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FIRST-PERSON: Reparations: a divisive issue

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–I was most impressed with Newsweek’s cover story in January profiling three of America’s most powerful African American CEOs. Their achievement speaks volumes to the success and opportunities made possible in a free market society.

On the other hand, I’m truly amazed by continual unfruitful, divisive discussions regarding reparations for the past injustice of slavery. I’m not at all surprised that in a recent poll taken, 97 percent of white Americans and 37 percent of black Americans were opposed to the idea of reparations. If reparations should be taken seriously, does that mean that all of those who benefited from Affirmative Action programs, government set-aside programs and urban renewal programs must return back to the government all the tax dollars in favor of this new form of payback? I don’t think so!

No matter how well-intentioned, the most recent divisive spectacle promoting further racial resentment is the Brooklyn, N.Y., lawsuit by Deadria Farmer-Paellmann of New York, the great-great-granddaughter of a South Carolina slave alleging that CSX Railroad, Aetna Insurance Co. and Fleet Bank owe slave descendants more than $1.4 trillion for unpaid slave labor. In my opinion, what is more noteworthy than discussions of reparations is the amazing courage and resilience of American blacks who have achieved in spite of the historical legacy of slavery.

Faith, sacrifice, hard work and strong determination are the reasons that individuals like the African American business leaders mentioned in the Newsweek article have been able to climb to the top of the corporate ladder in their chosen professions. While a growing underclass exists among poor whites, Hispanics and blacks, the reality is, African Americans are now a part of ever-growing and expanding middle class. In fact, in nearly every major profession, as well as in education, politics, business, athletics and entertainment, blacks have made enormous strides. Perhaps, more time should be given to the success stories rather than bemoaning the fact that blacks did not get their 40 acres and a mule when slavery ended. The Denzel Washingtons, Hallie Berrys, Michael Jordans, Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfreys, Bill Cosbys of our nation, and so many more, are living examples of the gains so many have made without reparations given to them.

The real battle today should be making sure the doors remain open so that others of any ethnic or racial group will have access to the opportunities made possible by a free market society.

The painful truth is that no amount of reparation can remove the gross violations brought on by the institution of slavery. Furthermore, both victims and victimizers have long since passed on. The futility of deciding who gets what from whom seems to me a waste of both mental and emotional energy and a threat to our already fragile national solidarity.

The legacy of the civil rights movement was not about reparations; it was about equal opportunity and equal access to the American dream.

Additionally, the African American community should be appalled and outraged by those of their own race who would take advantage of innocent African American taxpayers by promising them a bogus IRS tax reparations refund, for a monetary fee. Millions of dollars have been swindled through this obnoxious scheme. According to an article in the Washington Times, “In January, the IRS announced it received nearly 80,000 returns in 2001 claiming more than $2.7 billion in false reparation refunds.”

Believe me, I know that mistakes have been made in the past and the nation has paid a horrible price in the loss of black and white life in the struggle for freedom and justice in America. But when it comes to reparations, let us not use such a divisive issue, which in the long run, will do more harm than good and will further alienate black and white citizens from all walks of life.
Terriel R. Byrd, Ph.D., is assistant professor of religion and director of ethnic church ministries at Palm Beach Atlantic College, West Palm Beach, Fla.

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  • Terriel Byrd