The Price of Freedom
The Statue of Liberty has been ignored, toppled down and trampled under since my grandfather came here in 1898. My grandfather was a Jew escaping pogroms in Munich, Germany. There was ample room for a 12 year old boy and when they dragged the citizens of Ireland into being conscripted in the Union army to go and die there was ample room for them.
Are these people of color any different than anyone else? My own family came here gratefully from Puerto Rico and worked in the factoires and fields and they endured terrible hardships and they thrived. America was built on the backs of the immigrant, poor, starving and cheated out of a decent place to make a living. And someone has the audacity to suggest that there is a pecking order? America would not be anything without the Chinese, the Japanese, the Native Americans of distinct clans, the African Americans, the people of minorities of faith and spiritual practice.
We used the same thinking process to turn away the St. Louis off the waters of this country saying there was no room for them. The decision for that cannot be based on discrimination but wide armed embracing of all people as citizens.
The best of America, if that is to come, is in our ability to accept the world as our neigbors and partners in all endeavors. We will not long survive on earth without such a mandate.
"In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant, then they came for me, and there wasn’t anybody left to speak.” Martin Neimoller, Protestant Theologian
How many more must we lose because there is no one to care? "The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind, the answer is blowin' in the wind."
Immigration is a human right and we have to make room for our neighbors. We must stop killing people and making excuses that it is not our fault or our business. Everyone who is suffering is our business because they are US.
A sad story, and unfortunately a common thread in our lives.
N.Y. / REGION | April 26, 2010
Questions Surround a Delay in Help for a Dying Man
By A. G. SULZBERGER and MICK MEENAN
The behavior of bystanders is examined after passers-by did not help an apparent good Samaritan, who bled to death in the street.
"It will probably never be clear how many people realized that Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was dying.
Enlarge This Image
Yana Paskova for The New York Times
Police tape remained Sunday at the spot in Queens where Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, a homeless man, lay dying a week before.
One man bent down to the sidewalk to shake the man, lifting him to reveal a pool of blood before walking away. Two men appeared to have a conversation about the situation, one pausing to take a photo of the body before departing. But the rest merely turned their heads toward the body, revealing some curiosity as they hurried along.
What is clear from a surveillance tape is that Mr. Tale-Yax, a homeless 31-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, lay on a Queens street for more than an hour before anyone called the police. By the time help arrived, he was dead.
Mr. Tale-Yax, who friends said occasionally worked as a day laborer and often slept in public parks, had been stabbed while apparently coming to the assistance of a woman being angrily confronted by another man.
On Sunday, a week after the killing, people in the area seemed mostly unshaken by its circumstances. Many were unaware that someone had died on 144th Street in Jamaica, near 88th Road, in a hardscrabble neighborhood with large populations of Central American immigrants and of homeless men.
But to the question of obligation — whether those who encountered the body should have stopped and helped the man — the answers came quickly.
Perhaps the passers-by thought he was just drunk. Perhaps they were illegal immigrants themselves, too nervous to contact the authorities. Or perhaps they had just learned a lesson that Mr. Tale-Yax so clearly had not: better to keep to oneself than to risk the trouble that comes from extending a helping hand.
“It’s bad,” said Alexis Perez, 29, the superintendent of two buildings on the block where the stabbing occurred. “But I live here, so I know what it’s like. There are a lot of alcoholics who drink and then they fall down and they’re laying on the ground. People say to themselves, ‘I don’t know them so I won’t get involved.’ ”
At the Iglesia Cristo Peniel, a small brick assembly hall bursting with Spanish hymns, Uber Bautista, 37, a heavy-machinery operator who identified himself as a church elder, said that he believed the inaction might have stemmed from illegal immigrants’ trying to escape detection.
“So they’re going to be very afraid to call the authorities if they see something,” he said. “It’s not that people don’t care.”
Juan Cortez, himself the victim of several assaults, offered another theory as he collected cans from the trash nearby. “People mind their own business,” he said.
Regardless of the explanation, the death has become another unfortunate case study in bystander behavior in emergencies, a psychological field that developed after the notorious1964 killing of Kitty Genovese. She was stabbed to death at an apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens, where a large number of neighbors heard her screams but did not call the police.
The death of Mr. Tale-Yax is all the more dramatic because police say that he was stabbed as a result of his apparently trying to help a stranger.
“I’m afraid what we’ve got here is a situation of people failing to help, and the failure appears to be a moral failure,” said John Darley, a professor of psychology at Princeton University who has written about bystander response to emergencies. “He did what you’re supposed to do, and we let the person, who did what he was supposed to do, die.”
In New York, as in most other states, there is no legal obligation for a bystander to help someone in distress, said Harold Takooshian, a psychology professor at Fordham University who has also studied the subject.
The episode began before 6 a.m. when Mr. Tale-Yax intervened in a noisy dispute on 144th Street between an unidentified man and an unidentified woman and was stabbed, said Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, chief spokesman for the New York Police Department.
The man fled in one direction, the woman fled in the other, and Mr. Tale-Yax ran a few steps before collapsing on the pavement.
A surveillance video from an adjacent building captured the reactions of those who passed by. The video was posted on The New York Post’s Web site.
During that time, the police responded to three 911 calls, said Mr. Browne. The first, shortly before 6 a.m., reported a woman screaming; the second, at 7:09, reported a man lying on the street. But both calls gave incorrect addresses.
The third, at 7:21, also reported a man lying in the street. It led to the discovery of the body.
“We would expect someone to call 911 and, if possible, to stay with the victim until help arrives,” Mr. Browne said.
María Luz de Zyriek, the second-ranking official at the Guatemalan Consulate, said preparations were being made to fly the body of Mr. Tale-Yax back to Guatemala for burial."
Comment: How American commerce and industry preys on vulnerable people, by allowing businesses to unscrupulously harass and profit from unfortunate circumstances of its citizens. www.debtorboards.com provides a tool equalizing the disparities of the wealthy against those with little recourse to economic justice.
"Learning How to Fight the Collector"
By Andrew Martin New York Times Saturday April 23, 2010
Among debt collectors, Steven Katz is known as a “credit terrorist.” For years, he has run what he calls the Steven Katz School of Bill Collector Education, otherwise known as the “credit terrorist training camp.”
Steven Katz, a former bill collector, says debtors can “use the laws as they are on the books as both a shield and a sword” against unscrupulous collection efforts.
Steven Katz with a framed copy of a $1,000 check he said was his first damage award for fighting a bogus collection effort.
Mr. Katz, a 58-year-old accountant in suburban Tucson, spends his free time schooling debtors on the finer points of consumer protection law to help them turn the tables on debt collectors. On occasion, he thumbs his own nose at them too.
“How many times can I sue you? Let me count the ways,” he wrote under his pseudonym, Dr. Tax, in a March posting on Inside ARM, a debt collectors’ Web site.
A former bill collector himself, Mr. Katz rebelled after a debt buyer damaged his credit score with what he says was a bogus bill. Mr. Katz sued, and in 2003 he collected his first damage award, a $1,000 check that he now keeps framed behind his desk.
“The bill collectors, when they call, make you feel like the only option you have is to lay down and play dead. That’s not true,” said Mr. Katz said, who does not charge for his advice. “Nothing validates this more than getting a check.”
Call this movement revenge of the (alleged) deadbeats. Even as collectors try to recoup debts from millions of Americans struggling to pay their bills, a small but growing number of lawyers and consumers are fighting back against what they describe as harassment, unscrupulous practices — and, most important to their litigiousness, violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
In fact, 8,287 federal lawsuits were filed citing violations of the act in 2009, a 60 percent rise over the previous year, according to WebRecon, a site that tracks collection-related litigation and the most litigious consumers and lawyers on behalf of debt collectors.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court made it even easier for consumers to use the courts to fight debt collectors, ruling that collectors cannot be shielded from suits by claiming they made a mistake in interpreting the law.
When a consumer stops paying a bill, creditors often try to collect on their own for a few months. In many instances, the creditor hires another company to collect the debt. In other cases, they may dispose of the debt by selling it to a debt buyer for a steep discount.
Debt collectors and debt buyers are the targets of litigious consumers, since the debt collection law primarily applies to third-party collectors.
Peter Barry, a Minneapolis trial lawyer, is so bullish on the future of debt collection litigation that he holds several “boot camps” each year to share his secrets with other lawyers who want in on the action. If the debtor wins a court case under the act, the debt collector must pay the lawyer’s fees.
The next boot camp is being held in early May in San Francisco, at a cost of $2,495 a person for two and a half days of instruction.
“I can’t sue every illegal debt collector in America, although I’d like to try,” Mr. Barry said.
Mr. Katz can also claim some credit for the increase in lawsuits. For six years, he has run a free Web site called Debtorboards.com, where people share tips on topics like keeping a paper trail and recording calls from collectors.
He said the site received two million hits in 2009, a 60 percent increase over the previous year.
“Debtorboards is geared to help people use the laws as they are on the books as both a shield and a sword,” said Mr. Katz, who says he has won $36,000 from his own litigation against collection agencies. (Since many of the settlements are confidential, it is difficult to prove the claims of Mr. Katz and others).
Rozanne M. Andersen, chief executive of ACA International, a trade association for the debt collection industry, said she was “extremely concerned” about the increase in lawsuits, which she said cost her industry hundreds of millions of dollars a year. She said much of the increase was the result of ambiguous language in the Fair Debt Collection Act.
Debt collectors are required, for example, to identify themselves on a voice message left for a consumer, she said. But they are also prohibited from telling a third party — including someone who might overhear a phone message — about a consumer’s debt.
“We are between a rock and a hard place,” Ms. Andersen said.
Ms. Andersen said she had little patience for Web sites that encouraged consumers to thwart debt collectors.
“We believe those types of Web sites are encouraging people to not take responsibility for just debt,” she said.
Jack Gordon, who runs the fee-based WebRecon site, said it was no wonder lawsuits were increasing, because consumers were being bombarded with ads from lawyers when they searched online for information on debt collection. He said the proliferation of discussion sites like Mr. Katz’s had, to a lesser extent, also contributed to the trend.
On the boards, he said, “There’s a lot of hot air, a lot of people who overinflate their accomplishments.”
Regardless, Mr. Gordon’s database has become a badge of honor among the devotees of Debtorboards.com. As Brandon Scroggin, a 37-year-old from Little Rock, Ark., puts it, “That’s one list I’m a proud card-carrying member of.”
Mr. Scroggin, who provides price estimates at a body shop, said he was the type of person who refused to be taken advantage of, even for petty offenses. For instance, years ago, he said he joined in the class-action suit against the pop group Milli Vanilli, accused of lip synching, and collected a $1.25 check.
After a messy divorce, Mr. Scroggin was stuck with a $7,000 bill that he said belonged to his ex-wife. Instead of paying it, he began researching the law and stumbled on Debtorboards.com.
Armed with lessons he learned on the site, he demanded proof of the debt from the collection agency, and the calls stopped. But two and a half years later, they started up again so he sued the collection agency, National Loan Recoveries, for failing to provide proof of the debt, among other things.
The case was settled in 2008. The terms were confidential, but he says he never paid National Loan a dime. “Let’s just say I’m a very happy person,” he said. A lawyer for National Loan, Kathryn Bridges, did not return messages seeking comment.
Mr. Katz said his Web site was not intended to help people avoid paying legitimate debts. But if they do so, so be it — he feels no need to apologize.
He said Congress gave consumers certain rights, and he is simply making people aware of them, sometimes colorfully.
As Mr. Katz says at the bottom of each Dr. Tax posting, “A telephone in the hands of a collector is like a crowbar — it can be used to pry a mouth open wide enough to insert a foot.”
Barbara Thompson, 46, of Atlanta, said she challenged $11,000 in credit card debt using online research about collection laws. She does not dispute the debts but reasons that the credit card company wrote off her charges long ago. By her account, she owes the credit card company, not the debt collector.
“The credit card company, they sell it off, they charge it off, it’s just business as usual,” she said, adding, “I’m adamant about not paying a collection agency.”
“Arizona Passes the U.S.’s Toughest Immigration Law”
By Randal C. Archibold from the New York Times
March 23, 2010
“PHOENIX — Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona signed the nation’s toughest bill on illegal immigration into law on Friday. Its aim is to identify, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants.
The move unleashed immediate protests and reignited the divisive battle over immigration reform nationally.
Even before she signed the bill at an afternoon news conference here, President Obama strongly criticized it.
Speaking at a naturalization ceremony for 24 active-duty service members in the Rose Garden, he called for a federal overhaul of immigration laws, which Congressional leaders signaled they were preparing to take up soon, to avoid “irresponsibility by others.”
The Arizona law, he added, threatened “to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.”
The law, which proponents and critics alike said was the broadest and strictest immigration measure in generations, would make the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and give the police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Opponents have called it an open invitation for harassment and discrimination against Hispanics regardless of their citizenship status.
The political debate leading up to Ms. Brewer’s decision, and Mr. Obama’s criticism of the law — presidents very rarely weigh in on state legislation — underscored the power of the immigration debate in states along the Mexican border. It presaged the polarizing arguments that await the president and Congress as they take up the issue nationally.
Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was worried about the rights of its citizens and relations with Arizona. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles said the authorities’ ability to demand documents was like “Nazism.”
As hundreds of demonstrators massed, mostly peacefully, at the capitol plaza, the governor, speaking at a state building a few miles away, said the law “represents another tool for our state to use as we work to solve a crisis we did not create and the federal government has refused to fix.”
The law was to take effect 90 days after the legislative session ends, meaning by August. Court challenges were expected immediately.
Hispanics, in particular, who were not long ago courted by the Republican Party as a swing voting bloc, railed against the law as a recipe for racial and ethnic profiling. “Governor Brewer caved to the radical fringe,” a statement by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said, predicting that the law would create “a spiral of pervasive fear, community distrust, increased crime and costly litigation, with nationwide repercussions.”
While police demands of documents are common on subways, highways and in public places in some countries, including France, Arizona is the first state to demand that immigrants meet federal requirements to carry identity documents legitimizing their presence on American soil.
Ms. Brewer acknowledged critics’ concerns, saying she would work to ensure that the police have proper training to carry out the law. But she sided with arguments by the law’s sponsors that it provides an indispensable tool for the police in a border state that is a leading magnet of illegal immigration. She said racial profiling would not be tolerated, adding, “We have to trust our law enforcement.”
Ms. Brewer and other elected leaders have come under intense political pressure here, made worse by the killing of a rancher in southern Arizona by a suspected smuggler a couple of weeks before the State Legislature voted on the bill. His death was invoked Thursday by Ms. Brewer herself, as she announced a plan urging the federal government to post National Guard troops at the border.
President George W. Bush had attempted comprehensive reform but failed when his own party split over the issue. Once again, Republicans facing primary challenges from the right, including Ms. Brewer and Senator John McCain, have come under tremendous pressure to support the Arizona law, known as SB 1070.
Mr. McCain, locked in a primary with a challenger campaigning on immigration, only came out in support of the law hours before the State Senate passed it Monday afternoon.
Governor Brewer, even after the Senate passed the bill, had been silent on whether she would sign it. Though she was widely expected to, given her primary challenge, she refused to state her position even at a dinner on Thursday for a Hispanic social service organization, Chicanos Por La Causa, where several audience members called out “Veto!”
Among other things, the Arizona measure is an extraordinary rebuke to former Gov.Janet Napolitano, who had vetoed similar legislation repeatedly as a Democratic governor of the state before being appointed Homeland Security secretary by Mr. Obama.
The law opens a deep fissure in Arizona, with a majority of the thousands of callers to the governor’s office urging her to reject it.
In the days leading up to Ms. Brewer’s decision, Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat, called for a convention boycott of his state.
The bill, sponsored by Russell Pearce, a state senator and a firebrand on immigration issues, has several provisions.
It requires police officers, “when practicable,” to detain people they reasonably suspect are in the country without authorization and to verify their status with federal officials, unless doing so would hinder an investigation or emergency medical treatment.
It also makes it a state crime — a misdemeanor — to not carry immigration papers. In addition, it allows people to sue local government or agencies if they believe federal or state immigration law is not being enforced.
States across the country have proposed or enacted hundreds of bills addressing immigration since 2007, the last time a federal effort to reform immigration law collapsed. Last year, there were a record number of laws enacted (222) and resolutions (131) in 48 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The prospect of plunging into a national immigration debate is being increasingly talked about on Capitol Hill, spurred in part by recent statements by Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, the majority leader, that he intends to bring legislation to the Senate floor after Memorial Day.
But while an immigration debate could help energize Hispanic voters and provide political benefits to embattled Democrats seeking re-election in November — like Mr. Reid — it could also energize conservative voters.
It could also take time from other Democratic priorities, including an energy measure that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has described as her flagship issue.
Mr. Reid declined Thursday to say that immigration would take precedence over an energy measure. But he called it an imperative: “The system is broken,” he said.
Ms. Pelosi and Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the majority leader, have said that the House would be willing to take up immigration policy only if the Senate produces a bill first.”
What Cardinal Roger Mahony in California stated is possible everywhere in this country because that is what took place in Germany. Brutality exists in many ways and treating all of us as the enemy removes the rights and privileges of being a citizen. It is time that we stepped up our vigilance of our nation for all of the inhabitants on earth. None of us are safe when government fails to protect our freedom and in the name of protection limits the freedom of all of those who dwell here.
Please help spread the word to Denver county residents in need of food assistance. There will be on-site outreach workers from Denver Human Services available to process food stamp applications that day!
WHERE: Tivoli Student Union, 900 Auraria Parkway
Room 201 (Roger Braun Lounge)
WHEN: April 24th, 9am – 1pm
WHAT: Food assistance for eligible Denver County residents
See attached flyer for a map ; below is additional information about eligibility criteria.
There is also a food drive from 9am - 1pm tomorrow on the Auraria campus as part of Comcast Cares Day. The public is encouraged to bring non-perishable goods that will be taken to local food pantries. Please watch the attached message from Mayor Hickenlooper to learn more! For more information, please visit:
If applying for Food Stamps, please bring:
SSN everyone in household applying for benefits
Monthly Household income
Eligibility: Household income must be at or below a certain amount. For example, for a household of four it is $2389.
Identity: The identity of the person applying must be verified. Identity may be verified through a variety of documents, including but not limited to, Department of Motor Vehicles ID or drivers license, work or school ID, voter registration card or birth certificate.
Citizenship Status: U. S. citizens and many non-citizens are eligible for the program. For a complete list of the special requirements for non-citizens, go to the USDA's website on immigrant policy. Even if some members of the household are not eligible, those who are may be able to get food assistance benefits.
Social Security Numbers: Everyone in the household that is applying for benefits must have or provide proof of application for a Social Security number.
Resources: Bank accounts, cash, real estate, personal property, vehicles, etc. are considered in determining whether a household is eligible to get food assistance benefits. Some resources are counted toward the allowable limit and some are not. The food assistance worker will explain which are counted. All households may have up to $2,000 worth of countable resources and still be eligible. Households may have up to $3,000 and still be eligible if at least one member is age 60 or older, or disabled.
Income: Under Food Assistance Program rules, almost all types of income are counted to determine if a household is eligible. Most households must have income at or below certain dollar limits before and after deductions are allowed. However, households in which all members are getting public assistance or SSI do not have to meet the income eligibility tests.
Maximum Gross Monthly Income
Maximum Net Monthly Income
You must provide proof of the income of all household members. Examples of proof include latest pay stubs or a statement from your employer, or benefit letters from Social Security, Veterans Administration, unemployment compensation, or pensions.
Deductions: After adding all of your household’s countable income, the food assistance worker will subtract certain deductions. The income after deductions must fall below a certain dollar amount for your household to get food assistance benefits. This dollar amount will depend on the number of people in your household.
Work Rules: All individuals who apply for food assistance in Colorado and who do not meet federal exemption criteria must register for work, accept an offer of suitable work and take part in the Employment First Program. The activities in the Employment First program include: workfare, adult basic education, GED preparation, literacy, college, vocational training, vocational rehabilitation, job search classes, and part-time work.
For most of my young adulthood from the age of fifteen in 1965 we have been face to face with a paradox. At the time the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the Vietnam War and occupation, the continued expanded struggle of democratic conversation on how we could live out the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. At the time I was growing into adulthood I was a worker in the wards of the Germantown Hospital and Dispensary, feeding people who were indigent, wheeling them around to different locations throughout the hospital, fulfilling the role of a boy-in-grey volunteer, and having to wrestle with disparities between what I saw and heard, where I went to school and how I was educated, which was to believe in principle that we are all the same, hypothetically.
In those days as well as these, people normally did not speak about race or color. Later, as circumstances presented themselves, I learned that we are unequal as far as how we are treated and who we are particularly if we come from an ethnic minority community. My erstwhile friend Moses Edwards from New Orleans, used to tell me that Black people were better off with a segregated school system because children who are Black received attention from their teachers having to do with their emotional and personal relationships to the administrators and the community. "They lost this," Moses went on to add, "when they were bused to all White schools."
I accept Moses' statement as overly simplistic just as our perspective about being white or black.
I was expressing to my mentor that I wish to pursue my PhD. in Theology of the Americas, especially in the area of how mestizo spiritual values have made America broader and deeper. My own family comes from Puerto Rico and I wrote my first thesis from Iliff School of Theology on the impact of assimilation of Puerto Ricans on making this country a richer, more wealthy and diverse nation. People such as Andrew Young, the former ambassador to the United Nations made the point that when one goes to an elementary school that the diversity of this community ensures that the rich tapestry of America is stirred and that we improve the quality of life of all people by this diverse influence.
Looking at the article published by Professor Gates, I think that we need to examine the finite gifts that we have been bequeathed by the world that makes this such a rich community and instead of decrying the loss, which is true, we must examine in our hearts and our community how we can embrace at last, what Dr. Harding called, 'The expanded democratic conversation of what America can become."
“Ending the Slavery Blame-Game”
By HENRY LOUIS GATES Jr.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard, is the author of the forthcoming “Faces of America” and “Tradition and the Black Atlantic.”
Published: April 22, 2010 New York Times
“THANKS to an unlikely confluence of history and genetics — the fact that he is African-American and president — Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to reshape the debate over one of the most contentious issues of America’s racial legacy: reparations, the idea that the descendants of American slaves should receive compensation for their ancestors’ unpaid labor and bondage.
There are many thorny issues to resolve before we can arrive at a judicious (if symbolic) gesture to match such a sustained, heinous crime. Perhaps the most vexing is how to parcel out blame to those directly involved in the capture and sale of human beings for immense economic gain.
While we are all familiar with the role played by the United States and the European colonial powers like Britain, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain, there is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa. These included the Akan of the kingdom of Asante in what is now Ghana, the Fon of Dahomey (now Benin), the Mbundu of Ndongo in modern Angola and the Kongo of today’s Congo, among several others.
For centuries, Europeans in Africa kept close to their military and trading posts on the coast. Exploration of the interior, home to the bulk of Africans sold into bondage at the height of the slave trade, came only during the colonial conquests, which is why Henry Morton Stanley’s pursuit of Dr. David Livingstone in 1871 made for such compelling press: he was going where no (white) man had gone before.
How did slaves make it to these coastal forts? The historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred.
Advocates of reparations for the descendants of those slaves generally ignore this untidy problem of the significant role that Africans played in the trade, choosing to believe the romanticized version that our ancestors were all kidnapped unawares by evil white men, like Kunta Kinte was in “Roots.” The truth, however, is much more complex: slavery was a business, highly organized and lucrative for European buyers and African sellers alike.
The African role in the slave trade was fully understood and openly acknowledged by many African-Americans even before the Civil War. For Frederick Douglass, it was an argument against repatriation schemes for the freed slaves. “The savage chiefs of the western coasts of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily accept our moral and economical ideas than the slave traders of Maryland and Virginia,” he warned. “We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave trade than to stay here to work against it.”
To be sure, the African role in the slave trade was greatly reduced after 1807, when abolitionists, first in Britain and then, a year later, in the United States, succeeded in banning the importation of slaves. Meanwhile, slaves continued to be bought and sold within the United States, and slavery as an institution would not be abolished until 1865. But the culpability of American plantation owners neither erases nor supplants that of the African slavers. In recent years, some African leaders have become more comfortable discussing this complicated past than African-Americans tend to be.
In 1999, for instance, President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin astonished an all-black congregation in Baltimore by falling to his knees and begging African-Americans’ forgiveness for the “shameful” and “abominable” role Africans played in the trade. Other African leaders, including Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, followed Mr. Kerekou’s bold example.
Our new understanding of the scope of African involvement in the slave trade is not historical guesswork. Thanks to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, directed by the historian David Eltis of Emory University, we now know the ports from which more than 450,000 of our African ancestors were shipped out to what is now the United States (the database has records of 12.5 million people shipped to all parts of the New World from 1514 to 1866). About 16 percent of United States slaves came from eastern Nigeria, while 24 percent came from the Congo and Angola.
Through the work of Professors Thornton and Heywood, we also know that the victims of the slave trade were predominantly members of as few as 50 ethnic groups. This data, along with the tracing of blacks’ ancestry through DNA tests, is giving us a fuller understanding of the identities of both the victims and the facilitators of the African slave trade.
For many African-Americans, these facts can be difficult to accept. Excuses run the gamut, from “Africans didn’t know how harsh slavery in America was” and “Slavery in Africa was, by comparison, humane” or, in a bizarre version of “The devil made me do it,” “Africans were driven to this only by the unprecedented profits offered by greedy European countries.”
The sad truth is that the conquest and capture of Africans and their sale to Europeans was one of the main sources of foreign exchange for several African kingdoms for a very long time. Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese. When Njinga converted to Christianity, she sold African traditional religious leaders into slavery, claiming they had violated her new Christian precepts.
Did these Africans know how harsh slavery was in the New World? Actually, many elite Africans visited Europe in that era, and they did so on slave ships following the prevailing winds through the New World. For example, when Antonio Manuel, Kongo’s ambassador to the Vatican, went to Europe in 1604, he first stopped in Bahia, Brazil, where he arranged to free a countryman who had been wrongfully enslaved.
African monarchs also sent their children along these same slave routes to be educated in Europe. And there were thousands of former slaves who returned to settle Liberia and Sierra Leone. The Middle Passage, in other words, was sometimes a two-way street. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to claim that Africans were ignorant or innocent.
Given this remarkably messy history, the problem with reparations may not be so much whether they are a good idea or deciding who would get them; the larger question just might be from whom they would be extracted.
How could President Obama untangle the knot? In David Remnick’s new book “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama,” one of the president’s former students at the University of Chicago comments on Mr. Obama’s mixed feelings about the reparations movement: “He told us what he thought about reparations. He agreed entirely with the theory of reparations. But in practice he didn’t think it was really workable.”
About the practicalities, Professor Obama may have been more right than he knew. Fortunately, in President Obama, the child of an African and an American, we finally have a leader who is uniquely positioned to bridge the great reparations divide. He is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. And reaching that understanding is a vital precursor to any just and lasting agreement on the divisive issue of slavery reparations.”
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