Ronald Walters: Interviewed about the movement for reparations, the subject of his new book

Historians in the News

Dr. Ronald Walters is director of the African American Leadership Institute and Scholar Practitioner Program, Distinguished Leadership Scholar at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, and professor in government and politics at the University of Maryland. His latest book is The Price of Racial Reconciliation.

What are the historical implications of reparations? In other words, do you think that the American "usable past," with regards to slavery, changes in light of reparations? Does this affect the importance of African-American studies, or is this just another step in the "narrative?"

To discuss the historical importance of reparations unearths the historical damage done to African Americans and although that began with slavery, it continues today. In The Price I have attempted to broaden this discussion, borrowing some concepts from a series of seminars held in South Africa that resulted in establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that was designed to bring justice to those who both perpetrated and suffered from the crime of Apartheid. The scholars evolved a concept of the “grand narrative of oppression” that seemed to sum up what had occurred, but the most revealing thing to me was that what occurred was politicized, conflicted by the differing views of South African history between Afrikaners and Blacks. Thus, I reasoned that what has prevented race-relations from closing certain important gaps in the United States is the same factor –the politicization of memory: we do not share a common memory, but differential aspects of not only what occurred, but the meaning of that history. This is important because unless there does appear something like a common memory then resolution of the past is not possible.

Endeavoring a comparative analysis of reconciliation with South Africa is an interesting vein to follow. Is their a spiritual aspect to reconciliation, akin to what Desmond Tutu undertook in South Africa, that must take place alongside reparations for their full effect to be seen?

The spiritual aspect of South African TRC is vested in the concept of forgiveness, as conceived by Bishop Desmond Tutu, who believed that a Nuremburg solution was not viable. That is to day, to bring up to trial those who were responsible for perpetrating Apartheid would, in the process, destroy the infrastructure upon which the black majority depended for its well-being. In effect, they would be shooting themselves in the foot. So, the TRC mode of reconciliation was based on the admission of guilt by the perpetrators of a political crime under the aegis of Apartheid, the confirmation of the act by the TRC and some restitution to the victims. The model did not work and was declared to have “made the situation worse” in a survey of all groups and I believe and it was essentially because the process was viewed as fraught with inequality. The perpetrators could maintain their socioeconomic status, while the victims could not be made whole because of the entire context of suffering experienced by blacks. In effect, Apartheid was a “national question” at the heart of the mission of governance, rather than a side concern managed by a governmental agency.

Is there a current political movement pressing for reparations? If so, what is the feasibility of achieving them in the near term?

This same concern exists in the United States where the courts deny the existence of modern victims of the past “grand narrative of oppression” – that still continues -- and where the legislature ignores their plight. The issue I raise is that while the quality of race relations may appear to be much better than in the past, there emerge reminders -- Katrina, Jena 6, Nooses, unequal criminal justice, lack of resources for black communities, and etc.-- that a politicized memory is affecting the present and will also affect the future unless fair restitution is made to the victims of American racism. There has been a political movement of Reparations to bring this matter to the attention of the country, but it has been drowned out by the passivity of blacks who believe there can be no such justice in a racist society; by the institutions mentioned which deny the existence of victims, and by the media, which has treated the public dialogue on the subject as entertainment. I argue that the seriousness of the role of fair restitution in developing a common memory of the past is important, not merely as a one-way benefit to blacks, but as many other scholars argue, to the quality of the moral center of the state and therefore, to its pretension to pursue Democracy.

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