This is an archived article. For the latest news, go to the Advance Homepage
For more archives, go to the Advance Archive/Search Page.

  November 12, 2001

America Must Address Past, Says Robinson

America must reexamine its history and make amends to black people, says Randall Robinson, a well known advocate of reparations for African Americans.

In a talk, "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," Wednesday, Robinson said "every condition has a past, and that past haunts the future and separates us still."

Describing slavery as one of the longest-running human rights crimes in history, he said African Americans have suffered not only poverty, but centuries of racial discrimination with the complicity of the government and the courts.

He said reparations should not only be material, but should include frank discussion and a retelling of history to include all Americans: "Reparations does not mean just writing a check."

Robinson, who founded the Free South Africa Movement that led the struggle in the United States against apartheid, and went on hunger strike to protest U.S. immigration policy in relation to Haiti, is president of TransAfrica, a Washington-based human rights organization. His talk took place during a day of discussion of the issue of reparations, part of the Human Rights Semester.

Robinson said that, despite mechanisms such as Black History Month, the history of black people in America is little known. Yet it is critically important to an understanding of current circumstances in the country.

"The past is never dead, it is not even past," he said, quoting author William Faulkner, adding, "That truism finds its worst consequence when the past is not even known."

He recalled a visit to Washington, D.C. with his 11-year-old daughter in August. Touring the National Mall, they saw only a handful of black people.

The reason, he said, became apparent as they looked at the monuments: "Blacks don't go to their National Mall because there's almost nothing there that has anything to do with us," he said. "We walked the length and breadth of the Mall and saw not a statue, not a building, not a tablet, nothing ... that recalled the 30 million or so Africans who died making their way here in the holds of slave ships coming to America. It was like it had never happened."

Yet, he continued, many of the monuments in Washington were created by slave labor. A statue on top of the Capitol, for example, was cast by slaves in Maryland, brought to the site, reassembled, and hoisted to the top of dome by slaves. The White House also was built by slaves, as were the early buildings of Georgetown University. "Those slaves were never paid," he said.

Even during more recent history, African Americans have suffered enormous economic deprivation, he said, citing a Berkeley study which estimated that from 1929 to 1965, discrimination in the labor market cost African Americans $1.4 trillion.

African Americans have also suffered centuries of racial discrimination reinforced by the judicial system, he said. From the 1600s to 1965, he noted, African Americans did not have full citizenship.

Robinson described the burgeoning of new prisons during the late 1990s as a "growth industry" that has disproportionately affected African Americans. The United States, with one-twelfth of the world's population has one-fourth of the world's prison inmates, he said, and half of them are African Americans.

He said it should be a cause for concern in a democracy that blacks are six times more likely to be arrested for serious offences, more likely to be prosecuted, more likely to be incarcerated, and will serve terms twice as long as whites for commission of the same crime.

America must follow the advice it gives to other countries, he said. "We've always said to other countries in one human rights case after another, that you cannot have a strong society until you're willing to address your past so you can have a future. To bury it causes you in the long run to have greater consequences."

Robinson said that for most of his life racial discrimination was based on the law of the land.

The complicity of government is why the issue of reparations is one that must be addressed by government, he said: "Under international law, it has the responsibility to make the victims whole."

He said a group of major tort lawyers has been formed in Washington to make the case for reparations, which will probably entail several lawsuits. It must be established that there is something actionable before a remedy can be sought, he said.

"We must draw a line of relationship between our history and the conditions and social results so apparent in our society today," he said.

The remedy must include education and economic development of black communities, he said. "Winning means a lot of things. Anything that can provoke discussion is victory."

Reparations must also include a willingness to re-examine America's history, Robinson said: "Reparations means to me a fair telling of everyone's story - the story and culture of Hispanics, Asian Americans, and the first Americans. Only in a broad equalized telling can our country get well."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu

Issue Index