The Huge Debt

Barack Obama has launched a justice reform initiative. In the background looms the specter of slavery which still affects us today.

Slavery in the United States ended 150 years ago, but it still weighs heavily on a nation that has never really come to terms with the legacy of this inhuman system. The income disparity between whites and blacks remains blatant. Jamal has fewer chances to get a job than John. According to figures from the Department of Justice, nearly three percent of all black males are behind bars. The racism necessary to justify slavery that at best elevates blacks to second-class citizen status is deep-seated.

But there are signs that American society is moving toward change on that front. President Obama spoke of the legacy of slavery during his announcement of the reform initiative, emphasizing race and wealth as factors in inequality. African-Americans are disproportionately arrested and more severely punished than their white counterparts. One out of every nine black children has a father doing time in prison, according to Obama.

The “Black Lives Matter” movement focuses attention on the disproportionately high number of blacks shot to death by the police. Following the racially motivated murder of nine black church members in South Carolina, the state government decided it was time to stop flying the confederate flag, which is a symbol of the Civil War fought from 1861 to 1865 to preserve slavery. The usually conservative Times Dispatch newspaper in Richmond, Virginia — which was at the time of the Civil War the capital of the Confederacy —caused a stir when it published a column in which it called for the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the history of slavery. The newspaper said that the widespread attitude in white America that slavery, and the years of racial segregation that followed it, had not left their mark on the nation and was an insult to all who had lived through it and helped make that history.

Unloaded at Pier 17

Then came this scene at the end of June in the New York financial district at the intersection of Wall and Water Streets: Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plaque dedicated to those enslaved Africans who were forced to build the city of New York in the 18th century. Slaves didn’t just toil in the cotton fields and sugar plantations of the South; slavery developed into a national institution that became a southern phenomenon only after the northern states turned to industrialization and rejected slavery in the new western territories as well. Up until 1762 there was a slave market on Wall Street where men and women — forcibly abducted from their homes in Africa — were bought and sold. The slaves were unloaded at Pier 17 on the East River, now a tourist attraction called the South Street Seaport.

Author Chirlane McCray also stated that slavery was still visible today in such problems as racism, segregation and income disparity. The numbers are well known: 39 percent of black children are raised in poverty, and the African-American poverty rate is at least three times greater than that of whites. The average net worth of white households according to the Pew Research Center is $141,900, more than 12 times that for blacks.

Although American whites like to spotlight individual success stories by blacks, African-Americans have to try harder. The fact remains that immense fortunes were accumulated and inherited because of slavery. Financiers on the east coast, like Brown Brothers Harriman, invested in slavery. The firm has presented itself for over 200 years as “a thought leader and solutions provider” and continues to do so on its website today. In the mid-19th century, it provided financing for slave plantations.

The Bush dynasty also directly profited from slavery. Prescott Bush (1895-1972), father of ex-President George H.W. Bush and grandfather of George W. and Jeb, were partners in Brown Brothers. The fact that Jeb is a millionaire himself today and therefore has a better chance to be elected president than the descendants of slaves purchased with Brown Brothers financing should be obvious. The journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes for The Atlantic magazine, says that slavery didn’t just suddenly disappear concurrent with the end of the Civil War and the defeat of the South in 1865. The plantations weren’t automatically given over to the liberated slaves. Union troops left the south 12 years after the war’s end, marking the beginning of decades of persistent white terror accompanied by thousands of black lynchings and crude racism.

Overdue Reparations

According to Coates, even progressive reforms such as government pensions and unemployment insurance introduced in the mid-1930s didn’t help many blacks at first, since domestic and farm workers were not eligible and blacks made up the majority of such southern workers at the time. Prosperity in the wake of World War II and the dream of home ownership — with the attendant increasing values and the possibility of passing the property down to the next generation — were dependent on government loan guarantees, which were seldom approved for predominantly black neighborhoods. During the real estate crisis in the recession of 2008-2009, a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos lost their homes because their mortgages were less adequately insured than white-owned properties.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently wrote extensively on the subject of “Slavery’s Long Shadow.” Republicans warned white citizens that governmental programs were too effective in assisting minorities. When states were given the option to reject strengthening Medicaid for the poorest citizens, 22 out of 50 opted against increasing aid. Krugman found that in the former slave states, minimum wages were lower and the hatred of labor unions greater. Mercedes Benz, BMW, Airbus and other European corporations readily discovered these low-wage zones and used them to their advantage.

Contemplating the legacy of slavery begs the question of reparations. Isn’t it high time to consider that? The United States has never apologized — has never even acknowledged that it owes the victims anything. Skeptics like to point out the difficulties inherent in such a plan: What would a government reparations program look like? Wouldn’t it actually drive blacks and whites further apart?

Since 1989, his first year in the House of Representatives, John Conyers has introduced legislation at the start of each legislative session proposing reparations. It is indisputable that more than 4 million Africans and their descendants were enslaved from 1619 to 1865. Conyers says that is one reason the United States became one of the wealthiest nations in the free world.

Understandably, the proposal has never found great support. When the word slavery is mentioned, the subject is immediately changed to the legendary land of the free that has been unparalleled in world history. George Washington, America’s first president, as well as many other founding fathers, were slave owners and were apparently content to live with the contradiction between their own liberty and the lack of it among their slaves.

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