Stay tuned: Program considers slavery reparations

By Mara Rockliff

Forty gorgeous rolling acres in historic Albemarle County. How much does a chunk of real estate like that go for these days? $250,000? $500,000? Throw in a big old farmhouse, and you’re talking a cool million, easy. Right?
Before the Civil War, nearly half of Albemarle’s population was enslaved by the other half. If each newly freed slave had received the famous “forty acres and a mule” (not much payment for a lifetime of forced labor and abuse) they would have had a legacy to pass down to their children and their children’s children. Instead, they got nothing– not even an apology.
Is it payback time?
That’s the question historian William Alexander and Constitutional law scholar Davison Douglas delve into this week on Virginia’s only statewide public radio program, With Good Reason, produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
The U.S. government has apologized and made reparations– to the tune of trillions– for historical wrongs ranging from WWII internment of Japanese Americans to the wholesale theft of American Indian land. But there has never been a formal apology or any reparations paid for slavery. Nor has the government so far been willing to examine how the wealth gap between blacks and whites today might be traced to that “peculiar institution.”
Some descendants of former slaves are tired of waiting. In the last two months, they’ve filed several class-action lawsuits against corporations that they say profited from slavery– and still hang on to their ill-gotten assets today. Further suits against the U.S. government and such former slave states as Virginia may be in the works.
The backlash has begun already. Conservative commentators claim that reparations will hurt race relations. (“Race relations” must mean “how whites feel about blacks,” since it’s hard to see how an apology backed by cold cash would fan anger in the African American community.) They also point out that few white Americans descend from slave owners, and suggests that the rest shouldn’t have to see their tax dollars go to pay for the country’s past mistakes.
Other issues bedevil even those who favor reparations. Who gets paid? How much? And in what form? Should a trust fund pay for education, housing loans, business grants, and health care for any African American in need? Or will payments be restricted to those lucky few with paper proof of genealogy?
Tune in…

Constitutional law scholar Davison Douglas and historian William Alexander discuss the slave-reparation controversy on Virginia public radio’s With Good Reason. The show airs Saturday, May 18, at 8 pm (encore at 8:30 pm) on WMRA, and again on Wednesday, May 22, at 7:30 pm on WVTF.