The pros and cons of requiring the US government to pay reparations for slavery to African Americans were discussed last Wednesday in Rm 10-250 before a racially mixed audience of about 350, mostly students.
The two-hour session was sponsored by the Rho Nu chapter of the African-American fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha and organized by Jonathan S. White, an MIT senior who is vice president of the fraternity. The moderator was Andrew A. Ryan, Class of 2000.
Dorothy B. Lewis, co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, advocated implementation of the policy. David Horowitz, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture, argued against it.
Mr. Horowitz has attempted to place an advertisement that states his position in 57 college newspapers, 43 of which declined to print it (although the Tech did not receive a request to print the ad). Protesting students at Brown University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison confiscated copies of the paper.
In his opening statement, Mr. Horowitz said he would support reparations to the victims of slavery "if the people who were directly injured were alive today." He wondered why a fictional struggling Mexican immigrant he called Josï¿½ Martinez should "pay reparations to Johnnie L. Cochran and Jesse L. Jackson, who are multimillionaires."
"Josï¿½ Martinez may have a reparations case against the United States for taking his land," Ms. Lewis retorted during the discussion.
She said the issue of reparations has existed since the Emancipation Proclamation and responsibility should be "transferred from one generation to the next." She said the US government should be held accountable, not individuals. "I don't blame anybody in this room," she said.
Ms. Lewis said there are now "two million slaves in prisons" in the United States, which she described as concentration camps. "Slavery and white supremacy are alive and well in America," she said. She said African Americans "want to return home" and reparations would "give us options."
"I don't see many slaves" among African Americans, Mr. Horowitz said. "I see great prosperity," he added, noting that the net worth of African Americans would make them the 10th-richest nation in the world. "Why do Haitians get on rafts to come to this hellhole?" he wondered. "Why isn't there a great migration of black Americans out of America?"
Mr. Horowitz said that while African Americans had voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate for president, Vice President Albert A. Gore Jr., Republican President George W. Bush had appointed the most diverse cabinet in history, placing African Americans Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice in charge of foreign policy. He added that for the most part, Democrats had governed the country's major cities for generations, to the detriment of their African-American residents.
In her closing statement, Ms. Lewis said reparations would honor 250 million African Americans "who lost their lives in the American Holocaust." Paying reparations would allow "all Americans to separate themselves from a very ugly part of their past," she said.
"There never was a debate about Japanese reparations," she said. "There never was a debate about Jewish reparations. There never was a debate about Native American reparations. Why is there a debate about black reparations?"
Mr. Horowitz urged the audience not to heed the message of separatism and alienation. "Don't be led down a blind alley," he said.
The event was taped by C-Span and broadcast twice last Saturday.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 11, 2001.