

Mr. Coates also cites Yale historian David W. Blight who wrote: "Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy."

The recent book Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty revealed to us the magnitude of the current disparity of wealth that has occurred in he United States during the last decades of the 20th century and the current 21st century. He reminds us that one family, the Waltons, who control the retail giant WalMart, now owns more wealth than the bottom 48 million families in America combined. Wealth inequality is back to the levels of wealth disparity portrayed in The Great Gatsby.

The article by Coates, the movie by Steve Queen, and the Piketty book, collectively, provide us with an opportunity to reflect about a potential "national reckoning" that might lead to a" healing renewal" and a reclamation of America's soul related to the historical consequences of the legacy of slavery upon current 21st century America.

On June 4, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered the Commencement speech at Howard University, a "historically Black College." During the course of his address the president said:

"You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates."

In the April 29, 2014, 6-2 Supreme Court decision in Schuette vs. The Coalition To Defend Affirmative Action, Justice Sotomayor, in her dissenting opinion, wrote:

"In my colleagues' view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination... The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes wide open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination." (Emphasis added)

So, what does it say about us as a nation, when, on the one hand a mere DISCUSSION of the issue of reparations is characterized as "out of hand" by the same people who celebrate, in real time, today, the presence of Confederate flags and other memorabilia of slave owning states at their political rallies, in addition to their prominent display of personally carried guns?

"Reparations would mean the end of yelling 'patriotism' while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution on the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history."

Moreover, what does it say about our Congress that for 20 consecutive years a proposal by Congressman John Conyers from Michigan, merely to create a commission to study the issue of reparations cannot get sufficient votes in committee to bring the proposal to the floor of the House for consideration and debate. Not a commission to consider paying any reparations; only a committee to STUDY the issue.

Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, wrote about the institution of slavery: "I tremble for my country when I know that God is just."