On Reparations

My subject is really three subjects that together constitute a single theme at the heart of American life. First, slavery itself — that form of human relations by which, for more than two centuries, white persons exerted unappeasable power over black persons as if they were tools or livestock. When speaking about this subject, I try to keep in mind an admonition from William Wells Brown, a fugitive from slavery who spoke in the antebellum years to audiences in the North who were eager to hear in lurid detail what he had endured in the South. Most left disappointed. “I would whisper to you of slavery,” he told them. “Slavery cannot be represented; it can never be represented.” Reticence from a man who had known the thing itself should give pause to anyone who presumes to speak of it now. Second, there was — and is — the aftermath of racial subjugation that long outlasted the institution of slavery. For black Americans, that experience extended in space and time far beyond the Jim Crow South, and even many who have attained prosperity or renown still know it today in the form of condescension or contempt. This, too, is something of which no white person can have more than nominal knowledge. And finally there is the question of reparations — our shorthand word for the idea that a decent society must accept responsibility in the present for injustices perpetrated in the past. What this would mean in practice raises a host of moral, political, and personal questions — all of them urgent and none of them simple. What connection should one feel to acts committed or omitted before one was born? How can the cost be calculated of living at the mercy of a person who claims to own you, and

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