Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and as people across the United States commemorate the life of the great civil rights leader, many here still languish in poverty and remain disenfranchised as a result of racism–a legacy of slavery. [includes rush transcript]
In a new book entitled “The Debt,” TransAfrica founder and president Randall Robinson argues that America still owes an enormous debt to Africans and African Americans for the incalculable damage that blacks have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of nearly two hundred and fifty years of slavery and segregation.
- Randall Robinson, founder and president of TransAfrica.
AMY GOODMAN: This is a Martin Luther King, Jr., birthday edition of Democracy Now!
If you’re a regular listener to Democracy Now!, you know we’ve done a great deal on an issue that’s been in the news in the last months, and that is the issue of reparations, specifically reparations that the German government, German corporations and Swiss banks have made to Jewish organizations in the name of Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
But in addition to that, we’ve looked overall at the issue of reparations, looking at what Native Americans in this country are owed, talking about African American reparations, talking about reparations to Palestinians.
Well, today, we’re going to continue that discussion in a major way with a leader who we have spoken with on a number of different issues, from Haiti to Cuba to the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, another issue we’ve spent a good deal of time talking about.
We’re joined today by Randall Robinson. He is the founder and president of TransAfrica, which has played a significant role in the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, the restoration of democracy in Haiti. We had him on the program when he wrote his first book Defending The Spirit, and now today a major work, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks is his latest book, and we welcome you to Democracy Now!
RANDALL ROBINSON: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s great to have you with us, and I thought we should start where you start in the book, and that is with a tour of Washington, DC, specifically the Capitol, the kind of tour that we don’t get if we go to the Capitol and ask someone to take us around, perhaps an official Capitol guide. Now, either if you’d like to read part of your book where you open, or if you’d like to just take us on that tour, it was a great beginning.
RANDALL ROBINSON: I wish I could read. I left my glasses, and I can’t, but if you surveyed the commemorative architecture in Washington, strolled the National Mall, went into the Capitol, you would find no tablet, no monument, no indication that slavery occurred in the United States.
I went into the Rotunda, and I opened the book with this, because it’s an indication of the breadth of American denial of its involvement in what amounts to — its government involvement in what amounts to the longest-running crime against humanity in the world over the last 500 years. That ran for 246 years and was extended de facto by a century of de jure discrimination and segregation and black codes and Jim Crow laws in the South, adding to a total in excess of 350 years of racial hostility towards blacks, not just in the United States, but consequences, enormous — with enormous consequences for Africa and the Caribbean, as well.
You go into the Rotunda — and my wife Hazel, when I was writing this book, called me from the Capitol. She was down with my daughter, and she said, “I want you to come and see this. I won’t tell you what it is, but I think it relates to what you’re doing.” I worked in the Capitol many years ago, and I had been in the Rotunda many times, but I too was a victim of this kind of conditioning. There are certain things I didn’t see. And she took me to the Rotunda, and she said, “Look up.” And I looked up. There’s a painting in the eye of the dome. It’s called “The Apotheosis of George Washington.” It was done by an Italian artist, Brumidi, and installed on the eye in 1864, and George Washington is there surrounded by sixty robed figures. And then there’s a banner unfurled, ”E pluribus unum” — “Out of many, one” — but all of the sixty are white.
And down on the rim of the Rotunda, going around like a hat band, is a frieze that depicts scenes from American history, describing our development as a nation from the dawn of discovery — or the age of discovery to the dawn of aviation. But in these scenes, no Douglass, no Tubman, no Truth, no blacks at all.
And then, down at the floor level, there are huge paintings set back into this arkose sandstone, these huge arkose sandstone blocks, these huge oil paintings. And these paintings again depict scenes from American history. No blacks at all. And then, I had begun to read on this question to discover that these sandstone blocks had been mined in Stafford County, Virginia by slaves. They were brought up the Potomac River by slaves. They were hauled to the Capitol and put in place by slaves.
As a matter of fact, the statue Freedom, an Indian heavily festooned, a huge statue atop the dome, was cast, assembled in Bladensburg, Maryland, disassembled, reassembled on the Capitol grounds, and hoisted to the top of the dome by slaves — the statue Freedom.
While at the Capitol, there’s not one mention that slavery ever occurred in the United States, nor anywhere on the National Mall. There is the Holocaust Memorial. There are plans for a Japanese memorial park. There are plans, finally, at last, to build a museum to honor American Indians. But nothing on the Mall, and no plans to accomplish it, to indicate that this country ever participated in slavery. And so, the American Holocaust is totally covered over. Fifteen to thirty million people died in the Middle Passage in a cruel episode that lasted 246 years, totally painted over in the commemorative architecture of Washington, D.C.
And the consequences are several of this. Number one, unlike perhaps any other people in the United States, perhaps indeed in the world, African Americans, and Africans to some large extent, are people who have had sight lines to their long histories blocked altogether. We don’t know very much about who we were before the slave trade. And so, African American children have, like amnesiacs, been fitted with the histories of a people. And so, they have no sense that Greek civilization, that Western civilization that was derived from it was in the — originally derived from Egypt before the arrival of Arabs — Black Egypt was arrived from Ethiopia, was derived rather from inner Africa, that Greece’s gods, their calendar, the division of the year into twelve parts, astronomy, mathematics, science, the carving of stone figures; all of these things, Herodotus, and other historians, credit to inner Africa. But African American children don’t have any sense of that at all, in a large part because of slavery.
And as a result, finally, these people did all of this work for so long, they created the largest export crop that America produced at the time, that exceeded all of our other exports put together, that produced millions and millions of dollars for the Federal Treasury: cotton. But the people who produced it were never paid. The people who built the Southern Railway system were never paid. The people who built the early buildings of Georgetown University were never paid. The people who built the fortune for the Brown Brothers, who made a fortune building slave ships and then endowed Brown University, the people who made that possible, were never paid.
And at the end of it, and what turned out to be a false Emancipation Proclamation, they received no compensation, bleak prospects, no job training, and were released into the maw of the hostile South. And so, it is not surprising that this huge economic gap opened between blacks and whites in America. And America simply walked away from the wreckage that the government had served to produce over the long period of this horror that robbed a whole people of their language, of their religion, of their customs, of their very whole culture, so they came to know nothing at all about who they were, affecting their self-esteem in a dramatic kind of way.
And so, we say that, of course, as others have received compensation when there has been not just unjust enrichment, but abusive treatment, certainly compensation would be due to those who have endured the horrors of slavery. And to see Stuart Eizenstat, with federal agencies, and with the blessings of the President of the United States, pursuing German corporations for reparations to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust, which is fine, but turning their backs altogether on the American victims of the American Holocaust is the biggest evidence of the most massive denial that [inaudible] I can imagine ever seeing.
Isn’t it really an incredible thing that they have done here? And I don’t know if it’s conscious or not, but how can they see one and not see the other, when it is right here, it is ours, it is America’s crime, and they refuse to look at it?
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Randall Robinson. His book is called The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Randall Robinson. He’s author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks.
Well, let’s go to that issue of — I think it’s no less than eleven federal agencies that got involved with the fight to get reparations from the Swiss banks and the German corporations. You have President Clinton making the statement, “We must confront and, as best we can, right the terrible injustices of the past in demanding reparations.” You had a bipartisan statement of the US Congress to the Secretary of State, which said, “It should be made clear to countries involved that their response on this restitution matter will be seen as a test of their respect for basic human rights and the rule of law, and it could have practical consequences in relations with our country,” talking about other countries that were involved with the Holocaust. You have the Congressional Black Caucus that joined in the chorus of demands for reparations to Holocaust survivors. You have California and New York state local municipalities and states first threatening sanctions and then passing resolutions that they would imposed sanctions against Switzerland if the banks did not repay the Holocaust survivors.
What about reparations to African Americans? And was there — has there been a discussion, for example, with Stu Eizenstat, who was appointed by Clinton to specifically address this issue, this Undersecretary of Commerce.
RANDALL ROBINSON: There will be a discussion. There will be a challenge to the Democratic candidates, particularly, and to the President. You recall the great controversy that was stirred by the simple proposal that the President even apologize for slavery. This wouldn’t be an issue had slavery ended in 1865, but it didn’t. It extended well into the twentieth century with black codes and with vagrancy laws allowing slaves to be bought out of jail by plantation owners and put to work as slaves, with fewer rights, if that were possible, than they had as slaves. It is estimated in this period of the twentieth century that the University of California at Berkeley study estimates that from 1929 to 1969, even in wage discrimination alone, blacks lost $1.4 trillion. With restrictive covenants and mortgage discrimination, blacks have lost eighty to ninety billion dollars per generation in home equity wealth accumulation. So this has to be seen as one piece. It is unmistakable and indisputable that this gap between blacks and whites did not open because of natural forces. It opened because of the mechanics of slavery and what followed it, and with government responsibility.
The government benefited from slave labor in the same way that German corporations benefited from slave labor. It is inexcusable that the Clinton administration take one position on one issue and ignore the other. And I think this will become a campaign issue. When Congressman Conyers’s bill was offered before the Congress — and the bill doesn’t even ask for reparations. The bill simply asked for a look into the effects of slavery on contemporary African Americans. And it has almost no co-sponsors, can’t even get it out of the subcommittee to get a hearing on the floor. But I think that’s changing.
Yesterday we had a conference in Washington that I chaired at TransAfrica with Congressman Conyers and Ron Walters and some ten to fifteen law professors, including two Japanese American law professors who worked on Japanese American reparations, Dorothy Height, Civil Rights Conference people, the NAACP-Inc. Fund. There is movement in the black community in forming a demand for this. I think that the book will accelerate this discussion, and we will get a response on this issue.
AMY GOODMAN: In your book, The Debt, Randall Robinson, you talk about a proposal by the former Mayor of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson, talking about every African American in this country holding the card. Can you talk about that?
RANDALL ROBINSON: Well this occurred some years ago when Maynard was Mayor of Atlanta, and he was in my office in Washington, and he said, you know, in trying to get a response from candidates on sustentative issues, perhaps we need a card with ten demands on it. And whenever any politician comes around asking for support, photo opportunities and the sort, the card ought to be put before them, and they ought to be required to answer yes or no on the issues that are important to our community. And on that basis, we would make a decision as to whether or not we would support that candidate.
I think it’s unforgivable that Clinton, who has enjoyed more support in the black community than Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell, according to polls done in the early nineties, would do what he has done to Caribbean banana-based economies. Democratic-friendly countries to the United States have been devastated by Clinton, who sold the administration to Chiquita Bananas for a campaign contribution.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that further. I don’t think people really understand what this is about.
RANDALL ROBINSON: Countries like Dominica, St. Vincent, Grenada, St. Lucia, depend on the export of bananas for 70%, 80%, 85% of their foreign exchange earnings. They’re small economies, and so they can’t diversify. These are small islands, and they’re volcanic islands, and so economies of scale mean that it takes a little more to grow a banana in those places per banana per unit than it does on the vast acreages of Central America, where Chiquita and the large fruit growers grow bananas.
And so, because of this, the former colonial powers — the English in this case — have carved out a tiny share of the European market. These countries don’t sell any bananas in the United States, and so they depend on this European market, which is just 3% of the world market, 6% of the European market, to buy their bananas on a preferential basis to sustain these democratic economies.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it a kind of reparations for these countries because they’re former colonies?
RANDALL ROBINSON: It’s an acknowledgment of what the metropol country owes to these countries. And, of course, Carl Lindner of Chiquita Bananas wants that market share. And so he made an enormous contribution to the Democratic Party, to the Republican Party, as well, slept in the Lincoln bedroom, flew on Air Force One.
Clinton went to the WTO, after Mickey Kantor told us that we would do nothing that would be harmful to the interest of these democratic friendly countries — went to the WTO and got a ruling, which means that these countries will find their economies destroyed, making them more vulnerable to the drug trafficking, the drug traffic that comes from the countries of supply in Latin America to the market in the United States, because these countries have become more vulnerable, because of the economic policies of the US. And so, we’ve got farmers now in St. Vincent ingesting insecticide, committing suicide, because of what the Clinton administration has done. And this is the reward we get from a president who was elected, one could argue, by the black community. And so, that, I think, gives logic to Maynard Jackson’s proposal. We’ve got to be implacable in our demands to these candidates.
And I want to raise another point about this business about reparations. Palliatives like Affirmative Action will never close the economic gap. This gap is structural. It’s not even about salary. Because the black community has been denied so much in wealth-building tools, blacks, even middle-class blacks, have no paper assets to speak of. They may be salaried, but they’re only a few months away from poverty if they should lose those jobs, because they have handed — they’ve had nothing to hand down from generation to generation because of the ravages of discrimination and segregation, which were based in law until recently, and so that the black community economically is very vulnerable, and we have this enormous gap.
Now, this gap was opened, because of the deeds of the United States government, which has a responsibility to make that right. And that has to be a part of our demand. But we have an America that is urging other countries to face up to their past wrongful deeds, while America is unwilling to even acknowledge its past wrongful deed. What crime against humanity could be more horrible than slavery? Or lynching? Or restrictive covenants? Or mortgage discrimination? Or job discrimination? Or housing discrimination? Or all of the varied forms of discrimination that have held people down.
I mean, what form of hostility endorsed by government could allow children today, five years old, to start school in schoolrooms that are so bereft of the tools of education; children coming to the schools undernourished, without the kinds of nutrition programs they’ve got to have; children who approach the first school years of their lives without a chance of competing evenly in the American marketplace of the competition of development.
And all of this is recycled pathologia or pathologies and disabilities from generations and generations and generations ago. And the government turns its back on it. And I, in writing this book, have said, and so far as I’m concerned, “Enough.” We’re going to devote a great deal of our resources to generating the public debate around this issue and give Congressman Conyers all of the support that we can to make the Democratic Party particularly know that they can’t count on our support if they remain unsympathetic to a cause as palpably obvious as this one.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Randall Robinson. He is the founder and president of TransAfrica. He is the author of a new book called The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, this on Martin Luther King’s birthday, on the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday.
When you hear talk of the founding fathers, of George Washington, of Thomas Jefferson, what do you think?
RANDALL ROBINSON: They were slavers. They owned slaves. They never freed them. They owned them as beasts of burden. They were human rights abusers. Thomas Jefferson owned Sally Hemings and had a relationship with her that dated from age fourteen for her, for thirty-eight years beyond, in which he had a sexual relationship with her. Inasmuch as her status remained the status of a slave, because he never freed her, one might conclude that if one cannot deny consent, one cannot give it, and that would make his sexual relationship with her logically rape, because she had no authority to grant consent, because she couldn’t deny it. She was a slave.
And when you read Jefferson’s notes on the State of Virginia, you’re horrified by his views of his slaves, the way he saw or would not see or could not see their fundamental humanity. Unforgivable!
And one can’t argue about they were men of their time. Thomas Paine wasn’t that way. He opposed slavery vigorously. And there were many abolitionists in the country who did, white abolitionists in the country, people of conscience, who did. And so, the founding fathers, in my view, were found wanting, morally, very flawed individuals, because slavery is not a small item.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you call Jefferson a slave holder, a racist and a rapist. Washington, George Washington, his history?
RANDALL ROBINSON: Well, very much the same. It doesn’t have a Sally Hemings kind of baggage.
AMY GOODMAN: That you know of.
RANDALL ROBINSON: But, of course, that I know of. But, of course, he, according to Martha Washington’s letters, he thought he believed slavery was wrong, which in my view makes it worse, because he knew it was wrong — and I think they all did — but he never freed them, and put in his will that they would freed upon Martha’s death. And so, once he died, he bequeathed the slaves to her, but the slaves knew when he died that when she died they would be free. And so, she became very fearful that the slaves would kill her, and so she freed them forthwith.
You see, this is inexcusable, that we’ve got to apply the same standard to these members of the American pantheon that we apply to any other people in the world who commit these kinds of heinous wrongs. And so, while they may be American heroes for some, to the black community they are people who saw us as less than human.
In Washington, there is stunning silence. When I wrote the book, a dear friend of mine who once worked for TransAfrica, Ibrahim Gassama, who is a professor of law at the University of Oregon, had said that the experience of his colleagues is that whenever he raised this issue with white law professors, even liberal white law professors, it was met with silence. No response at all. A deafening, smothering silence.
It’s the same response that was given to Boris Bitker’s book, the Yale Law School professor who wrote a book in the '70s called The Case for Black Reparations. It was a compelling, slim volume that laid out the case for black reparations. In the scholarly community, it got no response at all. And you sort of bury the issue with no reaction, and that's been the response of the Congress and political leaders for the longest time.
AMY GOODMAN: What would reparations look like, Randall Robinson?
RANDALL ROBINSON: Well, I can say what they will look like in their basic form and what they would not look like. Perhaps I should start by saying what they wouldn’t do. They would not — people like myself would not be eligible for them. They would be for people who need reparations. And so, this would benefit those blacks who are the living contemporary victims of slavery. People who have been bottom-stuck in American society intergenerationally. Those are the people who would have access to these programs.
There would be no checks given to people, but from the federal revenues we would see funded a trust that would support education and economic development programs in the black community. It would mean that we wouldn’t have situations where people could not go to school and not go to good schools because they didn’t have the financial wherewithal to do so. And there would be massive infusions of capital into the black community, not to put people to work alone, but to build a capital base in that community.
How much that would require would likely run into the trillions. And I thought it would not be wise to put a figure in the book, because the book wants to establish first the right to reparations, that they are owed, that there is precedent for it and a compelling case for it. Certainly the figure will run into the trillions and will have to be paid out over generations, but I don’t think we need to get diverted by that now. I think that’s something that will come out of a political process, just as the reparations to Jews in Germany came out of a negotiation process. The same would happen in this country with respect to what the amount would be.
AMY GOODMAN: Why are you so quick to say it would not look like checks to people? I mean, in the case of Japanese Americans for being interned during World War II, Jewish Holocaust survivors, it does look like checks.
RANDALL ROBINSON: Well, I think the form would be different in this case for a variety of reasons. First of all, I think the damage in the black community is vastly more extensive than any damage sustained in any community anywhere in the world. The damage done to the Japanese American community, indeed to the Jewish community worldwide, was done not over a sufficiently long enough period of time to dismantle the core of the Japanese and Jewish people. They continue to know who they were. Their culture remained intact. They still had a sense of their history. They still had a sense of themselves.
The problem with the sort of asphyxiating patience of slavery, victimizing over such a long period of time, it killed every trace of self-esteem and memory of who people were. Cultures take a long time to kill. It has to be done over many generations, when you strip people of their language, of their ways of life, of their sense of belonging to a group in the most positive of ways. And so, that has to be restored with a variety of programs. I mean, we have to restore memory to our people.
This is not just a question of paying people money, because money can be paid out, and it can return quickly to those who paid it out. And so, I think that would be an irresponsible way to do it. I think that what has to be done, because of the breadth of the crime and the length of its commission, the time of its commission, that these reparations, these programs, have to extend over many generations.
As Norman Francis, the president of Xavier University, told me when I was writing this book, that a force equal to the force that put us in chains will have to be applied to liberate us fully, to repair us fully of the damage that was done to us over so long a period of time. And so, I think that the problem of black people in the world, because of the uniqueness of slavery, the massiveness of it, is distinguishable from the situation concerning other people who have received reparations in checks and amounts like that.
AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! Our guest is Randall Robinson. He’s author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. It is a hard-hitting, angry book that is both laying out the problem and laying out solutions, an issue that should so obviously be discussed at every level, from elementary school to the US Congress, but is particularly just remarkable in the absence of the discussion of this.
Now, you talk about the fact that in 1915, there was a suit brought for reparations.
RANDALL ROBINSON: The Cotton Case, and it was brought to win for freed slaves amounts of money equal to what they should have earned producing the cotton that produced so much for the coffers of the United States, in export earnings and taxes on those earnings and all of that. The suit was thrown out, and that is why it is not likely that we can get the kind of result we’re seeking from the courts, because the government has to allow itself to be sued. It’s the discretion of the government to allow that or to disallow that. And so, this will come out of a political process.
I wanted to make a comment on something you just said. You said it’s an angry book, and it may be. Its perspective is everything. But I think we have lived with this for so long that this doesn’t seem angry to blacks. It seems, if it is angry, it is a normal state, because there is no insult more cutting, more egregious, than the insult of invisibility, that this could happen to us, and the government that served to victimize us could deny — not even active denial, total ignorance — that it happened at all, is the most cutting of insults altogether.
And it means that this child who’s not successful in school or this black male whose chances are so high of landing in prison, being sentenced a longer term for something, if a white did it, get less time and be less likely to be convicted in the first place; whose life chances for that mother, that man, that child, are just poorer because of race. For them, you see, when they remain invisible, that child begins to believe that there is something wrong with him or her. If no one takes responsibility, if no one draws a line back in time, if no one says or agrees or concedes that someone did something to me, the problem must be I. And that perhaps is the greatest cost of all to be borne by our young. That simply can no longer be tolerated.
AMY GOODMAN: I just want to say why I used the word “angry,” and that is because if this issue is ever even discussed, it is discussed with a level of equanimity. It’s discussed with a lack of — at least that I see, in terms of public policy and people addressing the egregiousness, the outrageousness of what happened, and the lack of any kind of redress, and that’s what I found refreshing about this book.
RANDALL ROBINSON: Let me tell you why I reacted. It’s a very common refrain, and I generally think that it is done, not in your case, but in many cases, with a sort of intent to dismiss, that if it is — if it is angry, anger is off-putting, then we don’t like the look of your anger so we don’t talk about it. But your foot is on my head, and it hurts. Isn’t it rational to be angry? Am I — should I be pleased? Oh, you know, this is the kind of thing you don’t — you don’t know which way to answer the question, and so blacks constantly find themselves kind of shopping for ways to pose things. Should I modulate? You’re damned right I’m angry. Look what’s being done to us. Look what has been done to us. Look what I can’t know. Look what you made me know.
AMY GOODMAN: And it seems that that discussion and that level of anger has to reach a critical mass in the public sphere for something to happen here.
RANDALL ROBINSON: I think you’re absolutely right about that, and I see this thing in two stages. The first effort is to galvanize support in the black community for this, and the book has been met with a wonderful reaction in the black community. This issue has not for years been at the center, at the very top of our calendar of efforts. I think it is moving there now. And it will have to be there before we can force the issue onto the national agenda. And I think, like all of the things that we’ve done — South Africa, Haiti, and all of the other things — these things take time. They have a sort of rhythm to them that I’ve begun to understand over the years. But I think this is an idea whose time has come. This is going to happen.
And I was so encouraged by what one of the Japanese law professors said in our meeting yesterday, because it was a kind of a sharing process, and she’s a professor at Georgetown, Professor Matsuda at Georgetown University. And she said that many said that we couldn’t do this, so why try. And when we started, we didn’t believe we could do it either. For those of us who work in human rights, we know all of us who work on human rights issues have no real bright prospect of success when we start anything. We do these things, because they’re the right things to do. And if you do them long enough, if you do them relentlessly enough, if you do them with all of the energy you can muster for as long as you have life in you to do them, sometimes you win. And then she said what is so important, that I had written in the book, but she hadn’t read at the time, that if African Americans do nothing more, whether we win or lose, if we do not win, we will have, by doing this, at the very least, discovered ourselves. That is so important for our psychic renovation, that we can’t control what mainstream America will do. We can’t control what white America will do or how it will respond. But we can gather ourselves to say, “Whether you react constructively or not, we know. We, at long last, in the critical mass, broadly, in our hearts and in our minds, know. And we will always look at you with that knowledge, guilty before the world for world regard.”
AMY GOODMAN: Specifically, what, though, do you see as the next step now?
RANDALL ROBINSON: Well, we’re going to circulate a resolution very shortly that’s already been crafted. It was reviewed by a meeting yesterday to try to build momentum for this from the ground up. And so, we’ll circulate this to city councils across the country and ask that it be introduced for adoption and to see how many resolutions, not terribly unlike the one that was passed in Dallas, could be passed by city councils across the country. And we’re going to work hard to see if we can win enough cosponsors for John Conyers’s bill.
AMY GOODMAN: What does it say, the resolution?
RANDALL ROBINSON: The resolution says, inasmuch as the United States, you know, resolve the whereas…whereas…whereas… the United States was complicit in the crime of slavery and the century of discrimination that followed it, and inasmuch as the United States has not taken responsibility for this, and inasmuch as the economic gap and the sufferings of black people here and around the world are largely attributable to the ravages of that period, then the United States is called upon to right this terrible wrong with a provision of compensation and reparations. A language of that kind. And we expect that will be broadly embraced, and if we can get enough cosponsors for Congressman Conyers’s bill, then we will have the debate before the Congress that we will need to have to get this going.
And I hope — and it’s why I wrote the book in the first place — I hope that the book will bring new insight to people who haven’t had much to read about this issue. And we’ve also established a website for this book, www.thedebt.net. And so, through that website, you can get my tour schedule, where I’m going to be in the country talking about this issue. You can buy not just my book, but books by others who have written on this issue. You can get the law review articles that have been done on this issue by many of the people who were in the meeting with us. You can even buy sweatshirts and caps and jerseys that say “The Debt” in red, and we’re hoping that the proceeds from that will go to black education across the country. And we hope that that apparel will be worn by young people and college students, so that everybody will be reminded of this, and they won’t be able to avoid this issue very much longer. And so, we hope people will log onto that website, www.thedebt.net, and get involved.
There’s also a registration facility on the website so that people can put their names into the database and continue to receive information. So we’re trying to build a campaign, a grassroots campaign, as well as a campaign in the legislative bodies to carry this campaign forward.
AMY GOODMAN: I have two last quick questions, one to do with presidential politics. You talked about holding the Democrats accountable. I wanted to get your reaction to John McCain talking about his ancestors, saying that his, I believe it was, great-grandfather or his ancestors had fought on the side of the Confederacy, and they believed it was a noble cause, and other of the candidates’ comments on this issue.
RANDALL ROBINSON: It’s tantamount — this is another part of the denial. And, you know, it’s hard to fix a response, because the emotions swim around in you and the thing befuddles you. You don’t know what to say first or how to order your comments. That’s tantamount to saying, you know, you had a grandfather who was a Nazi, but it was alright, because he was loyal and principled in the cause.
Has there been any human rights — any crime against humanity larger than slavery? It went on for so long. It killed so many people. It used up the lives of those it did not kill. It destroyed mothers. It twisted children. It robbed people of their understanding of who they had been. It blocked their view of their own rich history. It did everything to remove the core of a once great people. There is no human rights crime that begins to compare with slavery.
And that John McCain could say something that serves as a kind of apology for slavery or some tacit acceptance of it as a notion like any other means that he is as blind and as callous and as insensitive and as locked and covered in denial as anyone could be. But that is symptomatic of the country as a whole at this time. And it’s simply an intolerable situation.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it code for Southern whites to say, “I want your support”?
RANDALL ROBINSON: Oh, absolutely. You know, what will they do to get elected? I mean, is there no principle in politics? Are there no ideals that people are willing to stand for? Is getting elected that important to sacrifice the most basic and fundamental of values and principles? It’s — I think it’s not just a sad comment on race relations and to the black community in the country, I mean, it’s a sad measure of the state of our democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: And George Bush in South Carolina talking about the flag, saying that its their own issue to solve, whether the Confederate flag should be taken off the State House?
RANDALL ROBINSON: The flag is like a Swastika to a twelfth of the population of this country. That’s what happens to us when we see that flag. There’s not much more to say about it. That to embrace that flag, George Bush says all that the black community needs to know about George W. Bush.
AMY GOODMAN: Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. And that does it for this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day special edition of Democracy Now!