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Volume3
MonthMay
Year2002
TitleReparations for Slavery: A Dream Deferred
Author(s)Watson Branch
First Page177
AbstractWhen the year began, the prediction was that 2001 was going to be the "Year of Reparations." Both internationally and in the United States, the consensus held that the time had finally come for governments around the world to face up to racism and apologize for the harm brought about by slavery and its aftermath harm in the past, to those long dead, and in the present, to those who, because of the color of their skin, still suffer from racism. Governments were expected to make amends for that harm through restitution and compensation, whether individual or collective. This willingness to address the evils of slavery and racism was accompanied in the United States and throughout the industrialized world by a strong economy world that meant funds would be available to redress the injuries.

The details needed to be worked out, but there was a general feeling that reparations for slavery, segregation, and discrimination were just and fair and should be pursued by those with the resources and the power to effect them. The precipitating event, intended to get the programs started on an international level, was the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Intolerance, and Xenophobia, (WCAR) scheduled for Durban South Africa at the end of August. In that former land of apartheid, itself transformed by its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the leaders of the world's nations were to come together and lay out a plan that individual nations could implement in appropriate ways to correct the evils of racism.

It did not happen. Disputes over resolutions identifying Israel as a racist state caused irreparable division among the nations and led the United States to withdraw its delegation. The division undermined the plans for a unified closing statement against racism. Tragically, two days after the Conference, on September 11, 2001, terrorists flew suicide missions into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, taking thousands of innocent lives. As the country's resources, both physical and financial, were suddenly, and for the foreseeable future, focused on the destruction of an enemy outside the country, the hope for a program of reparations for citizens in America was lost.

Although the dream of reparations has been deferred, the day will come when America once again will be called upon to confront its heritage of slavery, segregation, and discrimination, to apologize for past wrongs, and to make amends for them. In the interim, America would do well to examine the rationale for reparations and to develop a plan that can be justified and implemented when a better day dawns.