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Should blacks get reparations?

The US senate's apology for slavery revives the debate. Compensation seems fair, but complications abound.

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"You wonder why we didn't do it 100 years ago," said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, after the Senate voted June 18 to endorse a national apology for slavery. "It is important to have a collective response to a collective injustice." And considering the scale and brutality of slavery in American history, Senator Harkin could not be more right.

Abraham Lincoln described slavery as "the one retrograde institution in America," and told a delegation of black leaders in 1862 that "your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people."

But one reason why we have waited so long has to do with what many advocates of the apology regard as the necessary next step – reparations to African-Americans by the federal government. Significantly, that's a step the Senate's apology resolution refused to take.

"Nothing in this resolution," said Concurrent Resolution 26, "authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States."

That refusal will inject new acrimony into a slow-burning debate over reparations that has been going on for 40 years. "There are going to be African-Americans who think that [the apology] is not reparations, and it's not action," admitted Tennessee Rep. Stephen Cohen (D), who has been a longtime backer of the apology.

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