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Right Now | Riven by Reparations

The Price of Slavery

May-June 2003

Several high-profile lawsuits filed recently in this country are seeking redress for slavery and other racial wrongs, focusing national attention on the re-emerging question of reparations. Climenko professor of law Charles Ogletree Jr. leads a team suing Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the racial violence of 1921 that killed 300 and destroyed the African-American community of Greenwood. And lawyers who won multibillion-dollar awards from European companies for Holocaust victims have filed class-action suits against several large corporations on behalf of descendents of American slaves.

The reparations issue is an old one. On January 16, 1865, U.S. Army General William Tecumseh Sherman granted the now legendary "40 acres and a mule" to 40,000 freed slaves along the Atlantic coast. In March, a month before the Confederate surrender, Congress authorized giving Southern blacks 40 acres to farm for three years. But after Lincoln's assassination, Andrew Johnson overturned both these acts.

Chart by Steve Anderson

Since then, Americans have repeatedly debated the reparations-for-slavery issue, but very little empirical research clarifies the opinions that blacks and whites hold on the subject, says professor of government and Afro-American studies Michael Dawson, Ph.D. '86. A recent study that he did with Rovana Popoff of the University of Chicago, however, investigates what separates those who favor reparations from those who oppose them.

Dawson and Popoff analyzed data from a larger survey that Dawson had conducted earlier with Lawrence Bobo, Diker professor of Afro-American studies and professor of sociology. The researchers asked 831 blacks and 724 whites whether they support federal initiatives — specifically, apologies and monetary payments — to address past wrongs, both against African Americans for slavery and Japanese Americans for internment during World War II. (The survey posed the questions hypothetically, although in 1988, the U.S. government actually paid $20,000 to every Japanese American who had been interned.)

Most blacks surveyed (75 percent) — but only 43 percent of whites — favored a governmental apology to Japanese Americans. An even larger majority of blacks (79 percent) supported an apology to African Americans, although even fewer whites (30 percent) did so, opening up a huge "race gap" of 49 percentage points. Regarding monetary reparations to descendents of slaves, two out of three blacks voiced support, against a mere sliver (4 percent) of the white respondents, creating a racial gulf of 63 points.

"These numbers are relatively shocking by any standard," says Dawson. "When we talk about gender gaps in American politics, we're talking about gaps of 5 to 15 percent. Here we're talking about gaps of the order of 50 to more than 60 percent." Deeply polarized perceptions of racial equality (or its lack) are a major factor underlying the overwhelming disparities. While a majority of white respondents (64 percent) thought that blacks had achieved or would soon achieve equality, an even larger majority (78 percent) of blacks believed the opposite: that African Americans would not achieve racial equality in their lifetimes, or that they would never achieve equality.

Racial politics, in fact, trump all other factors — age, gender, education, and political party — affecting support or opposition to federal reparations. Among whites, affluence and education do not mean a more liberal stance. Although slightly more white women than white men support an apology for World War II internment, white men and women of all backgrounds almost unanimously (96 percent) oppose monetary reparations for slavery. Among blacks, women are more likely to favor reparations, but more affluent blacks of both sexes are less likely to support federal payments for either slavery or World War II internment.

One highly significant predictor of support for apology and reparations to African Americans held true for both black and white respondents. "Attachment to George Bush, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Colin Powell all have the same effect, which is to suppress support for reparations and apology. Attachment to Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, or Jesse Jackson has the opposite effect. It leads blacks to be more supportive of reparations," Dawson explains. "So the key here is not, as many of us would expect, political party or race, but whether one is inside or outside the conventional electoral system."

Perceptions of fair play also have an effect, Dawson says, noting that whites who believed that the economic system is unfair are 5 percent more likely to support reparations. On the other hand, those whites who thought that nothing should be done about possible black disenfranchisement in the 2000 election — even if disenfranchisement had occurred — were much less likely to support an apology.

What most surprises Dawson is the hostility he and other academics encounter when they discuss these issues in public. "I'm surprised by how visceral a reaction this issue provokes, even when people present the arguments neutrally," he says. "It's very easy for opponents to dismiss the other side out of hand." Dawson hopes to encourage further debate, and concern, about the enormous differences in black and white perceptions of racial politics. "Talking about these issues is not going to create these issues. The issues are there," Dawson says. "Therefore the task for the nation is: How do we address the divisions underlying these beliefs — and the emotions that are attached to them — and move forward?"

~Harbour Fraser Hodder

Michael Dawson e-mail address: [email protected]