Characterizing himself as "agnostic" on the subject, Harvard political scientist Michael Dawson nonetheless spent an October lunch hour at the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions outlining the arguments for and against reparations for slavery. "One thing is clear," he said. "This issue is not going away."
The debate centers on a call by some African-American leaders for the federal government and a handful of private companies to issue both an apology and financial compensation to descendants of victims of slavery and other forms of racial discrimination over the past two centuries. Proponents, Dawson said, tend to cast the matter less as reparations for slavery than as redress for the Jim Crow laws, redlining, and other past policies they view as state-sponsored discrimination.
"Some argue," he said, "that these actions form a moral argument for reparations more than slavery does." The issue, he said, is one of responsibility - not whether whites wronged blacks, but whether the U.S. government or corporations are responsible.
Opponents of reparations, Dawson continued, tend to see the issue not as a domestic matter but as an international one. They point out that Africans both owned and sold slaves, that only a tiny minority of white Americans were slave owners, and that the claim that most African Americans are descendants of slaves is unfounded. Given the conditions in many African countries, he said, some opponents of reparations have characterized the sale of slaves as having "all the hallmarks of providence."
Dawson, who is the author of, most recently, Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies, shared the results of a telephone survey on reparations he recently completed, which found "very, very wide differences in black and white public opinion," he said. Among his key findings was that the more exposed blacks are to black-run information media, the more likely they are to support reparations.
Asked how strongly most black Americans feel about reparations, he said, "This is a sore point. It may not be the first thing on the agenda, or the second, but it's always there - maybe halfway down the list."