Reparations [7]: Global Accountability – Part 2

Proposals for reparations for American slavery often focus on centuries-old circumstances, legal issues, and cultural attitudes, proposing compensation to the descendants of slaves for ancestral harm suffered. This view treats slavery as something that ended at the Civil War and ignores its de facto persistence for another century until the 1960’s Civil Rights movement and for yet another 60 years of normalized cultural racism since then. Further, it misses the opportunity that reparations offer:  a chance to cleanse the past and create an inspired future. The global community offers a framework for this kind of opportunity — international human rights law, but the USA has long resisted global accountability, asserting instead its “rugged individualism” version of national sovereignty.

Rugged Individualism Sovereignty

Herbert Hoover introduced the term “rugged individualism” into the American lexicon in a 1928 campaign speech. [1] He began by acknowledging the need for federal control of the WWI mobilization, but rejected it as a standard for going forward, demonizing it as “European” and advocating a return to the Republican Party’s decentralized agenda.

“[At the end of World War I], the most vital of issues both in our own country and around the world was whether government should continue their wartime ownership and operation of… production and distribution. We were challenged with a… choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines ­ doctrines of paternalism and state socialism. The acceptance of these ideas would have meant the destruction of self-government through centralization… [and] the undermining of the individual initiative and enterprise through which our people have grown to unparalleled greatness.”[2]

Hoover’s perspective was untimely and off the mark. Rugged individualism didn’t pull the nation out of the 1930’s Great Depression. For that, the country needed another wave of massive federal investment in the New Deal, followed by another centralized war effort. After the second world war, federal guidance shepherded three decades of post-war recovery, but in time the nation returned to rugged individualism as politicians continued to demonize democratic socialism until it became synonymous with Soviet Communism — a characterization both intellectually and historically false.

Sovereignty Without Accountability

Rugged individualism applied to the issue of national sovereignty results in a lack of accountability which 20th Century political theorist Hannah Arendt identified as the identifying hallmark of totalitarianism, since it results in “the possession of all instruments of governmental power and violence in one country.”[3]

The historic roots of this outlook lie in a Biblical hierarchical worldview in which God reigns uncontested at the top, and national charters derive directly from the supreme divine source. God enjoys absolute sovereignty unaccountable to anyone for anything, and is therefore free to enforce divine will by any means, including holy war, genocide, temporal chastisement, and eternal torture. The derivative sovereignty of nations is similarly unrestrained. In this scheme, “the divine right of kings” protected the English monarchs with its declaration that “the king can do no wrong,” and the concept was imported into the Colonies as ”sovereign immunity,” which protects state and federal officials. The divine right of kings and sovereign immunity, like God’s rule, are therefore ultimately totalitarian.

“Many of us see the term [totalitarianism] primarily as polemical, used more to discredit governments than to offer meaningful analyses of them. Scholars often prefer the much broader term authoritarianism, which denotes any form of government that concentrates political power in the hands of an unaccountable elite.”[4]

International Accountability – The Nuremberg Trials

The Nazis in control of Germany operated under their own totalitarian version of national sovereignty, possessing “all instruments of governmental power and violence” which concentrated “political power in the hands of an unaccountable elite.” To hold them accountable after the end of the war, the victorious allies convened the Nuremberg Trials under the authority of a unilaterally-imposed instrument known as the London Charter.[5] The resulting trials defied traditional notions of national sovereignty, as described in a 1946 article in The Atlantic, written by a Federal judge.

“The Nuremberg War Trial has a strong claim to be considered the most significant as well as the most debatable event since the conclusion of hostilities. To those who support the trial it promises the first effective recognition of a world law for the punishment of malefactors who start wars or conduct them in bestial fashion. To the adverse critics the trial appears in many aspects a negation of principles which they regard as the heart of any system of justice under law.

“This sharp division of opinion has not been fully aired largely because it relates to an issue of foreign policy upon which this nation has already acted and on which debate may seem useless or, worse, merely to impair this country’s prestige and power abroad. Moreover, to the casual newspaper reader the long-range implications of the trial are not obvious. He sees most clearly that there are in the dock a score of widely known men who plainly deserve punishment. And he is pleased to note that four victorious nations, who have not been unanimous on all post-war questions, have, by a miracle of administrative skill, united in a proceeding that is overcoming the obstacles of varied languages, professional habits, and legal traditions. But the more profound observer is aware that the foundations of the Nuremberg trial may mark a watershed of modern law.”[6]

The Nuremberg Trials thus initiated an unprecedented accountability for transnational crimes:

“There were many legal and procedural difficulties to overcome in setting up the Nuremberg trials. First, there was no precedent for an international trial of war criminals. There were earlier instances of prosecution for war crimes, such as the execution of Confederate army officer Henry Wirz (1823-65) for his maltreatment of Union prisoners of war during the American Civil War (1861-65); and the courts-martial held by Turkey in 1919-20 to punish those responsible for the Armenian genocide of 1915-16. However, these were trials conducted according to the laws of a single nation rather than, as in the case of the Nuremberg trials, a group of four powers (France, Britain, the Soviet Union and the U.S.) with different legal traditions and practices.

“The Allies eventually established the laws and procedures for the Nuremberg trials with the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), issued on August 8, 1945. Among other things, the charter defined three categories of crimes: crimes against peace (including planning, preparing, starting or waging wars of aggression or wars in violation of international agreements), war crimes (including violations of customs or laws of war, including improper treatment of civilians and prisoners of war) and crimes against humanity (including murder, enslavement or deportation of civilians or persecution on political, religious or racial grounds). It was determined that civilian officials as well as military officers could be accused of war crimes.”[7]

“I was only following orders.”

National policy is carried out by individuals, and the Nuremberg Trials eliminated the defense that the accused were merely following the orders of the state. This was an unprecedented evidentiary innovation that, like the London Charter, defied historical notions of state sovereignty, particularly with respect to the actions of military personnel.

“In connection with war crimes of this sort there is only one question of law worth discussing here: Is it a defense to a soldier or civilian defendant that he acted under the order of a superior?

“The defense of superior orders is, upon the authorities, an open question. Without going into details, it may be said that superior orders have never been recognized as a complete defense by German, Russian, or French law, and that they have not been so recognized by civilian courts in the United States or the British Commonwealth of Nations, but they tend to be taken as a complete excuse by Anglo-American military manuals. In this state of the authorities, if the International Military Tribunal in connection with a charge of a war crime refuses to recognize superior orders as a defense, it will not be making a retroactive determination or applying an ex post facto law. It will be merely settling an open question of law as every court frequently does.”[8]

“Slavery was legal at the time” and the International Statute of Limitations for crimes against humanity.

A corollary of the “only following orders” defense is the assertion that slavery was legal at the time. General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox[9] presented a question of lingering guilt to former Confederates that was quickly resolved by Presidential pardons.[10]

International human rights law presents a similar problem. The Rome Statute was created by treaty, to be enforced by the International Criminal Court, effective in 2002.[11] It established four core transnational crimes similar to those applied at the Nuremberg Trials: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. “Enslavement” is included in the Rome Statute’s list of crimes against humanity, [12] and there is no statute of limitations. Therefore it is no defense under international law that American slavery was the law of the times.

“Under international law, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide have no statute of limitations, according to the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity and Article 29 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.”[13]

“In the international arena, the non-applicability of statutory limitations pertains to crimes that are extremely difficult to prosecute immediately after they were committed. This is particularly true of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. Given the context in which such crimes tend to be carried out, it is often necessary to wait for a change in the situation—an end to the conflict or a change in regime—for it to become possible, in practice, to initiate judicial proceedings. The non-applicability of statutory limitations prevents the most serious crimes, and those most difficult to prosecute, from going unpunished.”[14]

As long as a nation refuses the jurisdiction of international law, and absent an extraordinary unilateral enforcement such as the London Charter, a nation can remain shielded by its own self-declared sovereignty. And since there is no international statute of limitations, the nation has every incentive to keep it that way. No surprise, then, that the United States quickly repudiated the International Criminal Court immediately after the effective date of the Rome Statute. The USA’s main concern:  to protect its military personnel from guilt associated with following orders.

“One month after the International Criminal Court (ICC) officially came into existence on July 1, 2002, the President signed the American Servicemembers’ Protection Act (ASPA), which limits US government support and assistance to the ICC; curtails certain military assistance to many countries that have ratified the Rome Statute establishing the ICC; regulates US participation in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions commenced after July 1, 2003; and, most controversially among European allies, authorizes the President to use ‘all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release’ of certain US and allied persons who may be detained or tried by the ICC.”[15]

The same issue was behind the Trump Administration’s recent ICC sanctions:

“On Thursday, the president followed through on the longstanding threats by his foreign policy team, issuing new sanctions against the ICC over its provocative effort to investigate and prosecute American military, intelligence, and perhaps even former political officials for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.”[16]

Reparations for American Slavery Under International Law

A recent The Wall Street Journal editorial argued for slavery reparations under international law.

“The prohibition against slavery has now achieved jus cogens—a peremptory norm, from which no derogation is permitted. This is the highest legal status in international law, and it means retroactive responsibility may be imposed on those who violated that norm. This is how the Nazis were prosecuted at Nuremberg: retroactively—for the jus cogens of crimes against humanity. On that basis alone, the U.S. may be held legally responsible for the historical enslavement of Africans and the consequences for their descendants.”[17]

The editorial asserts without qualification that “the U.S. is bound by international law and must be guided by the precedent set by many other countries that have recognized reparations as a means to redress injustice.” But as we’ve seen, even if the USA is accountable for slavery and there is no statute of limitations under international law, the nation can continue to shield itself from global accountability by asserting its rugged individualism sovereignty.

Interference in “Internal Affairs.”

The USA routinely vilifies the world’s dictatorial strongmen for telling us (and the rest of the world) to stop meddling in their internal affairs, failing to notice that this attitude matches our own concept of national sovereignty.

A Google search of “interference with internal affairs” turns up a fascinating look at the futility of international diplomacy on this topic. Invariably, one nation’s “interference in internal affiars” is another’s “crime of aggression.” The U.N.’s Charter tried to find a way through this conflict, but the result raises more questions than answers. Here’s a sample:

“To what extent does the UN Charter permit legitimate violation of the sovereignty of another state, in the absence of international armed conflict or acts of national self defense? Should moral imperatives override legal authority? Even assuming the mandate was soundly based in law, was it breached by the coalition and NATO in the manner of its execution?  While the mandated authority to protect civilians was interpreted most liberally, some might say it was used as a smoke screen for an intent which was subsequently revealed, that of regime change, for which there is no lawful authority under the Charter.”[18]

The USA bypasses this legal sparring by resisting international interference. The Trump administration’s recent sanctions against the ICC replay this familiar theme, as evidenced by editorial commentary from his media supporters:

“In essence, the ICC is the plaything of the European left, post-sovereign technocrats, and progressive legal elites — one-worlders who won’t provide for their own security and dream up schemes to delegitimize actions that sovereign states, especially the United States, take in their national interests.”[19]

“This sanctions regime is fundamentally misguided. It will do little to stop the ICC’s investigation, erodes the U.S. longstanding commitment to human rights and the rule of law, and may undermine one of the most powerful tools in the U.S. foreign policy arsenal — economic sanctions.”[20]

The counterpoint to this commentary is the recognition of the USA’s historical preference for unilateralism.

“Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order imposing sanctions on several individuals associated with the International Criminal Court (ICC). The order is the latest salvo in an ongoing battle against the ICC, which the Trump administration has long sought to undermine in order to avoid accountability for itself and its allies. The move is also part of a broader disengagement with the multilateral system.”[21]

This political preference for “disengagement with the multilateral system” did not deter Trump’s recent call for the U.N. to impose global accountability against China with respect to the pandemic.[22] Chinese leader Xi Jinping responded by citing the USA’s historic unilateralism and isolationism:

“We will continue to narrow differences and resolve disputes with others through dialogue and negotiation. We will not seek to develop only ourselves or engage in zero sum game. Unilateralism is dead.”

“Burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich in the face of economic globalization, or trying to fight it with Don Quixote’s lance, goes against the trend of history. Let this be clear: the world will never return to isolation.”[23]

Aside from a history of slavery and following orders in Afghanistan, the USA has further issues with human rights law, as evidenced by recent accusations from the last-surviving Nuremberg Trials prosecutor. We’ll look at that next time.

Also coming up, we’ll also look beyond the legal issues of global accountability to the non-legal case for reparations and the opportunity they offer for a national reset.


[1] World History Facts, American “Individualism” Is Shallow and Immoral, Medium Dialogues and Discourse (Sept. 15, 2020).

[2] Full text at Digital History.

[3] Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

[4] Huneke, Samuel Clowes, An End to Totalitarianism, Boston Review (April 16, 2020). Samuel Clowes Huneke  “is an assistant professor of modern German history at George Mason University. His research focuses on Germany after World War II….”

[5] Wikipedia – Nuremberg Charter.

[6] Wyzanski, Charles, Nuremberg: A Fair Trial? A Dangerous Precedent, The Atlantic (April 1946) 

[7] Nuremberg Trials, History.com (updated June 7, 2019, original Jan. 29, 2010)

[8] Wyzankski, op cit.

[9] History.com – Robert E. Lee Surrenders.

[10] Wikipedia – Pardons for Ex-Confederates.

[11] Dag Hammarskjöld Library, Jan 8, 2020. See also Wikipedia – Rome Statute International Criminal Court.

[12] The Rome Statute, Article 7.

[14] The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

[15] US Policy Regarding the International Criminal Court (ICC), Congressional Research Service (July 9, 2002 – August 29, 2006).

[16] International Court V. Trump: A Case Of Politics, Not Justice, The Hill (June 15, 2020)

[17] International Law Demands Reparations for American Slavery, The Wall Street Journal (June 9, 2020).

[18] Paphita, Anthony, Intervention in the Internal Affairs of States, E-International Relations (Oct 25 2011).

[19] International Court V. Trump: A Case Of Politics, Not Justice, The Hill (June 15, 2020)

[20] The Danger Of Trump’s New Sanctions On The International Criminal Court And Human Rights Defenders, Brookings Institute (June 11 2020)

[21] Trump’s Chilling Blow To The ICC With International Criminal Court Sanctions, Foreign Policy (June 17, 2020)

[23] Trump Attacks China Over Covid ‘Plague’ As Xi Urges Collaboration In Virus Fight, The Guardian (Sept. 22, 2020).

Reparations [1]: Economics and a Whole Lot More

The current civil rights movement has reopened the discussion about reparations for American slavery[1]:

“As protests continue to convulse cities across America, many wonder where we go from here. It’s impossible to know the future. But if efforts do not include meaningful reparations for African Americans, the omnipresent injustices we face will not be resolved.

“For a long time, the word ‘reparations’ was a non-starter, but it is finally losing its taboo. The movement to provide financial redress to African Americans for centuries of subjugation and racial terror was already growing last year. HR 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study the legacy of slavery and develop reparations proposals to Congress, is enjoying a surge in support. Groundbreaking reparations legislation has been approved in Evanston, Ill. And a bill has been introduced in the California Assembly that would create a task force to study the impact of slavery and offer proposals for reparations for African-Americans in the state.

“The outpouring of anger in every corner of this country in recent days — more than 400 years after the first enslaved Africans arrived in America — could finally put reparative justice within reach.”

The day after the above appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Oprah Whitney ran a special that contained a segment on reparations. The day after that, the following appeared in the Washington Examiner[2]:

“It was only a matter of time before ‘Justice for George Floyd’ became ‘And while we’re at it, here are a few other things we’d like you to take care of with no questions asked.’

“That’s invariably what happens when the media, Hollywood, and the Democratic Party get involved.

“What started out as an issue over excessive force used by police against minorities has quickly devolved into a jackpot for the social justice people who see oppression, grievance, and victimhood in every aspect of their lives.

“[Bringing up the topic of reparations for slavery] lost the attention of nearly every white person who might have been watching.”

Thus the issue was reframed as a political blasting cap.

We can do better.

In the past couple weeks, I’ve collected a research file on reparations of over two dozen pages of resources and citations that make the topic much larger than who’s for it and who’s against it, who would get paid how much and when and how, how the government would finance it, etc. Instead, my research pulls back to a wide shot that starts with economics and law but then encompasses everything from individual and institutional belief systems, religious and secular notions of morality and ethics, national and cultural identity and worldview, and a whole lot more. I found all of that in the 400 years of American history I never knew, including the history made in my own time. I suggest we start with the latter as a first step toward moving ourselves past polarization paralysis.

Coming of Age in the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement

My hometown was a rural community in the western plains of Minnesota, populated with Scandinavian Lutherans living on Homestead Act farms in family groups where the grandparents still spoke Norwegian. There were also enough German Catholics to support a parish with a K-8 school staffed by nuns. The rest of us – the minorities — were identified mostly by reference to the small Protestant churches where our parents took us on Sundays.

None of us had any reason to be racist, but we were, although we would have been surprised and insulted if somebody had pointed that out, which of course nobody did. Racial slurs were part of the vocabulary: my childhood friends tossed around the N-word as casually as they traded baseball cards, and talked about “putting them on the boat and shipping them back.”[3] Nothing personal, that kind of talk was just… normal. I always felt ashamed to hear it. I didn’t know why. And you didn’t talk that way in my house. The N-word we used was “negro” – blacks weren’t called blacks yet.

In 1954, the year after I was born, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” violated the Constitution. A few years later – I was four, maybe — I saw a black man for the first time.

Our home was up the hill from the railroad tracks, and the “bums” who rode the rails sometimes camped in a ravine between the tracks and our house, and would come begging. I came downstairs to breakfast one morning to see my mother talking through the back screen door to a black man standing in the middle of our backyard, well away from the house. He wore a wrinkled white shirt and baggy gray trousers held up with suspenders, and was holding his hat with both hands at this chest, head slightly bowed. “I would be so very much obliged, ma’am,” he was saying. Mom turned away from the door and started frying eggs, making toast, and pouring coffee. Her face had that hard, determined look you didn’t cross. I asked who he was, and what he wanted. “He’s a bum,” she said, “and he’s hungry.” My own breakfast was going to wait, so I went up to my room to play. When I came back he was gone.

My dad had the International Harvester farm implements franchise, and now and then he won a sales contest that earned him a trip to a company function. One of those was in the South, with a stop to visit his dad, who had retired to Sarasota. Our family didn’t talk much at meals — mostly sat, ate, and left — but at “supper” (not “dinner” like the city people on TV) on his first night back home he sat looking stunned all the way through pie and ice cream and coffee as he described what he’d seen: a “No Colored” sign over a water fountain, a “Colored” entrance at a restaurant…. We were all stunned with him, that such things existed. We had no idea.

A few years later, LBJ’s Great Society[4] brought Lady Bird Johnson to town for a ribbon-cutting commemoration of a renovation to Main Street. It’s only now that I wonder if a few benches, flower planters, and garish turquoise mushroom-shaped fiberglass shelters were what LBJ and the Congress had in mind when they passed a law promoting urban renewal. Schools closed for the parade, there were speeches and reporters from the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, and we made the 6:00 o’clock news from the NBC affiliate we picked up with an antenna on the roof.

About then I started drawing pictures of black athletes on my tablet during recess — Lew Alcindor, Cassius Clay, Dr. J…. Kids would gather around to watch. One day one of them snorted, “Nigra,” and walked away. I liked the sound of the word. It wasn’t the usual N-word, and it seemed defiant somehow. I drew another picture of a Black Everyman with an afro, and wrote “Nigra” underneath it. I’ll bet I could still draw it today.

Middle school summers at the lake (you took refuge from the baking humidity at a “cottage at the lake”) were played out to a soundtrack liberally laced with Motown, and two weeks at Boy Scout camp brought letters from home with news of riots. Detroit was burning. L.A. was burning. “Ghetto” entered the national lexicon, and even Boy Scouts in the north woods knew where Watts was.

In high school, my girlfriend went with her Lutheran Youth Group to a civil rights event in the Twin Cities that included a speech from a local Black Panther leader. In those days you didn’t say the F-word even if you were telling a story about somebody who used it, but somehow she communicated that the speaker had used that word a whole lot. I wondered why.

In 1968, USA runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the medal podium, joined by silver medalist Peter Norman, a white Australian runner.

“As the American athletes raised their fists, the stadium hushed, then burst into racist sneers and angry insults. Smith and Carlos were rushed from the stadium, suspended by the U.S. team, and kicked out of the Olympic Village for turning their medal ceremony into a political statement. They went home to the United States, only to face serious backlash, including death threats.

“However, Carlos and Smith were both gradually re-accepted into the Olympic fold, and went on to careers in professional football before retiring. Norman, meanwhile, was punished severely by the Australian sports establishment. Though he qualified for the Olympic team over and over again, posting the fastest times by far in Australia, he was snubbed by the team in 1972. Rather than allow Norman to compete, the Australians did not send a sprinter at all.”[5]

In 1971, six months before I graduated from high school, Sports Illustrated ran its “Black is Best” article.[6]

“It is clear that the black community in the U.S. is not just contributing more than its share of participants to sport. It is contributing immensely more than its share of stars. Black athletes accounted for all eight Olympic records set by U.S. runners at Mexico City in 1968, which led a European coach to observe: ‘If not for the blacks, the U.S. team would finish somewhere behind Ecuador.’”

I was an athlete. Those events and stories meant a lot to me.

Off at college, my R.A. was black (no longer a negro), and two other black guys shared a room two doors down from mine. With them in my life, I felt like I had arrived. Kelly had a springy, athletic way of moving, a short afro and a ready smile. Miles was tall and stooped, had a giant afro, always seemed mad, and never spoke. I wondered why.

I became a Jesus Freak during a gap year, and a Lutheran youth pastor (he had long hair, wore a big wooden cross, and drank beer at Kenny’s Tavern) struck a blow for ecumenicism and invited me along as a counselor on a trip with his youth group to a conference in Houston. Our first day at the convention center, a procession of blacks in bright blue robes marched two-by-two through the crowd, dipping and bobbing, two steps forward one step back, singing and -chanting, “Y-E-S, oh yes, Y-E-S, oh yes….” We followed them to the Y.E.S. Soul Choir’s gospel music concert. That night’s general session featured Andre Crouch and the Disciples rocking the house. I had one of their records back home. My new life as a Jesus Freak didn’t get any better than this.

Back at school, I heard about the annual welcome picnic for black students and decided to go. I was the only white guy there, didn’t know anybody and couldn’t think of what to do, so I volunteered for the serving line. A black guy and girl from Houston joined the campus Christian fellowship that fall, and the three of us started a Bible study with their friends in Black House. That winter a movie came out about Corrie ten Boom – the Nazis sent her and her family to concentration camps for aiding Jews — and fifteen black urban kids and one white town kid piled into a couple college vans and drove to a nearby town for pizza and the movie. The silences that met our arrivals were… thunderous. Not hostile, not threatening, mostly just… pointed. We were something you didn’t see every day. We were the new normal, and it was taking some getting used to.

That spring, we brought my co-leader’s pastor up from her church in Houston. For three days I followed him around, sat next to him at meals and in small groups, watched him — tall, erect, muscular in tailored three-piece suits and gleaming white shirts with cufflinks — as he parted the waters of shabby tie-dyed holey-jeaned flower children, laying down the gospel in a voice that rumbled.

The more I go on, the more I could go on — the memories pour in, scenes from a decade far more turbulent than the worst flight you’ve ever been on, racing across my mind’s theater screen in a blurry fast forward, leaving behind the indelible feel of those times. Incredibly, the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t the only one bringing radical cultural change, but only one of many in a Revolution that was everywhere. The times were as thick and pungent with change as the marijuana haze that filled the quad, filled the dorms. The world was changing, and we were changing it. No, we had changed it. One night I attended a guest lecture where a visiting astrophysicist described a new cosmological theory called the Big Bang — the entire universe blasted into existence from an inconceivably compressed pre-temporal mass. It made sense. We could relate. We were living our own Big Bang.

Deep Ignorance and Long Memories

Then it was the 1970’s, and the Revolution staggered along, still tripping but starting to come out of it, Soon every commercial had at least one black person in it, like that was normal. Okay, so maybe it was tokenism, but we didn’t care, it would be normal soon enough. With that attitude, we were making the same mistake every generation seems to make: we assumed we were the enlightened ones, we’d gotten it right in ways our parents hadn’t, and they would have to deal with life on our new terms, and our terms were that “prejudice” (it wasn’t called “racism” yet) was over. The Beast was dead. The stain of slavery had been expunged. Equality was fixed in place, a given, a reality solidly grounded.

Or so we thought.

The first Black History month was observed in 1970 at an iconic location – the Kent State campus, ground zero of our opposition to the Vietnam War. I heard about it, as I’ve heard about it annually for the past fifty years, but I’ve never participated, never attended because… well, why would I? There was no point in it: the new normal was that the races were now equal. We wouldn’t have a White History Month, so why a would we have a Black one?

Or so I thought.

I managed to hold those beliefs, that judgment of history, all the way into this century, even as the justice system carried out its policies of mass incarceration, even as the news increasingly included body cam and cell phone videos of the police beating and murdering black people.

The new Civil Rights Movement has finally awakened me to just how shockingly wrong and blind I was and have been. And not just me, but how wrong and blind many in my generation were and have been. We never grew up, remained children full of ourselves. We made false assumptions, stopped learning from the times that came after ours, and never bothered to learn from the times that came before our own. That level of misjudgment generated the deepest kind of ignorance – not merely a personal failure to know, but the shared ignorance of an entire generation, a massive communal failure to know that history is not a dead letter but an active force still alive in us, still powering us in hidden, subconscious ways, still shaping our attitudes, initiatives, and responses in ways we would vehemently deny if confronted with them, just as my hometown would have denied its racism back in the day. We soak up our history from our surroundings, breathe it in, are immersed in it… and we don’t even know it. That kind of ignorance and arrogance has enabled the systemic racism that today’s protests are now broadcasting to the world.

It seems fitting, then that my personal reckoning should begin with a century-old cultural memory that, until my research on this article, was part of my massive, hidden Black History file of stupefying ignorance. The 1921 Greenwood Massacre is a particularly pertinent place to begin writing about reparations: it was undeniably a major economic event, but it was also much, much more, and the long-suppressed memory of it has now found its way out, and into the streets.

The Greenwood Massacre

Greenwood massacre

Photo:  Tulsa Historical Society

We heard earlier from Damario Solomon Simmons, a civil rights attorney and adjunct professor of African and African American studies at the University of Oklahoma. He wrote this in his L.A. Times article cited earlier:

“The aversion to making amends for systemic racism is perhaps most evident in my hometown of Tulsa, Okla., which last week commemorated the 99th anniversary of the Greenwood massacre.

“On May 31, 1921, thousands of white Tulsans, 2,000 of whom were deputized by the police, stormed the Greenwood neighborhood, a community known as ‘Black Wall Street.’ In one day and night, the nation’s most prosperous black community was reduced to rubble. Hundreds were killed, and more than 10,000 black Tulsans were left injured, homeless and destitute.

“For decades, Greenwood managed to flourish despite racist Jim Crow laws in Oklahoma. In a matter of hours, millions of dollars in hard-fought wealth — property, homes, businesses, investments — burned to ashes. About 35 square blocks, including 1,200 homes and scores of businesses, were destroyed. Tulsa has not been the same since.”[7]

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, wrote in 2014 what remains as the definitive piece on slavery reparations.[8] There, he wrote this about the Greenwood Massacre:

“Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations. We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken. ‘The reason black people are so far behind now is not because of now,’ Clyde Ross told me. ‘It’s because of then.’ In the early 2000s, Charles Ogletree went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to meet with the survivors of the 1921 race riot that had devastated ‘Black Wall Street.’ The past was not the past to them. ‘It was amazing seeing these black women and men who were crippled, blind, in wheelchairs,’ Ogletree told me. ‘I had no idea who they were and why they wanted to see me. They said, We want you to represent us in this lawsuit.’ ”

“A commission authorized by the Oklahoma legislature produced a report affirming that the riot, the knowledge of which had been suppressed for years, had happened. But the lawsuit ultimately failed, in 2004. Similar suits pushed against corporations such as Aetna (which insured slaves) and Lehman Brothers (whose co-founding partner owned them) also have thus far failed. These results are dispiriting, but the crime with which reparations activists charge the country implicates more than just a few towns or corporations. The crime indicts the American people themselves, at every level, and in nearly every configuration. A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them.

“John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”

Bottom line: today’s Civil Rights Movement is asking me, asking us, to grow up to our own history.

More next time.

[1] Simmons, Damario Solomon, Reparations Are The Answer To Protesters’ Demands For Racial Justice, Los Angeles Times (June 8, 2020).

[2] Scarry, Eddie, George Floyd Protests Hijacked For Reparations And Other Pet Projects,, Washington Examiner (June 10, 2020).

[3] See A History of Hate Rock From Johnny Rebel to Dylann Roof, The Nation, June 23, 2015.

[4] See the story in History,com.

[5] See the story in History.com.

[6] Sports Illustrated, January 18, 1971.

[7] Simmons, op cit.

[8] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic (June 2014).