Debate on reparations draws crowd

April 26, 2001 1:02 p.m.

national debate over reparations to African-American descendents of slaves came to Princeton Thursday night with a fiery discussion hosted by the American Whig-Cliosophic Society.

The debate , before several hundred people in McCosh 50, brought together two of the best-known speakers on the reparations issue: David Horowitz, whose advertisement "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea - and Racist Too" has created controversy on college campuses across the U.S.; and Dorothy Benton Lewis, co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. Th event marked the third time the two met to debate reparations.

In her opening remarks, Lewis argued that reparations to African-Americans for the labor stolen during slavery are long overdue and are necessary if the United States is to create a legacy of inclusion and democracy. She asserted that the African-American community has called for reparations since emancipation, but the demands have fallen on deaf ears. After 136 years, "Congress has not honored its debt to the African people," she said. "Emancipation without reparations is a farce."

Horowitz, president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, emphatically disagreed, arguing that both the victims and beneficiaries of slavery in the U.S. are long dead. He said it would be "political insanity" to force immigrants and refugees who cannot adequately support themselves to pay reparations to African-Americans when neither they nor their ancestors were in the U.S. at the time of slavery.

Horowitz attacked the Daily Princetonian for its handling of his advertisement, drawing boos from several audience members. The Prince ran the ad April 4 along with a note to readers calling its message offensive and racist, winning praise from many in the University community and beyond. "It is an absolute disgrace what has happened on this campus," Horowitz said, chiding faculty members and others whom he alleged have stayed silent on the issue.

"It's time to stop looking at the past, stop playing the victim," Horowitz said, charging that leaders of the reparations movement blame slavery for poverty, broken families and other problems. Instead of reparations, he called for programs to help disadvantaged Americans without regard for race.

Lewis, however, said reparations were needed to hold the U.S. government accountable and to promote economic development in African-American communities. Reparations would help African-Americans create jobs and build educational systems and other institutions that would serve their own needs, she said. For African-Americans, she said, reparations would be "the first opportunity to experience democracy in this country."

She noted that the U.S. called for reparations from Germany after World War II and from Iraq after the Gulf War, but is unwilling to pay its own debts to African-Americans. "We're not asking for a handout," Lewis said. "We're asking for the stolen loot to be returned."

The American Whig-Cliosophic Society is the world's oldest college political and debating society, founded in 1769 by then-Princeton undergraduate James Madison, who became the fourth U.S. president.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601