"Don't depend on the train from Washington. It's 100 years overdue." Gil Scott-Heron
In January of 1865, as the Civil War was grinding to a close, Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, awarding captured farmlands in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to former slaves. Each freedman was to receive 40 acres and the loan of an Army mule. Four months later, President Andrew Johnson rescinded the order and returned the land to the former slave owners.
But "40 acres and a mule" fired the imagination of ex-slaves and their allies. Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania unsuccessfully pushed legislation to give freed blacks this leg up on their new life. It was as inconceivable to him as it was to them that millions of illiterate and impoverished people would be turned loose in a hostile region without food, shelter or means.
Surely, they thought, there would at least be 40 acres and a mule. Something to get a man started. So they waited, filled with expectation and hope.
All of which adds a certain poignancy to recent news stories of a reparations hoax targeting African Americans in South Florida and elsewhere in the South and upper Midwest. In one version of the scam, old people are told to supply personal data so that the government can pay them money under the fictional "Slave Reparation Act." Another centers on supposed $40,000 reparations rebate on 1999 taxes open to African Americans who file an amended return with the IRS. The con artists offer to do the necessary paperwork for a fee of up to $150. Dozens have fallen for it.
Small wonder. After all, these cons play on a point of emotional vulnerability. Meaning that, where compensation for the long night of our American odyssey is concerned, many black folks are still doing as our forebears did: waiting for compensation. Waiting for reparations.
It's not that I disagree with folks who argue that cause. From where I sit, their reasoning is unassailable. If it's an accepted practice that governments pay restitution to citizens they have materially damaged, if it's proper for Germany and Austria to compensate Holocaust victims and the United States to recompense Americans of Japanese heritage interned during World War II, then what argument can be made against reparations for blacks, who suffered 246 years of slavery and an additional century of Jim Crow privation?
But for all that, reparations is not an issue that resonates with me. It strikes me as a righteous but impractical crusade that diverts time, attention and political capital from more pressing matters.
Where reparations for African Americans are concerned, I consider two things unarguable. The first is that they can't print enough money to compensate the crime. The second is that, even if they could, reparations would still not happen because the mood of the country would not allow it. Inevitably, it would be seen as giving some unearned thing to black people.
I know white America is not some wicked monolith, any more than black America is.
We could argue the point, I suppose. Win the debate on its merits and still never see a dime.
Or we could invest that time and energy to improve the education of our children, reconnect our men with their communities, dismantle discrimination in housing and labor, fight police profiling, rescue our boys from the maw of the criminal injustice system. Take our destiny in our own hands for a change.
I guess I've just grown tired of black people asking white people to "do" things. Tired of black folks' contentment always being held hostage to white folks' will.
Forgive me if I seem to paint with too broad a brush. I know white America is not some wicked monolith, any more than black America is. I believe in human fraternity.
But the belief does nothing to still that fatigue marrow-deep and newly exacerbated by the thought of scam artists preying upon this emotionally vulnerable spot.
We've been looking for those acres and that mule for 135 years. I guess I'm just tired of waiting.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.