There's no disputing that Americans of African descent suffered centuries of enslavement. What's far less certain, however, is what kind of debt is owed to the descendants of those slaves.
Students on several college campuses are up in arms over an ad placed in campus newspapers this week by conservative activist David Horowitz. The ad denounces the suggestion that the United States should compensate its African-American citizens for the injustices suffered by slaves.
The protests — and Horowitz's ad — are just the latest signs of the simmering national debate over slave reparations.
Crusade in the Courts
A group of influential lawyers and scholars called the Reparations Coordinating Committee has focused on the institutions it says have profited from slavery. Led by civil-rights activist Randall Robinson, it plans to bring massive lawsuits against the government and major corporations.
"The principal income mechanism for the United States during the years of slavery was cotton. It made us a powerful country," says Robinson. "The people who produced the cotton were never paid."
Robinson won't specify the group's targets, but some companies have already acknowledged their role in slavery.
The Hartford Courant newspaper, for instance, apologized last year for running ads for the sale and capture of slaves.
Aetna Insurance has issued a statement apologizing for insuring slaves as the personal property. The company's formal statement concludes: "No further actions are required."
Robinson disagrees: "An apology is not the end of the matter, an apology is the beginning of the matter… It's not good enough to say, 'Yes, we did it, and we're sorry."
A Legacy of Debt
Slave reparations are not a new concept, dating back to the Civil War.
General William Tecumseh Sherman first suggested that freed slaves each receives "40 acres and a mule." President Andrew Johnson and the U.S. Congress rejected the idea.
But the spirit of Sherman's idea has survived. There is currently a reparations bill before Congress. And Robinson's recent book on the subject, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks , is a best seller.
Reparations have been made to victims of World War II. Germany paid nearly $60 billion to survivors of the Holocaust. In 1988, the United States agreed to pay $20,000 to more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans sent to an internment camp during World War II.
"We support reparations and restitution and compensation for injured people across the world," says Robinson. "We have just been disinclined to look at ourselves."
But since there are no slaves living today, and since most white Americans descend from immigrants who arrived long after abolition, there are many questions about who should pay reparations and who should receive them.
Robinson argues that blacks today still bear the scars of slavery and the decades of discrimination that followed. But he blames institutions, not individuals.
"When governments commit crimes against segments of their own population," he says, "those governments have a continuing responsibility to address this and to provide restitution."
A Tough Sell
Others disagree with Robinson.
Walter Williams, an economics professor at George Mason University, for instance, is a vigorous opponent of reparations. He infuriates many people by suggesting that in the long run, African-Americans have actually benefited from the legacy of slavery.
"Almost every black American's income is higher as a result of being born in the United States than any country in Africa," says Williams, who is African-American himself. "Most black Americans are middle-class."
Even those who support the idea of reparations may have difficulty with what some estimate the price tag to be: as much as $10 trillion.
But reparations advocates say their goal is not a big check for every African-American. Instead, they want a massive infusion of money into programs of education, training and economic development.
Williams and other opponents say such investments have already been made. "The American people have spent $6.1 trillion in the name of fighting poverty," he says. "We've had all kinds of programs trying to address the problems of discrimination. America has gone a long way."
Other critics worry that in both courts of law and the court of public opinion, the debate over reparations threatens to re-open the very wounds it is intended to heal.
But Robinson argues there are risks involved in social change: "Change does not come without some measure of discomfort."