BY TREVOR GARDNER
After years of being dismissed as an idea too radical for serious debate, the issue of reparations for the American government’s participation in slavery is now receiving close attention across the nation. Newspaper editorials, radio and television talk shows, and Sunday-morning political pundits have recently felt the need to address what was once thought to be a dead question: Should the government compensate African-Americans for enduring not only slavery, but the harsh legacy of racial discrimination in America? One of the architects of the reparations movement, Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree ’78, answers “yes.”
Of all the possible civil rights initiatives supporting racial equality, Ogletree found reparations to be the most promising.
“It’s the most comprehensive form of remedy and it covers the broadest class of individuals,” he said. Ogletree believes that unlike present remedies targeting racial inequalities, reparations will benefit the poorest of minorities.
“Affirmative action has always been a remedy that [advantaged] the privileged and working classes, but never filtered down to the underclass” who haven’t benefited from the opportunities of our democracy.
Prof. Ogletree has recently assisted in pushing the debate into the global arena. Earlier this month Ogletree attended the United Nations’ conference on racism where reparations became one of the most important and controversial matters for discussion. The Bush administration did not send a representative to the conference despite late negotiations between the U.S. and the U.N. over the scope of the talks. The United States eventually chose to boycott the conference at least in part because of the prospect of language endorsing reparations for slavery in a final collective statement by representatives. Despite the U.S. decision to avoid the first U.N. conference on race, Ogletree said he found optimistic conference attendees excited finally to address the problem of racism as a global community.
“[The reparations initiative] was enthusiastically received. We spoke to heads of states, leaders of non-governmental organizations, people with the knowledge that the great issues of slavery” have not fully been addressed.
However, Ogletree was not the only attendee waiving the reparations banner. A significant portion of the conference explored the historical relationship between Europe and Africa, and the feasibility of new policies intended to rectify past wrongs such as the lasting injuries caused by the slave trade. Ogletree believes that the many African nations’ attempt to address the consequences of colonialism and the reparations initiative in the United States are complementary. “The source of the slave trail is in Africa, but the harm was world wide.”
Although reparations proponents seem far from any official victories either in the courtroom or the legislature, the mainstream media’s adoption of the issue illustrates the substantial progress Ogletree and other advocates have made in recent years. However, the exposure has often been met with heated opposition.
“I think most people are emotional about it, and angry because they don’t understand it,” Ogletree said. “There is no group that has had to go through what African Americans have had to go through in the last five centuries.”
Since his appointment to the Harvard Law School faculty in 1984, Ogletree has accepted controversial roles in the national spotlight. During the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, he served as counsel to Anita Hill. However, the reparations project may be his most volatile issue yet. The professor has received death threats as the debate surrounding reparations has become more contentious, prompting the caution of family and friends.
“They’re upset,” says Ogletree. “They tried to discourage me from [working on the initiative] and I’m paying more attention to their concerns. But it’s not about me. It’s an issue whose time has come.”
Ogletree stressed that despite the importance of the reparations initiative, the issue must take a back seat to graver concerns regarding the attack on the World Trade Center and the unfortunate possibility of war.
“In light of what happened, reparations is the furthest thing from my mind. Reparations is secondary to the prospect of world war.”