White Weddings, The incredible staying power of the laws against interracial marriage. By David Greenberg, Posted Tuesday, June 15, 1999, at 12:30 AM PT
Last week, the Alabama Senate voted to repeal the state's constitutional prohibition against interracial marriage, 32 years after the Supreme Court struck down Virginia's similar ban. Hadn't these archaic laws gone out with Bull Connor? I asked myself as I read the news account. And haven't we been hearing that America has rediscovered the melting pot, that in another generation or two we'll all be "cablinasian," like Tiger Woods?
I talked to the measure's main sponsor, state Rep. Alvin Holmes, a 24-year statehouse veteran who has been trying to overturn the ban for decades. "The last time I tried was about three years ago," said Holmes. "It didn't get out of committee." Holmes credits his success to the last election, in which a bevy of Democrats were swept into office.
Holmes wasn't just tidying up the legal code. In parts of rural Alabama, he said, probate judges still refuse to issue marriage licenses to interracial couples. Holmes explained that some of his Alabama colleagues opposed his measure because they willfully refused to accept that the federal government had the power to override state law--an ideology of states' rights that goes way beyond Newt Gingrich to John Calhoun.
When you think about it, it makes sense that some Alabamians found it hard to jettison overnight a 300-year-old custom. Laws against interracial marriage--and the taboos against black-white sex that they codify--have been the central weapon in the oppression of African-Americans since the dawn of slavery. President Abraham Lincoln's detractors charged him in the 1864 presidential campaign with promoting the mongrelization of the races (that's where the coinage "miscegenation," which now sounds racist, comes from). Enemies of the 20th-century civil rights movement predicted that the repeal of Jim Crow laws would, as one Alabama state senator put it, "open the bedroom doors of our white women to black men." Fears of black sexuality have been responsible for some of the most notorious incidents of anti-black violence and persecution, from the Scottsboro Boys to Emmett Till.
Intermarriage bans arose in the late 1600s, when tobacco planters in Virginia needed to shore up their new institution of slavery. In previous decades, before slavery took hold, interracial sex was more prevalent than at any other time in American history. White and black laborers lived and worked side by side and naturally became intimate. Even interracial marriage, though uncommon, was allowed. But as race slavery replaced servitude as the South's labor force, interracial sex threatened to blur the distinctions between white and black--and thus between free and slave. Virginia began categorizing a child as free or slave according to the mother's status (which was easier to determine than the father's), and so in 1691 the assembly passed a law to make sure that women didn't bear mixed-race children. The law banned "negroes, mulatto's and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, [and] their unlawfull accompanying with one another." Since the society was heavily male, the prohibition on unions between white women and nonwhite men also lessened the white men's competition for mates. (In contrast, sex between male slave owners and their female slaves--which often meant rape--was common. It typically met with light punishment, if any at all.)
If fears of interracial sex underlay bans on interracial marriage, it was marriage that became the greater threat. Men might rape black women or keep them as concubines, but to marry them would confer legal equality. Thus, over the course of the 18th century all Southern states--and many Northern ones--outlawed all marriages between blacks and whites. Up through the Civil War, only two states, Pennsylvania in 1780 and Massachusetts in 1843--hotbeds of abolitionist activity--repealed their bans.
The end of slavery should have made things better. It didn't. In the South, the federal government initially forced the removal of the bans in several states. But when federal troops pulled out, the bans returned, along with a whole complex of new discriminatory laws known as Jim Crow. In the West, 13 states passed new laws against interracial marriage, many of them targeting white-Asian unions along with white-black ones. Only in the North did laws against intermarriage draw real fire, coming off the books in Maine, Michigan, Ohio, and Rhode Island.
Still, even in the most enlightened areas, mixed-race couples faced enormous social stigma. Clerks refused to issue marriage licenses to mixed couples, and ministers often wouldn't marry them. Couples that did marry faced harassment from employers and neighbors. In 1944, Gunnar Myrdal, in An American Dilemma, noted that "even a liberal-minded Northerner of cosmopolitan culture will, in nine cases out of ten, express a definite feeling against" interracial marriage. It was, he said, a "consecrated taboo" that "fixed" the boundary between the races.
That changed slowly with the civil right movement, which reshaped the nation's consciousness. In 1967, an interracial married couple named Richard and Mildred Loving brought to the Supreme Court a suit against Virginia, claiming the right to live there. The court sided with them unanimously, decreeing the ban unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. The fortuitously named Loving decision took its place in law books, but not necessarily in practice. Where no one had the wherewithal to stand up for it--say, in rural Alabama--Loving was flouted.
Precisely as white racists feared, desegregation encouraged interracial unions. Blacks and whites began to meet and date, especially on college campuses, which started admitting African-Americans in larger numbers in the '60s and '70s. The next generation saw a surge in intermarriage. In 1963, 0.7 percent of blacks married someone of another race. By 1994, the figure had reached 12.1 percent. The 1960 census recorded 51,000 black-white marriages. Today there are more than 300,000. Attitudes changed too. In 1958, 4 percent of white Americans approved of interracial marriages. In 1994, it was 45 percent. And younger generations are vastly more tolerant than their elders, suggesting these numbers will climb.
Of course, it's hard not to also see the glass as half--or, more precisely, 55 percent--empty. All these numbers may be climbing, but they remain low. What's more, the white-black marriage rate lags significantly behind rates of white intermarriage with other, nonblack races. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, 52 percent of Native Americans and 40 percent of Asians married outside their race, while only 6 percent of blacks did so. The racism that kept Alabama's constitution unchanged has hardly been eradicated. Whether these habits will change on their own, with the maturation of a more tolerant generation, or whether full social acceptance of black Americans will require a concerted governmental effort, is unknowable. In the meantime, we can take only meager pride in achieving a society in which interracial marriage is safe, legal and, alas, rare.
Guilt by Acquisition, Should today's stockholders pay the price of a corporation's past sins? By Steven E. Landsburg, Posted Friday, Jan. 8, 1999, at 12:30 AM PT
When the German car maker Daimler-Benz announced plans to acquire a controlling share of Chrysler Corp., Jewish novelist Cynthia Ozick announced in the Wall Street Journal that she would never buy a Chrysler. Other Jews (some of whom would never buy a Chrysler because they'd only ever buy a Mercedes) saw the issue very differently. Last May, shortly after the merger was announced, the Jewish Bulletin carried an article by Natalie Weinstein surveying the range of opinion, particularly among Holocaust survivors. The responses ran the predictable gamut. Some agreed with Ozick. But others, such as Rabbi Ted Alexander, took their cues from Deuteronomy, which admonishes that "Fathers shall not be put to death for children, neither shall children be put to death for fathers." "Going by that verse of the Torah," said the rabbi, "I cannot blame this generation."
The rabbi's analogy treats the Daimler-Benz of 1998 as the "child" of the Daimler-Benz that employed slave laborers in 1943. From a strictly legal perspective, the analogy is inaccurate: Under the law, a corporation lives forever. The entity that controls Chrysler is exactly the same entity that collaborated with the Nazis, not a descendant.
But it would be wrong to view an essentially moral question from a strictly legal perspective. A corporation is not a moral entity; it's the corporation's flesh and blood owners who are moral entities. From that perspective, the rabbi's analogy fails in a different way: The current owners of Daimler-Benz are not, by and large, the children of previous owners from half a century ago. Stocks trade hands every day.
That observation seems to strengthen Alexander's position. If we should not punish children for the sins of their fathers, then surely we should not punish children for the sins of their fathers' countrymen. But that analysis can be definitive only to those who believe that nothing can be added to the words of Deuteronomy; otherwise there's more to be said.
When is it permissible to punish one person for the wrongs of another? The question is a tangle of moral and economic issues. Morally, we're concerned with things such as justice, fairness, and individual rights. Economically, we're concerned with creating good incentives.
To see how uncomfortable it can be when economic and moral issues brush up against each other, consider the revision of accident law that's been proposed by the economist-iconoclast-law professor David Friedman. Friedman suggests that when two cars collide causing a total of, say, $10,000 worth of damage, everyone who was within a mile of the accident should be required to pay a fine of $10,000. That way, anyone who sees an accident about to happen will take all cost-justified measures to prevent it (perhaps by honking furiously to warn of impending danger). To my knowledge, Friedman's proposal has never struck anyone as fair, but at least it gets the incentives right.
Or does it? My own view is that the Friedman plan fails even by its own strictly economic criteria, because it creates an incentive for people to avoid high-accident areas and take inefficiently long routes to wherever they're going--or to cancel their trips entirely. In principle, it could even increase the accident rate by scaring potential good Samaritans off the roads. Enforcement, of course, would be a nightmare.
Those objections aside, Friedman's proposal does illustrate the tension between economic and moral considerations. And Friedman's innocent bystanders are at least partly analogous to Daimler-Benz's innocent stockholders. Let's keep those lessons in the back of our minds as we revisit the DaimlerChrysler controversy.
Corporations can be punished for misdeeds in at least two ways. One is a consumer boycott and another is a (voluntary or involuntary) fine. Both kinds of punishment have been visited on Daimler-Benz (though arguably at levels that are small compared with the underlying offenses). In the 1980s, the corporation paid about $11 million to the descendants of its slave laborers.
Who exactly suffers from those punishments? You might think the $11 million came from the pockets of those who owned Daimler-Benz stock in the 1980s, but that's not necessarily the case. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that in 1950 it becomes foreseeable that Daimler-Benz will eventually make reparations. Then every share of Daimler-Benz stock sold between 1950 and 1980 sells at a discount reflecting that expectation. Without the discount, nobody would buy the stock. So given sufficient foresight, the prospect of a 1980 punishment hurts the 1950 owners, even if they sell in the interim. And those who buy stocks after 1950 are not punished at all, because the discount compensates them for the fine.
Therefore, if all companies are permanently on notice that bad behavior will eventually be punished, they have an incentive to behave well at all times. That's an outcome that seems both fair and economically efficient: The punishment falls on the sinners and thereby deters the sin. But here are two caveats:
First, even if punishment is inevitable, it falls not on the owners at the time when the sin is committed, but on the owners at the time when the sin is discovered. After all, it's not till the discovery that the stock price falls. So punishing past corporate sins is not like fining everyone who was present when an accident occurred, but when it was reported, which seems both unfair and pointless. But this caveat has a countercaveat: The prospect of future punishments gives you an incentive to investigate the corporation's history before you buy, which improves the chance that bad behavior can be uncovered while the actual perpetrators can still be punished.
Second, it's hard to maintain a consumer boycott, especially when the goal is to punish the past rather than to influence the future. Consumers can quite reasonably argue that history can't be changed and so is best forgotten. As a result, corporations have little to fear from boycotts unless consumers commit themselves to maintaining the boycotts even when they serve no purpose. It's hard to imagine how such commitments might be maintained, which suggests that fines are more effective than boycotts, especially if they are written into law rather than imposed on an ad hoc basis.
If you're looking for a firm conclusion to all this, you'll have to look elsewhere; I hope I've at least illuminated some of the attendant moral and economic issues--though even these can become very different in situations that are superficially similar. (Click here for an example.)
And punishing evil corporations is very different from punishing evil governments. In the first case, we punish stockholders who invested voluntarily, while in the second we punish taxpayers who might have bitterly opposed their government's policies. But that is a topic for another column.
The latest civil rights disaster, Ten reasons why reparations for slavery are a bad idea for black people -- and racist too.By David Horowitz
May 30, 2000 | It began as a fringe proposition favored by the politically extreme. But the idea that taxpayers should pay reparations to black Americans for the damages of slavery and segregation is no longer a fixation of the political margin. It is fast becoming the next big "civil rights" thing. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has already introduced legislation to set up a commission that would examine the impact of slavery as a foreordained prelude to some kind of legislated payback. (Conyers will become chairman of the Judiciary Committee if Democrats win back the House.) A coalition of African-Americans is claiming a debt of $4.1 trillion. A coalition of African nations is claiming a debt of $777 trillion against an assortment of governments including the United States.
Distinguished black intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates have given the idea their imprimatur, while Randall Robinson, who led the successful boycott movement against South Africa a decade ago, has written a strident, anti-white, anti-American manifesto called "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," which has become a bible of the reparations cause.
Nor is it just in the realm of ideas that the payback demand is gaining ground. Last week, the Chicago City Council voted 46-1 in favor of a reparations resolution. The lopsided nature of the vote persuaded Mayor Richard Daley to apologize for slavery (in Chicago?), thus joining what has become a familiar and unseemly ritual of contrition for the Clinton-era left. The primary sponsor of the resolution, Alderwoman Dorothy Tillman, has announced she is going to organize a "national convention" to push the issue of reparations in the coming year.
So what is wrong with the idea? In truth, just about everything. Examined closely, the claim for reparations is factually tendentious, morally incoherent and racially incendiary. Logically, it has about as much substance as the suggestion that O.J. Simpson should have been acquitted because of past racism by the criminal courts. Its impact on race relations and on the self-isolation of the African-American community is likely to be even worse.
If the reparations idea continues to gain traction, its most obvious effect will be to intensify ethnic antagonisms and generate new levels of racial resentment. It will further alienate African-Americans from their American roots and further isolate them from all of America's other communities (including whites), who are themselves blameless in the grievance of slavery, who cannot be held culpable for racial segregation and who, in fact, have made significant contributions to ending discrimination and redressing any lingering injustice.
1. Assuming there is actually a debt, it is not at all clear who owes it. Tillman articulated the argument for the existence of the debt this way: "America owes blacks a debt because when we built this country on free labor ... wealth was handed down to the white community." Robinson reaches back in time even further: "Well before the birth of our country, Europe and the eventual United States perpetrated a heinous wrong against the peoples of Africa and benefited from the wrong through the continuing exploitation of Africa's human and material resources." To sustain this claim, Robinson's book devotes entire sections to the alleged depredations of whites against blacks hundreds and even thousands of years before the "eventual United States" -- i.e., the government that is expected to pay the reparations -- was even created. It is necessary to insert the qualifier "alleged" because, like so many who wave the bloody shirt, Robinson makes little effort to establish causal responsibilities, but invokes any suffering of blacks where whites were proximate as evidence that whites were to blame.
Slavery itself is the most obvious example. It was not whites but black Africans who first enslaved their brothers and sisters. They were abetted by dark-skinned Arabs (since Robinson and his allies force us into this unpleasant mode of racial discourse) who organized the slave trade. Are reparations going to be assessed against the descendants of Africans and Arabs for their role in slavery? There were also 3,000 black slave owners in the antebellum United States. Are reparations to be paid by their descendants too?
2. The idea that only whites benefited from slavery is factually wrong and attitudinally racist. By accusing the U.S. government of crimes against black people in advance of its existence, Robinson reveals the ugly anti-white racism beneath the surface of many arguments for reparations, especially his. According to this line of reasoning, only white Americans are implicated in slavery, just as only whites are the presumed targets of the reparations payback. Both presumptions, however, are wrong.
If slave labor created wealth for all Americans, then obviously it created wealth for black Americans as well, including the descendants of slaves. Free blacks in the antebellum United States surely benefited from the free labor of slaves, along with whites. Are they to be exempted from payment of the debt just because they are black?
But if the "free labor" argument of the reparations claimants is correct, even the descendants of slaves have benefited from slavery. The GNP of black America (as black separatists constantly remind their followers) is so large that it makes the African-American community the 10th most prosperous "nation" in the world. To translate this into individual realities, American blacks on average enjoy per capita incomes in the range of 20 to 50 times those of blacks living in any of the African nations from which they were kidnapped.
What about this benefit of slavery? Are the reparations proponents going to make black descendants of slaves pay themselves for benefiting from the fruits of their ancestors' servitude?
3. In terms of lineal responsibility for slavery, only a tiny minority of Americans ever owned slaves. This is true even for those who lived in the antebellum South, where only one white in five was a slaveholder. Why should the descendants of non-slaveholding whites owe a debt? What about the descendants of the 350,000 Union soldiers who died to free the slaves? They gave their lives. What possible morality would ask them to pay (through their descendants) again?
4. Most Americans living today (white and otherwise) are the descendants of post-Civil War immigrants, who have no lineal connection to slavery at all. The two great waves of American immigration occurred after 1880 and after 1960. Is there an argument worth considering that would, for example, make Jews (who were cowering in the ghettos of Europe at the time) or Mexicans and Cubans (who were suffering under the heel of Spain) responsible for this crime? What reason could there be that Vietnamese boat people, Russian refuseniks, Iranian refugees, Armenian victims of the Turks or Greek, Polish, Hungarian and Korean victims of communism should pay reparations to American blacks? There is no reason, and no proponent of reparations has even bothered to come up with one.
5. The historical precedents generally invoked to justify the reparations claim -- that Jews and Japanese-Americans received reparations from Germany and the United States, respectively -- are spurious. The circumstances involved bear no resemblance to the situation of American blacks, and are not really precedents at all. The Jews and Japanese who received reparations were individuals who actually suffered the hurt.
Jews do not receive reparations from Germany simply because they are Jews. Those who do were corralled into concentration camps and lost immediate family members or personal property. Nor have all Japanese-Americans received payments, but only those whom the government interned in camps and who had their property confiscated. The reparations claims being advanced by black leaders seem to imply that the only qualification required for reparations is the color of one's skin. Robinson's book is pointedly subtitled "What America Owes to Blacks." If this is not racism, what is?
6. Behind the reparations arguments lies the unfounded claim that all blacks in America suffer economically from the consequences of slavery and discrimination. It would seem a hard case to prove over a 150-year (or even 50-year) gap, and the only evidence really offered by the claimants is the existence of contemporary "income disparities" and "inequalities" between the races. No actual connection (as far as they're concerned) need be made. On the other hand, African-American success stories that contradict the conclusion are abruptly dismissed.
Thus, to take the most obvious case, Oprah Winfrey may have been a sharecropper's daughter in the most segregated of all Southern states, but -- victim of slavery and segregation or no -- she was still able to become one of the 400 richest individuals in America on the strength of her appeal to white consumers. This extraordinary achievement, which refutes the reparations argument, is echoed in millions of other, more modest success stories, including those of all the prominent promoters of the reparations claim, even the unhappy Robinson. No wonder the only argument against these obvious counterfacts is that all successes must be exceptions to the (politically correct) rule.
But the reality is that this black middle class -- composed exclusively of descendants of slaves -- is also a very prosperous middle class that is now larger in absolute terms than the black underclass, which is really the only segment of the black population that can be made to fit the case. Is this black middle-class majority -- numbering millions of individuals -- really just a collective exception of unusual people? Or does its existence not suggest that the failures of the black underclass are failures of individual character, hardly (if at all) impacted by the lingering aftereffects of racial discrimination, let alone a slave system that ceased to exist well over a century ago?
West Indian blacks in America are also descended from slaves, but their average incomes are equivalent to the average incomes of whites (and nearly 25 percent higher than the average incomes of American-born blacks of all classes). How is it that slavery adversely affected one large group of descendants but not the other? And how can government be expected to decide an issue that is so subjective -- yet so critical -- to the case? The fact is that nobody has demonstrated any clearly defined causal connection between slavery or discrimination and the "disparities" that are alleged to require restitution.
And how, by the way, are blue-collar whites and ethnics expected to understand their reparations payments to these African-American doctors, lawyers, executives and military officers who make up the black middle class?
7. The renewed sense of grievance -- which is what the claim for reparations will inevitably create -- is neither a constructive nor a helpful message for black leaders to be sending to their communities. Virtually every group that has sought refuge in America has grievances to remember. For millions of recent immigrants the suffering is only years behind them, and can be as serious as ethnic cleansing or genocide.
How are these people going to receive the payment claims from African-Americans whose comparable suffering lies in the distant past? Won't they see this demand as just another claim for special treatment, for a rather extravagant new handout that is only necessary because some blacks can't seem to locate the ladder of opportunity within reach of others, many of whom are even less privileged than they are? Why can a penniless Mexican, who is here illegally and unable even to speak English, find work in America's inner cities while blacks cannot? Can 19th century slavery or even the segregation of 50 years ago really explain this?
To focus the social passions of African-Americans on what some Americans did to their ancestors 50 or 150 years ago is to burden this community with a crippling sense of victimhood. It is also to create a new source of conflict with other communities.
A young black intellectual wrote the following comments about reparations: "I think the reparations issue will be healthy. It will show all Americans (white, Hispanic, Asian) how much blacks contributed to helping build this country." Actually, as Robinson's book makes clear, what it will accomplish is just the opposite. It will provide black leaders with a platform from which to complain about all the negative aspects of black life -- to emphasize inner-city pathologies and failures, and to blame whites, Hispanics and Asians for causing them.
How is this going to impress other communities? It's really just a prescription for sowing more racial resentment and creating even greater antagonism.
8. This raises a point that has previously remained off the radar screen, but will surely be part of the debate to come: What about the "reparations" to blacks that have already been paid? Since the passage of the Civil Rights Acts and the advent of the Great Society in 1965, trillions of dollars in transfer payments have been made to African-Americans, in the form of welfare benefits and racial preferences (in contracts, job placements and educational admissions) -- all under the rationale of redressing historical racial grievances.
In fact, reparations advocates already have an answer to this argument, and it is a revealing one. Here is how Robinson refers to this massive gesture of generosity and contrition on the part of the white political majority in America during the past 35 years: "It was only in 1965 ... that the United States enacted the Voting Rights Act. Virtually simultaneously, however, it began to walk away from the social wreckage that centuries of white hegemony had wrought." Take that, white, Hispanic and Asian America! If a trillion-dollar restitution and a wholesale rewriting of American law and fundamental American principle in order to accommodate racial preferences and redress injustice are nothing, then what will fill the claimants' bill?
9. And this raises another question that black leaders might do well to reflect on: What about the debt blacks owe to America -- to white Americans -- for liberating them from slavery? This may not seem like a serious question to some, but that only reveals their ignorance of the history of slavery and its fate. Slavery existed for thousands of years before the Atlantic slave trade was born, in virtually all societies. But in the 1,000 years of its existence, there never was an anti-slavery movement until white Englishmen and Americans created one. If not for the anti-slavery attitudes and military power of white Englishmen and Americans, the slave trade would not have ended. If not for the sacrifices of white soldiers and a white American president who gave his life to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks in America would have remained slaves indefinitely.
If not for the dedication of Americans of all ethnicities and colors to a society based on the principle that all men are created equal, blacks in America would not enjoy the highest standard of living of blacks anywhere in the world, and indeed one of the highest standards of living of any people in the world. They would not enjoy the greatest freedoms and the most thoroughly protected individual rights. Where is the gratitude of black America and its leaders for those gifts?
10. The final and summary reason for rejecting any reparations claim is recognition of the enormous privileges black Americans enjoy as Americans, and therefore of their own stake in America's history, slavery and all.
Blacks were here before the Mayflower. Who is more American than the descendants of African slaves? For the African-American community to isolate itself even further from America would be to embark on a course whose consequences are troublesome even to contemplate. Yet the black community has had a long-running flirtation with separatists and nationalists in its ranks, who must be called what they are: racists who want African-Americans to have no part of America's multiethnic social contract. This separatist strain in black America's consciousness has now been joined with the anti-Americanism of the political left to form the animating force behind the reparations movement.
In this regard, Robinson -- himself a political leftist -- is a movement archetype. Anti-white sentiments and anti-American feelings stand out on every page of "The Debt," including a chapter he devotes to praising Fidel Castro, one of the world's longest-surviving and most sadistic dictators. A rhapsody for Fidel Castro's Marxist police state would seem a bizarre irrelevance to a book on reparations for American blacks, except that for Robinson, Castro is a quintessential victim of American "oppression." Robinson despises America that much. "Many blacks -- most perhaps," he asserts in his discussion of Castro, "don't like America." Is Robinson saying they prefer Castro's gulag?
This unthinking, virulent anti-Americanism is the crux of the problem the reparations movement poses for black Americans, and for all Americans. The reparations idea is about not liking America. It is about an irrational hatred of America. It is about holding America responsible for every negative facet of black existence, as though America were God and God had failed. Above all, it is about denying the gift America has given to all of its citizens through the inspired genius of its founding.
To Robinson, Thomas Jefferson, author of the proclamation that "all men are created equal," was merely "a slave owner, a racist and -- if one accepts that consent cannot be given if it cannot be denied -- a rapist." The fact that Americans still honor the author of the Declaration of Independence makes his personal sins into archetypes that define America. Robinson: "Does not the continued un-remarked American deification of Jefferson tell us all how profoundly contemptuous of black sensibilities American society persists in being? How deeply, stubbornly, poisonously racist our society to this day remains?"
This hatred for America and, specifically, for white America blinds Robinson -- and those who think like him -- to a truth far more important than Jefferson's dalliance with Sally Hemings, which may or may not have been unwilling. (Contrary to Robinson, consent obviously can be given, even if it cannot be denied.) For it is the words Jefferson wrote, and that white Americans died for, that accomplished what no black African did: They set Robinson's ancestors free.
For all their country's faults, African-Americans have an enormous stake in America and above all in the heritage that men like Jefferson helped to shape. This heritage -- enshrined in America's founding and the institutions and ideas to which it gave rise -- is what is really under attack in the reparations movement. This assault on America, conducted by racial separatists and the political left, is an attack not only on white Americans but on all Americans -- African-Americans especially.
America's black citizens are the richest and most privileged black people alive -- a bounty that is a direct result of the heritage that is under attack. The American idea needs the support of its African-American citizens. But African-Americans also need the support of the American idea.
Dredging up a new reason to assault this idea is not in the interest of African-Americans. What would serve the African-American community better would be to reject the political left as represented by people like Robinson, Jesse Jackson and every black leader who endorses this claim. What African-Americans need is to embrace America as their home and to defend its good: the principles and institutions that have set them -- and all of us -- free.
salon.com | May 30, 2000
About the writer David Horowitz's odyssey from '60s radical to cultural conservative is described in his autobiography, "Radical Son." He is the president of the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles and the editor of FrontPage Magazine. For more columns by Horowitz, visit his column archive.
The co-author of a book on Holocaust reparations talks about blood money, the importance of apologizing and the slavery reparations movement.
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By Suzy Hansen
July 15, 2002 | In 1995, Rabbi Israel Singer, the fiery secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, launched the now-famous campaign for Holocaust restitution. Singer, along with billionaire Edgar Bronfman, started pressuring Swiss banks -- many of which hoarded the dormant accounts of Holocaust victims, feeding billions of dollars into the Swiss economy -- to release those funds to the survivors. But Singer, whose Austrian Jewish parents were once forced by the Nazis to scrub the streets of Vienna, had a much grander plan. As John Authers and Richard Wolffe explain in "The Victim's Fortune," their intricate account of the global fight for the repayment of Holocaust debts, Singer "hoped the battle with those who had profited in Switzerland would lead to a historical reckoning for Holocaust crimes throughout Europe."
Along with American lawyers and politicians who brought class-action lawsuits and threatened economic sanctions, Singer largely succeeded. Grudgingly, Swiss, German and Italian companies reopened their books and faced ugly pasts. Some insurance companies had refused to pay out policies to survivors' heirs. Banks used victims' cash to trade in the stock market. Companies such as DaimlerChrysler and Volkswagen had profited from slave labor. None of them wanted to pay; fewer would ever issue a formal apology.
And, ultimately, despite the billion-dollar agreements and promised compensation that resulted from the campaign, many survivors ended up profoundly unhappy with the process. As coauthor Richard Wolffe, the Washington deputy bureau chief for the Financial Times, explained in a recent interview, the belief that victims should be paid for their suffering is a modern and complicated one. What does a $7,500 check really do for a Holocaust survivor?
The conclusion of the obviously painful process of getting the companies to pay wasn't the end of the survivors' suffering either. Many of them still haven't seen a dime, and infighting among Jewish groups about what to do with the millions, maybe billions of dollars left over still plagues the campaign. Authers' and Wolffe's book raises another haunting question: Who is entitled to speak for a victim?
Wolffe spoke to Salon from Washington about whether some survivors will ever get a check, how some of the money has gone to corrupt causes and what the Holocaust debts crusade means for future reparations cases.
Before the lawsuits of the '90s, why do you think Holocaust reparations hadn't become a big issue?
Individuals had gone after their own accounts and their families' life insurance policies without much success. The compensation agreements that had happened before were individual offers and either they were pretty low, or, as in most cases, the banks or the insurance companies or the institutions stonewalled. They said, "Show us a death certificate," which of course the concentration camps didn't issue. The companies just wanted to push the whole issue aside.
Where there had been historical studies, they really significantly downplayed or underestimated the amount of money that was at stake or hidden or kept aside. A lot of people had simply been told to go away. Most importantly, there wasn't the political willpower to do something. The Western governments were more interested in fighting the Cold War and didn't really push it so hard. Even on the official war crimes stuff -- Nuremberg -- a lot of the charges were dropped. For instance, one of the key things in the book is about German industry. A lot of German industrialists were classified as war criminals and the charges were dropped.
Because the West was more interested in building up the German economy and using it as a buffer against the Soviet bloc. And they also had this myth that the German economy had been razed to the ground, when actually a lot of it survived and prospered and was in a good position to benefit from the Cold War. So it suited a lot of people [to leave the compensation issue alone]. Also, it suited the American Jewish community, which was the prime mover behind the [Holocaust compensations fight]. The American Jewish community was more interested in Israel and issues of survival.
The final thing is that the Holocaust survivors themselves were not as visible a presence in the immediate years after the war. It really took until the '70s for people to start thinking of the war in terms of the Holocaust. It was at that moment, when a "new" generation burst on the scene -- the children of the survivors and the children of the war criminals -- and started to revisit the war years, that the Holocaust raised itself in people's consciousness.
Once the American Jewish community scored some big successes with things like the campaign to free Soviet Jewry in the '80s, they showed they could flex their muscles. Then, the end of the Cold War allowed this whole new kind of international politics through the '90s where the U.S. government was prepared to take a leading role.
So how instrumental do you think the Clinton administration was? Do you think it would have been different had this been attempted during another administration?
They were very influential. I wouldn't overstate it, in the sense that they weren't the only political figures to get involved or to exert crucial power. But there's no question that if Edgar Bronfman [president of the World Jewish Congress] hadn't had such a good relationship with the Clinton White House, and with the first lady in particular, then the whole weight of the U.S. government would not have been brought to bear on this issue. In particular, they opened up this big historical investigation, and they ended up mediating and brokering several deals, especially the German deal. Also, there was the whole Clinton administration's focus on human rights and corporate responsibility and the global economy.
But just as important, if maybe more important, were the state and local officials who exerted a tremendous amount of direct pressure. In the Swiss case, the U.S. government role sort of collapsed. The administration mediation failed. But these kind of obscure regulators and officials at the state and local level were the ones who really worried the companies and forced them in many ways to pay up.
So you're talking about people like New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi?
Alan Hevesi, right, and the New York state banking people. You're seeing something similar in the insurance cases right now where state insurance regulators are the ones who have the power to really worry the companies. That brings them to the negotiating table. You have to remember: None of these companies want to pay. None of them said, "You're right. We did something wrong. We've never faced up to this -- here's the money." There needs to be that pressure.
How much did the 1999 New York City boycott of Swiss banks suspected of holding the assets of Holocaust victims affect their decision to face up to this?
Oh, it really worried them. The Clinton administration always said that it didn't support sanctions, but privately, they were very pleased that someone was out there threatening sanctions. They didn't want them to go ahead but the threat of sanctions was very, very effective. And that's what we're seeing all the way through with this.
If a European company has a presence in America, or maybe is looking for a presence in America, these kinds of things make them go haywire. It's a very effective way to make them face up to something. It puts a value on these historical human rights issues because they can see that it will cost them something. And that's also what those class-action lawsuits do.
One of the biggest things for me in the book is: How do you put a price on suffering? These kind of sanctions help to do so. It's not a perfect way, but it does give the company a way of saying, "This is how much it's worth to us."
This was a problem within the Jewish community as well. Before the '90s, some of the survivors saw reparations from Germany as blood money.
Yes, and in the '90s, in the German case, the big difference is really between the different kind of survivors -- between the Jews and the non-Jews. That was really emotional and really quite ugly because many on the Jewish side, including the Jewish lawyers, said there was a conflict between these two different groups of victims. The Germans just thought they were all victims. That caused a tremendous amount of racial and ethnic stereotyping. On the Jewish side, they felt that Central and Eastern Europeans who were also victims had been anti-Semitic and on the side of the Germans at one time. That was deeply insulting to some of the Central and Eastern Europeans, some of whom were Jewish themselves.
Then you scroll forward to where we are currently; there is a big difference of opinion in how a lot of the money should be spent. And whether it should go to Israel or not. It's not just in the German case; it really affects the debate about what to do with the money that's left over. There's going to be millions, maybe billions, left over from this process because survivors can't be traced or they're dead. There's a big battle yet to come about how to spend that money. Should it go to Israeli projects? Should it go to needy victims who have been paid once but could do with more? Should it go to memorials or monuments or education? And who spends the money?
Who is controlling the money at this point?
It depends on the settlement. In the Swiss case, it's really in the control of a U.S. judge in New York, Judge Korman. The Germans, on the other hand, didn't want any of their taxpayers' money or corporate money to be in the control of a U.S. court, so it's in the hands of a German foundation which has some American and Jewish representation on that. There's a big pool of money from the insurance funds that hasn't been released; it's in limbo. The French government is holding on to its own cash. Some of it is earmarked for international organizations like the World Jewish Congress or the Claims Conference, but a lot of it is still to be disbursed. It's not as if the judge is going to hold onto this money if it's not spent by the end of this process. Those are really difficult problems to address. It took them something like three years to come up with a plan for simply how to divide up the Swiss money between the different groups of victims, and many people were not happy with that.
It's costing so much and yet some people haven't been paid, right?
Yes, the people who have really profited are the researchers and accountants who've done a lot of work looking through the archives. The Swiss audit cost around $600 million alone. It's the most expensive audit in history -- going to companies like Arthur Andersen, who are really deserving, and others. The insurance case [which addresses the issue of unpaid insurance policies of Holocaust victims], for instance, is still rumbling on. Lawrence Eagleburger, the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims chairman, is drawing a salary of $360,000 a year. He's made a million dollars since he's started his work and, frankly, very few people have been paid.
At the end of the book, you say that the survivors have ended up being the unhappiest in all this. Is it possible that some of them will not get any money at all?
They're unhappy for two reasons. For start, a lot of people have been frustrated. They thought they had really good claims. I was talking to one survivor the other day with an insurance claim. Remarkably, she still has the paperwork of her father paying a premium to a life insurance company. It's really rare for that kind of document to survive. The insurance company says, "Well, I'm sorry, we don't have our records of this policy, so it didn't exist."
But the bigger issue is that money was at the center of all of this. People were looking for money compensation all along; without the money, it would have just been an apology, and people would have thought that that was insufficient. But when they received the money, people were ultimately extremely disappointed. I think it's something about money and suffering.
In some cases, it's because the money is really pretty limited. The German compensation deal was $5 billion. That's a lot of money, but when you divide it up by several hundred thousand people, the maximum pay out for the concentration camp victims was $7,500. Maybe any sum of money would be unsatisfactory. I just think there's something about the process of compensation that we kind of expect in today's society. We expect to be paid for our suffering. But for something like this, and maybe for all kinds of suffering, when you actually get the money, it's a severe disappointment.
Do you think that if the corporations or governments had issued a formal apology that it would be different? Maybe if they hadn't put up such a fight?
It would have made a huge difference. Absolutely. In Germany, there was a public statement by the German president and that really helped survivors a lot. Ultimately, the survivors were more interested in the fight and the struggle to get their story retold and their suffering understood. That kind of recognition was the most important thing for them.
Many countries didn't want to issue an apology. The Swiss government never got involved and that's deeply disappointing for the survivors. It's disappointing from an observer's point of view that there was no reconciliation. A public apology does help to educate people again.
Do you think that bringing this issue to light and reinvigorating interest in this issue was the main thing that motivated Israel Singer, the feisty secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, whose efforts, along with Edgar Bronfman's, were largely responsible for this whole thing?
I think so. He certainly wanted the money because that got people to take him seriously. But definitely the fight was a big part of it. This is a guy who learned his political skills in the civil rights movement and the whole Holocaust compensation process was another civil rights march. His particular desire was to confront people and he's very confrontational. He wanted to get people worked up, angry, passionate. And yes, he wanted a resolution. He wanted one more round of compensation. It's almost like the last war crimes trials -- there's only that tiny window left before the last survivor dies. And he knew this was his moment. Some people said he was in it for himself and he wanted the money. One thing was for sure: An organization run by Edgar Bronfman, with all of his billions of dollars, doesn't really need the money.
Does it hurt the cause that Jewish organizations want to see the money go to "world Jewry" rather than just to the survivors?
It is hurting the cause. It's a bit like the victims' families of Sept. 11. They have a huge amount of public sympathy, they have the most important claim to this money and they also have a lot of political power because of that public sympathy. You ignore their voices at your peril. Rather arrogantly, these Jewish organizations claim to represent world Jewry --
And all 6 million who died.
Yes. Bronfman famously said he was there representing the people who died. Well, I mean, for a start, there's the old joke that you put 10 Jews in a room and you hear 30 opinions. There is very little agreement among Jewish groups around the world about what to do with this kind of thing. And to say you're speaking for people who died -- many survivors think that's incredibly distasteful.
On the other hand, no one else is doing it. They're filling a vacuum. And without them, you're in the situation that the African-American [reparations] community's in -- without a political voice or political leadership. But they're not democratic, it's not as if someone said to them -- "you represent us." That is a problem, a big problem.
Should all the money go to the people who survived to the present day? Many survivors obviously have died of natural causes since the war. Maybe these Jewish groups, if it's spent in the right way, will spend the money on the kind of reconciliation projects that I mentioned -- on education and museums. Maybe.
But what kind of things could it be going to?
In the insurance case, for example, Generali, an Italian company, paid a lot of money to a foundation in Israel. The money was diverted into pet projects and, frankly, it was used for corrupt causes such as dental care for the ultra-Orthodox in Israel. It's horrific. Rather than to Holocaust survivors in Israel of which there are many. So some of these Jewish groups have appalling records and some of these newly created foundations have been hijacked by people with vested interests.
Have American and Israeli survivors been better compensated than other survivors? Has there been a disparity there?
That was one of the most emotional disputes. The German companies wanted to pay the survivors in Eastern Europe much less than American survivors because they said the cost of living is so much higher in America and so much lower in Eastern Europe that to pay them the same was a waste in resources. Pretty early on, the Jewish groups established that this is a very important issue and survivors everywhere should be treated equally. So the $7,500 obviously means a whole lot more to someone in Central or Eastern Europe because it goes so much further.
Also, a lot of the Jews in Eastern Europe never received any compensation because the West wouldn't allow any transfer of funds to the East during the Cold War. And you would have had to be suicidal to go to the Communist authority and said, "I owned a factory," or "I had a Swiss bank account," you know, "I'm a capitalist, please give me compensation." So these people are often receiving compensation for the first time. All of these people are elderly and have very few resources but when you go to Eastern Europe the level of need is much greater than it is in general in America. But the amounts going, in theory, are equal. When this process settles down, a lot of the extra funds, the funds left over, are going to go to some of these survivors, really the forgotten survivors in the former Soviet countries.
Do you think that there will be survivors who will not get money?
No. I think everyone who makes a claim will get money of some kind. It may be a pittance compared to what they've lost, maybe insultingly small levels. One principle that the Germans established was that if people had received any level of compensation in the past for property or insurance policies, no matter how small, they couldn't claim again. A lot of survivors will feel very disappointed and frustrated with that. The kind of payment they accepted in the '60s -- combined for their suffering, for their years in the camps and for all the property they'd lost -- may have been very, very small even then, but that was all that was on offer. The principle was established that if you had money at all at any stage at all for that kind of claim, then that's tough.
How does it work for survivors' heirs?
It depends on the issue. In the case of insurance, you're talking about heirs, because the policies were insuring the lives of people who died in the camps. Swiss bank accounts, the same, really.
Where it's confined to living survivors is German slave and forced labor. So in that case, the families get nothing. There's a huge practical difficulty in tracing families because you get multiple claims from the same family for the same victim. There are big disputes over the names of the individuals. For example, there are dozens of variations of the name Isaac. In some cases, the companies like to raise the issue of family members who lie about the existence of other family members. They like to say it's all fraudulent because Auntie Eden never told us that another sibling had claimed 20 years ago. There are these family complications that make the whole heir question very difficult. And expensive.