Randall Robinson believes that America owes him and all blacks a debt. Anyone who finishes his book should be forgiven for thinking that he has thereby paid it. The Debt drags the reader through a slough of bald assertion, contradiction, historical misrepresentation, vulgar Marxism and New-Age jargon (“vitals of the larger immortal self”), all undergirded by a pervasive racism. Blacks are blameless, whites always to blame. Not to mention the 37-page paean to Cuba that condemns American policy toward the island utopia and the rest of Latin America. The purpose of this long strange trip is to persuade blacks and anyone who feels guilty about slavery and its aftermath that restitution for slavery, or at least demands for restitution, must be made.
Robinson does not explain the peculiar character of his book or why the demand for restitution is as good as, if not better than, restitution itself. It is only when one looks at the claim for slavery reparations in a larger context that one sees what Robinson is about. Elazar Barkan’s The Guilt of Nations provides that context. He describes 12 different cases where victims of historical injustices have demanded compensation, beginning with Jews following World War II and concluding with ongoing native claims in New Zealand. Beyond that, he analyzes what his final chapter calls the theory of restitution, a framework of assumptions and guidelines that has slowly emerged as these cases have developed.
According to Barkan, restitution cases are collaborative negotiations through which victims, operating as a group on the basis of supposed group rights, regain their self-respect by recovering what was taken from them and thus move toward equality with their former oppressors. Whether the issue is restitution strictly speaking (return of specific property or cultural artifacts) or reparation (“recompense for that which cannot be returned,” e.g. a life, dignity, labor), Barkan reports that no “meta-moral principle” guides the negotiation, except for some fuzzy (his word) notions of justice. It is a political process. “In pursuing restitution, groups barter histories and national memories for recognition and material resources…[L]egitimizing one’s story has become a prime political target” because it leads to increased self-esteem (history is to a nation or people what memory is to the individual; it determines identity) and possibly money. The states that are the objects of these claims assuage their guilt or enhance their international standing by reaching an accommodation.
Barkan develops this theory of restitution not on the basis of abstract reasoning but through detailed and illuminating accounts of the politics of the cases he considers. In other words, when he looks at these cases he does not see the articulation in them of abstract rights or notions of justice; nor does he see such things implicit in the arguments for and against restitution. He concludes, therefore, that the restitution cases are part of “a shift away from abstract principles and rights, toward political discourse, narratives and contexts.” On the whole, one senses that Barkan thinks this is progress.
Randall Robinson’s effort fits perfectly into what Barkan calls the theory of restitution. In his discussion of the debt-owed blacks, Robinson avoids talking about “abstract principles and rights.” In fact, he avoids argument altogether. He is not concerned with establishing the truth or justice of his claim about a debt. He says or implies several times that there is no truth or objectivity. His primary interest is altering how blacks think about themselves. He wants to help legitimize a particular narrative of black history as a way of bolstering black self-esteem and group-consciousness. He wants blacks to believe that Africa had great civilizations “equal to any in the world,” that Africans “gave art, and craft and science to the whole world,” that ancient Egyptian and Greek civilization were borrowed from Africa’s achievements. If blacks come to believe this narrative, they will recover their identity and self-worth and thus their psychic and social health. They will have a reason to demand compensation for the culture that slavery destroyed and, if the narrative gains legitimacy in society, they will have reason to hope for support for this demand. The willingness of blacks to demand reparations, whether or not they receive them, is a barometer, then, of their standing in society at large and of their psychic and social health.
Because Robinson thinks there is no objectivity, he is presumably not bothered by the fact that he misrepresents or gets wrong so many facts in constructing his narrative. But how healthy can it be for blacks to have their self-worth based on falsehoods? It is not just ancient history that Robinson’s narrative distorts. When he is denigrating America—as part of his case that blacks do not like America and cannot be part of it—he reports that George Washington was a slave owner and bequeathed his slaves to his wife, neglecting to mention that the bequest included the stipulation that the slaves be freed, as they were. He says nothing about the struggle in the United States to end slavery or the role played in that struggle by the Declaration of Independence, whose “abstract truth” of human equality, according to Lincoln, is a perpetual “rebuke and stumbling block” to tyranny.
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More important than these misrepresentations, however, are the contradictions in Robinson’s account. The most fundamental of these is his denial of objectivity, his avoidance of talk about rights or principles of justice (there is one fleeting mention of “natural justice”), while claiming that an injustice has been done to blacks that must be repaired. If objectivity and truth are so illusive, how can we know that an injustice was done? Conversely, if Robinson is so sure that an injustice was done, how can he doubt the attainability of truth? Robinson feels as strongly as it could be felt the injustice of slavery, but he has no way to talk about it except by inventing a self-serving narrative.
Barkan tends to see this shift from arguing about justice to hawking narratives, and from individual rights to group rights, as a good thing because it allows more room for political maneuver. But the shift is in reality a disaster for minorities. First, some conception of natural justice as the basis for claiming that a debt is owed is the one thing that could make talk of reparations appear to be something more than mere money-grubbing and psychobabble. Second, if there is no justice or if we cannot apprehend it objectively, then politics is only a matter of power. If it is only a matter of power, as Robinson seems to assume, why should a majority not ruthlessly exploit, even enslave, a minority?
It may be the case, as Barkan suggests, that when he studied restitution cases he did not see the various participants in them articulate principles of justice. Robinson certainly does not. Both men may be too enslaved by the reigning post-modern intellectual outlook to see or articulate such principles. This does not mean, however, that they are not implicit in the claims and counterclaims that make up these cases. The virtue of Roy L. Brooks’s When Sorry Isn’t Enough is that it juxtaposes such competing claims and shows the necessity for sorting them out.
On balance, the arguments for slavery reparations do not seem strong. On a legal plane, the argument assumes that people engaged in a legal activity, as slavery was, can be penalized for this once the activity is declared illegal and they have stopped. But the argument for slavery reparations suffers other disabilities. Reparations would now be a case of individuals who were never slaveholders giving money to individuals who were never slaves. This distinguishes the slavery case from the cases of the Jews or Japanese-Americans after World War II. Nor are slavery reparations like restitution to groups such as Native Americans, since treaties were involved in this case and Indians have a recognized corporate existence as tribes.
In tacit acknowledgement of such difficulties, and in contradiction of his tendency to deny the higher law tradition that informed both the Declaration of Independence and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Robinson insists on the moral responsibility of the U.S. government and other institutions. He suggests that the federal government and private institutions that benefited from slavery, like Brown University, should pay. In estimating this responsibility and the debt that he believes arises from it, however, he ignores, as noted, what the government did to end slavery and has done more recently to end segregation and to deal with the current condition of blacks through affirmative action. Private institutions have made similar efforts. Brown University, for instance, has been in the vanguard of such efforts and supports the kind of identity politics that Robinson encourages. Diversity is now part of virtually every corporation’s agenda.
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Finally, one must question the whole basis of Robinson’s approach. Is it really the case that social pathologies among blacks result from having their African culture taken from them and that they must therefore be compensated for this? Are these pathologies not of more recent origin, the result of failed efforts at social reform over the past 40 years or so?
For Robinson, the truth of such arguments for and against reparations is beside the point. His purpose is to raise black group consciousness, to turn attention away from individual responsibility, to create a new black narrative as part of a crude (i.e., merely self-interested) political process to win rewards for blacks as a group. Barkan makes clear that this is the game in all the struggles over restitution that he studied. There is a good chance that Robinson and his supporters, although not having strong support now even among blacks, will ultimately win at least some portion of what they seek in this political struggle.
The Democratic Party is beholden to blacks for electoral success and may at some point feel compelled to negotiate and compromise on the question of reparations. John Conyers regularly introduces a bill in Congress on reparations, and the city councils of Chicago and Washington have passed resolutions supporting reparations. Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor, Johnny Cochran of O.J. fame, and lawyers who have won billions in class action suits are preparing such a suit on behalf of blacks. A Republican president or other Republican politicians looking to build support among blacks may fall into line. The result, ironically, will be the further erosion of the principles of right and justice by whose light slavery was destroyed in the United States and around the world.