In the 1960s, if you wanted to upset “The Man,” all you’d have to say was, “Burn, Baby, Burn!” Today, in our more material world, the hot-button race word is, “Reparations!” Different words, perhaps, but they seem to cause the same amount of heartburn.

But why should the idea of reparations cause pain? I’ve thought about this lately, and have come to some conclusions that surprised even me. For starters, the very word “reparations” comes from the Latin, reparare, which means, simply, “to repair.” And because the United States strives to be one of the most morally conscientious nations on this planet – forever self-critical about its own rectitude in matters great and small – making repairs for past mistakes is something our nation has done before.

For example, Native Americans were given an edge in establishing gambling casinos on reservations. These have brought great prosperity to many tribes – clearly the United States government was repairing the damage caused by past policies that included indiscriminate killing, broken treaties and expulsions. It’s not a conservative or liberal thing – in fact, (secondhand information only), I’ve been told that you’ll find as many Republicans as Democrats lined up at the slots.

Another more recent governmental repair job was the compensation paid to Japanese-Americans sent to concentration camps during World War II. No sensible person – liberal or conservative – would disagree that a terrible injustice was done to these people, most of whom were American citizens and second to none in their loyalty to this country.

Earlier still, the United States government paid tribes in the South Pacific islands for damages caused by above ground nuclear testing in the 1940s and ’50s. And for those who think that reparations are somehow a non-white raid on the federal treasury, it should be pointed out that our government paid hundreds of millions to mostly white soldiers who were foolishly exposed to radiation during the 1950s. Forget the labels and the buzzwords that serve more to upset than to clarify. So-called reparations are just damage awards paid by a party that injures another party. Happens every day in courts of law.

What damages does the United States have a duty to repair? Those caused by slavery, yes, that’s obvious. But in truth, during the 250 years of slavery’s existence on this continent, the United States government only existed for the last 85 years of it; before that, we were a part of Great Britain – clearly, it would not be unreasonable to ask Britain to share the liability. But we cannot allow that to obscure our own responsibility – the Constitution of the United States implicitly recognized slavery, and while the intent was certainly far different from the Nuremberg Laws, I’m not sure that Southern slaves (had they known about Nuremberg) would have seen much of a difference.

But talk about reparations shouldn’t be just about slavery. In fact, this country had a golden opportunity to remedy the injustices after slavery. In a phrase, we blew it. I’m referring to the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. It lasted 12 years – 1865 to 1877 – but was effectively destroyed by Andrew Johnson during his one term. He handicapped the Freedmen’s Bureau, retracted promises made during the Lincoln administration to give ex-slaves farms and was aggressive in restoring the planter’s oligarchy to power.

But, in all honesty, it can’t just be blamed on Johnson. The North soon tired of Reconstruction and abandoned African-Americans to the mercies of their former masters. Not surprisingly, by 1900, Jim Crow laws controlled the South. It took another 70 years before blacks would be re-enfranchised.

It can’t just be blamed on our Southern brethren either. The North not only walked away, it added to the injustice by a de facto segregation that rivaled anything south of the Mason-Dixon line.

We can talk about causes until the cows come home. Nobody hates a whiner worse than I do, so I ask, what is to be done? A few considerations:

  • No checks should go to individuals, period.

  • Reparations should be targeted at serious reconstruction projects in both inner cities and areas in the rural South.

  • Rebuild the schools, straighten out neighborhoods, move in industry and stabilize rural agriculture.

  • As Nike says, “Just Do It.”

And look, if labels get you down, just think of it as a Marshall Plan for our fellow citizens. We did it for Europe, and we didn’t owe them a thing.

I say that justice, like charity, begins at home.

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