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The film “Twelve Years a Slave” is a brutal reminder of the connection between America’s early economic success and the North American slave trade. Facing up to the moral and economic cost of slavery.
- Marjoleine Kars associate professor and chair, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, History Department; author of "Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina."
- Laurent Dubois director, the Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke University; author of "Haiti: The Aftershocks of History" and .
- Richard America adjunct professor, Georgetown University Business School; his books include, "The Wealth of Races: The Present Value of the Benefits of Past Injustices" and "Paying the Social Debt."
- David Blight professor and director, Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. One hundred sixty years ago, Solomon Northup exposed the inner workings of slavery to the American public of the 19th century with his memoir titled "Twelve Years a Slave." Today, we're learning the story from a new movie based on his book. Joining me in the studio to examine the effects of slavery, Richard America of Georgetown University School of Business and Marjoleine Kars, chair of the Department of History at the University of Maryland at Baltimore.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining us from Cambridge University in England, David Blight of Yale University, and, from Duke University in Durham, N.C., Laurent Dubois, professor of romance studies and history. I know you'll want to join the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to you all. Thanks for being with us.
DR. MARJOLEINE KARSThank you so much for having us.
DR. DAVID BLIGHTThank you.
MR. RICHARD AMERICAThank you. Good morning.
MR. LAURENT DUBOISThank you. Good morning.
REHMGood to have you all with us. Marjoleine, can you tell us first, who was Simon (sic) Northup?
KARSSolomon Northup was a free black man who lived in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He was married. He had three children. He was a sort of a middle class man, made his living as a fiddle-player.
REHMHe was born free.
KARSHe was born free.
KARSAnd he is tricked into coming south, drugged, and then finds himself in a slave bin in Washington D.C., in chains, so no longer a free man. He doesn't have his free papers on him, so he can't prove that he was a free man. It's also unlikely anybody was interested in that. And he is sold south to Louisiana.
REHMRichard America, what makes his story different from other slave narratives?
AMERICAWell, I am not a historian. My focus has been on the current public policy implications of systemic slavery. This story is illustrative, at least the later stages of the story, of how slavery was an economic system that, if we connect the dots, brings us up to the present time.
REHMLaurent Dubois, how was his story received at the time?
DUBOISI mean, what -- this is one of the very important interventions among enslaved people who wrote about their experiences and brought it kind of live and sharply into view within the United States. So it was one of a series of such books, but one of the most important and one of the most remarkable, because it was a story of a free man who became a slave. And that, I think, really grabbed readers in a certain way at the time and since.
REHMDid they believe the story when it was published?
DUBOISWell, one of the problems was precisely that there was a huge pro-slavery propaganda machine, right, that had kind of helped to justify slaves and present portraits of slaves as happy, as satisfied with their conditions. And the key was to undo that image.
REHMHere is where I'd like our audience to hear a clip from the movie "Twelve Years a Slave."
SOLOMON NORTHUPAlls I know, we're getting in the traveling, or else we die trying.
UNIDENTIFIED MALESurvival's not about certain death. It's about keeping your head down.
NORTHUPDays ago, I was with my family and my home. Now you tell me all is lost? Tell no one who I am, that's the way to survive? Well, I don't want to survive. I want to live.
REHMAnd turning to you, David Blight, in Cambridge, how often were free men kidnapped? And why at this particular time did Simon (sic) Northup lose his freedom?
BLIGHTWell, Diane, it did not happen very often. It would be a mistake that this was an extremely common experience, but it did happen. The kidnapping of free black, especially, men in the North increased in the 1840s, even earlier in the 1830s, because there was an insatiable demand and desire for labor in the Southwest, out where Solomon Northup ends up.
BLIGHTThe domestic slave trade in the United States absolutely boomed between about 1820 and 1860. And from careful research, we now know that approximately 1 million African Americans were transported from the upper South and the eastern seaboard to the deep South and the Southwest, most of them already slaves, in Northup's case, a free man, in that period between 1820 and 1860.
BLIGHTAnd I'd only just add to the previous question what makes Northup's narrative so unusual in the entire genre of slave narratives is, as Laurent indicated, it's a story from freedom to slavery. Virtually all the other narratives, the famous ones by Frederick Douglass and others, are stories of slavery to freedom. And I do think his narrative, his story, the essence of it was believed in the early 1850s when people read it because they'd been greatly conditioned by then by a whole variety of other bestselling slave narratives.
BLIGHTAnd the other key factor here is to remember that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had just been published in the summer of 1852, only about 10 months before Solomon Northup was liberated and just a year before he published his narrative. So there was this huge -- hundreds of thousands of readers who were already reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin." And if you go back and look at newspapers at the time that even reported Northup's case, a lot of times they invoked the characters in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" as a way of understanding his story.
REHMAnd, Marjoleine, you also had laws against importing slaves from foreign countries at the same time some of these kidnappings were taking place, especially Northup's.
KARSYes. The slave trade had been outlawed in the early 19th century, and so the internal trade in the United States was huge at this time because there were a lot of territories in the Southwest in particular, in the Deep South, where large numbers of laborers were desired and needed. And so they came from more northern colonies or, in some cases, as David just indicated, from people who were kidnapped.
REHMAnd, Richard America, the wealth that these slaves produced for this country was enormous.
AMERICAWell, yes. The system of slavery and the later systems of segregation and then discrimination up to the present were mechanisms that transferred or diverted income and wealth by race, from blacks as a class to whites as a class, complicated transmission process, but profits in agricultural slavery and what's little known, although it's been researched substantially, is industrial slavery in manufacturing and in higher skilled occupations, as well as the production of slaves in building what we think of today as infrastructure, roads, dams, levees, clearing land, all essential to overall economic progress.
REHMAnd the treatment of these slaves, Laurent Dubois, even this free man taken as a slave, was his treatment any different from those of other slaves already on plantations?
DUBOISWell, not really. And the whole system in a sense was held together by violence, in some ways, by keeping this population, which in some parts of the United States was a large minority or even a majority -- in places like the Caribbean, that I've studied closely, a lot of colonies had 90 percent of the population enslaved in the hands of a very small class. So only through violence and terror was a kind of order maintained. And violence has been -- you know, is well documented, a key part of slavery, and it's powerfully depicted in the new film.
REHMAnd what I'd like to hear from you, Marjoleine, is to what extent you believe this film is important to be seen at this time?
KARSWell, I think it's a crucial movie because it shows, as Laurent indicated, very powerfully that slavery is a system that is executed through violence. And this culture of terror that it produces makes it almost impossible for people to resist and makes large slave rebellions, like the one I'm studying in the Caribbean so rare, and it shows that terror in a way that I think audiences can really identify with.
KARSAnd moreover, the movie shows that this violence was perpetrated not only by white slave masters but by slave mistresses. For a long time, we have thought that southern ladies did not beat their slaves, that they were almost natural allies of enslaved women, that they, because their husbands had affairs and raped black women, that white women had an almost natural reason to feel affinity with their enslaved people.
KARSBut new research, some of it done by a colleague of Laurent, Vivalia Klempf (sp?), in an important book called "Out Of Bondage," shows that this was not the case, that, in fact, slave mistresses were as cruel and as violent as their husbands were. And the movie shows this very, very clearly.
REHMMarjoleine Kars, she's associate professor, chair of the department of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She's working on a book about the 1763 slave rebellion in Berbice, a Dutch colony next door to Suriname. Short break here, your calls when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. There's a brand new movie out. It's titled "12 Years a Slave." It tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free African American man from upstate New York kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. After he became free once again, he wrote about his ordeal. And this movie "12 Years a Slave" is based on that memoir. We are looking into other aspects of slavery, its impact not only on this country but indeed on other areas of the world.
REHMHere in the studio, Richard America. He's at the Georgetown University School of Business. Marjoleine Kars, she's at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. David Blight is on the line with us from Cambridge. He's director of the Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale.
REHMLaurent Dubois is professor of Romance Studies and History at Duke University. He is the author of "Haiti: The Aftershocks of History." And, David Blight, we were talking about the behavior not only of men but of women in imposing cruelty and harm on these slaves. Why do you suppose that intensified over the years?
BLIGHTWell, what this film actually depicts, among other things, so well is that especially on large cotton and large sugar operations in the Deep South, in this case Louisiana, slavery was, in a way, a police state. It relied on violence. It relied on fear. And that fear had to be sustained by the entire apparatus from overseers to masters to mistresses. And again, the film really depicts this.
BLIGHTOne thing I think the film does perhaps better than anything else -- and it's the way Steve McQueen makes movies -- is that it's really a very visual film. It's not just visual in terms of depicting brutality, but it's visual in the sense that the characters carry the story. The eyes of the remarkable actor who plays Solomon Northup carry the story at times.
BLIGHTAnd in the end what you really have here is a story not just of survival as your film clip indicated, but it's a story about this inner world of the human being's quest to survive with some kind of internal mental, spiritual integrity in a system that in many ways was cordoned off, closed off and had in so many instances no hope.
BLIGHTOne of the things that makes this a story that can be made into a film, I suppose, is that it at least does have a redemptive ending. He gets out, he's liberated and he finds his family again. But let's remember, brutality, whether by women or by men, it was all about sustaining a relationship of power and a relationship of wealth. And women were as much a part of that as the men.
REHMAnd indeed, Laurent, you had family separated. You had mothers separated from their children. I would like to hear a clip from the movie in regard to exactly that.
NORTHUPEliza, stop. Stop your wailing. If you let yourself be overcome by sorrow, you will drown in it.
ELIZAHave you stopped crying for your children? You make no sounds. But will you ever let them go in your heart?
NORTHUPThey are as my flesh.
ELIZAThen who is distressed? Do I upset the master and the mistress? Do you care less about my loss and their wellbeing?
NORTHUPMaster Ford is a decent man.
ELIZAHe is a slaver.
NORTHUPUnder the circumstances.
ELIZAUnder the circumstances, he's a slaver. Will you truckle at his boot?
ELIZAYou luxuriate in his favor.
NORTHUPI survive. I will not fall into despair. I will offer up my talents to Master Ford. I will keep myself hearty 'til freedom is opportune.
ELIZAOh, Ford is your opportunity? You think he does not know that you are more than you suggest, but he does nothing for you -- nothing. You are no better than prized livestock. Call for him. Call, tell him of your previous circumstances and see what it earns you, Solomon. So you settle into your role as (word?) then?
NORTHUPMy back is thick with scars for protesting my freedom. Do not accuse me.
ELIZAI accuse you of nothing. I cannot accuse. I have done dishonorable things to survive. And for all of them, I have ended up here, no better than if I stood up for myself. God, forgive me. Solomon, let me weep for my children.
REHMDavid Blight, were some masters better than others to their slaves?
BLIGHTWell, of course. I mean, there always was a gradation of masters, of their levels of punishment, treatment, cruelty and so on. Every slave narrative actually shows that or indicates that. Frederick Douglass is famously -- in his narrative he said, when you have a master, you want a better master. When you get a better master, you want to be your own master and so forth. That's true of systems of power and oppression the world over.
BLIGHTThere are levels and degrees of treatment. What this film actually depicts -- and it's not inaccurate in the sense that it reflects fairly faithful in Northup's narrative -- is that Northup did experience both a relatively benign master, his first one who has to sell him off, and then increasingly cruel masters until he has this guy named Epps who is a sadistic, deeply psychologically-troubled man who inflicts pain on others obviously because of enormous pain within himself.
BLIGHTHe's played by the actor Fassbender brilliantly. And the cruelty of slavery though is sometimes best seen when one thinks about the sale, the message that what slaves ultimately were were property, commodities. And the film does have a scene in the infamous New Orleans slave market, which is actually quite brilliantly filmed, I think.
BLIGHTIn fact, Paul Giamatti plays the head slave trader in that New Orleans market, and he plays the role frighteningly well. It's there that you see human beings commodified, made into objects, made into property no different than horses and hogs, and sold before your very eyes. That's the place where we can really see what slavery ultimately was, both physically and emotionally.
REHMLaurent Dubois, do you want to comment?
DUBOISJust that I think what's so powerful about Northup's narrative is that it's one example of people being turned from free people into slaves. But that was the story of millions of people, right. Ten to 12 million Africans had that experience being transformed into chattel from having been free people, right.
DUBOISAnd the scars and the depth of that experience I think is so critical for us to think about the size of that experience in our history. And the critical thing is for us to begin to understand -- and we've been trying as historians to understand -- that whole experience from within the experience of the enslaved, right.
DUBOISWhat did that mean? How did they survive? How did they resist? All the different ways that they then ultimately created new ways of thinking about the world as a result of that experience. So that's, I think, critical, too, that this experience created our societies, but so too did the resistance of the enslaved to it.
KARSWell, at the same time, I was really struck in the movie and by the clip that you just let us hear, that the woman talks about slave master Ford -- Solomon talks about him as somebody who will afford him some opportunities. But Ford affords her none. And so the gendered experience of slavery is very clear in this movie, I think. As a man, Solomon has opportunities to get off the plantation, to play his fiddle and to make some money, to serve as an overseer at some point -- that's not in the movie, but it's in the narrative -- that are not afforded to women.
KARSAnd in fact his counterpart in the movie, Patsy, is a woman who is horribly sexually abused by Mr. Epps and cruelly treated by Epps' jealous wife. And it shows that sexuality gave a whole different flavor -- and that's an understatement -- to what happened to women in slavery.
BLIGHTAnd Patsy's left behind in the end, and...
BLIGHT...we don't know what happened to her.
REHMAnd here is a clip of Patsy.
PATSYI went to Master Charles' plantation.
MALEYou admit it.
PATSYYes, really. And you know why? I got this from Ms. Fitzgerald. Mrs. Epps won't even grab me no soap to clean with. I stink so much I make myself gag. Five-hundred pounds of cotton day in, day out, more than any man here. And for that I will be clean. That's all I ask. And this here, what I went to Charles for...
REHMFor a bar of soap.
KARSThat's right. But of course it's for much more than that.
KARSAnd slave narratives by women often chronicle abuse. Your listeners may be familiar with the very famous one by Harriet Jacobs called "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Woman," who was sexually harassed by her owner and runs away, and even to North Carolina, and hides in an attic for seven years where she can neither stand up nor completely stretch out. And she is stuck there for seven years. And so when the woman in the movie says to him, yes, he may do nice things for you, but he's still a slave master, I think that what she's also saying, it's not the same for men and women.
REHMRichard America, turning once more to the wealth created by these slaves for the building of this country, is there any way to put a dollar figure to it?
AMERICAWell, a number of analysts, scholars have been working on pieces of that for decades. First those who were interested in the profitability or the return on investment at the firm or the plantation level, others looking more holistically at the system. And more recently some trying to estimate the present value, 2013, of the stream of transfers intergenerationally. In other words, the benefits at the time were invested. They were invested in infrastructure and planting equipment and financial instruments of one kind or another, and most importantly, in human capital, in other words, education and training.
AMERICAThe wealth produced went into white people basically, in their education and training, their level of skills. And that in turn was bequeathed intergenerationally down to the present. So capturing the full present value is very complex, maybe impossible, but we can get ballpark. And that's what we're working on.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Laurent Dubois, you wanted to add to that.
DUBOISWell, just that this is the subject brought up recently by the CARICOM nations who have asked reparations from Europe for slavery. And it's such a difficult question because we're talking about hundreds of years of accumulation, right, of wealth. And I think that's part of the challenge.
DUBOISIt's really taking stock that this is the foundation for so much of the economic order that we live in today that is the most difficult and troubling question before us in a certain way. And that's what the Caribbean nations have, in some ways, put before us as well. What do we do with the fact that hundreds of years of experience have created our contemporary order as well?
REHMAnd, David Blight, you have a comment.
BLIGHTWell, I do. I mean, let's go right back into the historical context for a moment as a place to put our feet. American slaves in 1860 eve of the Civil War were worth, as a financial asset, approximately $3.5 billion. That's just in the U.S. South in the 15 slave states. Approximately 4 million people were worth $3.5 billion. That was the single largest asset in the entire American economy. If you were to try to draw a comparison today, you'd have to think about the greatest of the tech companies. It used to be 40 years ago you'd think of General Motors, the largest companies in the world.
BLIGHTThis is what slavery was. It was enormous economic power. And, as I said, they were the single largest asset in the economy. And when slavery ended, that property was confiscated. There was by and large, at least in the U.S. North American context, no compensation paid to slave owners. Now, over time, one could say that compensation came in other ways because of the Jim Crow system. But in the United States we're talking about a system that was absolutely at the heart and a principal driver of the American economy in its own time.
AMERICAThe concept of unjust enrichment, which is a technical legal term -- but I've borrowed it for use in a broader sense in public policy analysis -- that's what we're trying to get our hands around analytically. Unjust enrichment refers to both as a verb the process of wrongful taking of other people's income and wealth -- or land in the case of Native Americans -- and the -- as a noun, it's the current sum that we're interested in recapturing, recovering, reclaiming.
AMERICAAnd this word reparations has been distorted and abused and misunderstood. I've largely discarded it in favor of restitution, which has more of the focus on identifying the unjust enrichment, and then using the normal tax and budget process that we understand very well and use every day to redistribute income and wealth as compensation as compensatory.
REHMAnd how do you, as an African American, feel the historic relevance of that issue of slavery as it has come through the generations into your own life?
AMERICAWell, if you mean personally, I identified a man named George America who ran away from Warwick County, which is now Newport News, Va., in 1766 and made it into Maryland. And we are likely related. There's a Virginia runaway's website which has the runaway advertisements over decades searchable by name, and he pops up. But not to personalize it, the point is that the public policy that goes to issues of education, employment, housing currently are only well understood by putting them in this historical context.
REHMRichard America, he's adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Business. His books include "Paying the Social Debt." Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back as we go over the issues of slavery so clearly depicted in the movie "Twelve Years a Slave" based on a memoir by Simon Northa (sic). The slave -- only slave narrative written by a free man, kidnapped, held as a slave for 12 years, and then wrote this book at the end of his ordeal. And before we open the phones, there is a clip from the movie that raises issues about education. Let's hear it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALEThis is list of goods and sundries. You will take it to be filled and return immediately. Take your time. Tell Bartholomew to add it to our debt.
SIMON NORTHUPYes, mistress.
FEMALEWhere you from, Platt?
NORTHUPI told you.
FEMALETell me again.
FEMALEWho were your master?
NORTHUPMaster name a free man.
FEMALEWas he a learned man?
NORTHUPI suppose so.
FEMALEHe learn you to read?
NORTHUPA word here or there. But I've no understanding of the written text.
FEMALEWell, don't trouble yourself with it. Same as the rest, master brought you here to work. That's all. Any more will earn you 100 lashes.
REHMDavid Blight, tell us why hiding his ability to read and write was so important for Simon (sic) Northup who is now called, in the movie, Pratt.
BLIGHTIt's a very important part of almost all the slave narratives which become stories of the achievement of literacy. A literate slave was a dangerous slave. A literate slave had a way of seeing and understanding the outside world. A literate slave could communicate with the outside world. A literate slave was usually a leader among the other slaves. A literate slave might collect newspapers, et cetera.
BLIGHTLiteracy was power, and that's what that scene indicates. And, of course, Solomon seemed so bright, you know, to his masters, to his owners and they kept wondering about that. The fact that he hides his literacy -- and, indeed, the film depicts this when he's actually trying to make his own ink to write letters out. The reason he hides it is because, if they find this out, who knows what could happen. They may sell him further into east Texas, sell him away, sell him back to the New Orleans market just to get rid of him. Literacy was power.
BLIGHTAnd that's why it was dangerous.
DUBOISWell, right. I think that's critical, and the stories of slave rebellions and uprisings are also stories of essentially slaves taking power over the political realm and over the realm of talking and speaking and being heard. They were silenced in the system, and so when the slaves took voice, as they did in this narrative, and they took action, it became an extremely dramatic challenge. And it really, really frightened slave owners as well.
REHMAll right. We have many callers. I'm going to open the phones now first to Robert in Miami, Fla. Hello, Robert, you're on the air.
ROBERTHello, Ms. Rehm, you for president, 2016.
ROBERTNo problem. You know, it's unfortunate that for a long time this type of issue of slavery, it's been watered down in this country. The contradiction -- a literate slave would know or read to see that the United States were oppressed by the British government and they came out of that oppression by starting a so-called free country and would figure out -- try to -- and wonder why he or she is enslaved. And also, I wanted to ask the person with regard to the economic cost, the economic benefit, if you will, for why -- for generations as a result of slavery. Could you explore or could you expand on that issue?
REHMAnd indeed you have here an expert on exactly that, Richard America, who has written a book titled, "The Wealth of Races: The Present Value of the Benefits of Past Injustices."
AMERICAYes, I'm the editor of that book. The contributors are well known economic historians including Prof. Engerman at the University of Rochester and Prof. Daugherty at Duke, who you probably know, my good friend, and others. The point is that there is a group of people around the country, around the world, for that matter, interested in analyzing this in ways that have usefulness for the current debates over resource allocation in the country, meaning how we tax and budget to address economic and social needs.
AMERICAThe quantification will get better. I believe that it could be a standard practice. At the Federal Reserve, the Department of the Treasury, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Economic Council, they have teams of economists. We measure interest rates, employment, housing starts, on and on. We carefully calibrate the condition of the economy in order to manage it as best we can.
AMERICAAnd this ought to be one more element. This is an indicator of the health of our economic life and we fail to measure it. So it ought to become something that, with a quarterly announcement, an annual announcement, what are the costs and benefits of discrimination currently, and also looking backward what are the significant current consequences of those practices -- and slavery and Jim Crow segregation?
REHMAll right, to Leonard in Suitland, Md. You're on the air.
LEONARDYes. Hello, Ms. Rehm and to all of your guests.
LEONARDThank you very much for having this topic on a very, very, very sensitive subject matter. My question has to do with the character in the film, which I did have the honor of seeing (unintelligible) in Silver Spring, has to do with the character called Armsby. And it kind of surprised me in a way because he is a white -- I would take it indentured servant. And I'm wondering, in the film, he -- actually, he's the person that Platt or Solomon Northup goes to to send a letter.
LEONARDBut he is, in essence, I don't know if we can almost call it the trade or the letter -- Armsby's got a way -- has a way to become an overseer. So in terms of the presence of whites on plantations, the first question is, how did that play into slavery? How were they actually treated compared to the slaves? And the only other question has to do with the scene from -- between Epps and Bass.
LEONARDI thought it was a very powerful moment because it's when they are talking about slavery in and of itself, and it seemed like I heard the drum rolls of the Civil War occurring. So for those that say well, the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery, it seemed like that scene really epitomized why it was being fought, so I just want it out there.
REHMAll right. Leonard, thank you for your call. David Blight.
BLIGHTYeah, well, first the presence of whites on plantations, of course, they might be owners, they might be the owner's family, but they, of course, were overseers. You have two examples of this in the film, of course. The first one Armsby, who betrays Solomon, and the second one is the character played by Brad Pitt who ultimately does carry a letter out and his means to help, legal assistance, even up to the governor's office of the State of New York.
BLIGHTThere were traveling carpenters like that Brad Pitt character, traveling workmen all over the South, so that wasn't -- that would not be unusual at all. And, yes, there's no question, I think, that Steve McQueen was trying to make you hear a drum roll in that conversation about the coming of conflict, this deep, deep tragic collision course, the two systems, one slave labor and one free labor, are on in America. So if you heard those drum rolls, I think the director got right to you.
REHMAll right. Let's go now to Tulsa, Okla. Marinita, you're on the air.
MARINITAHi, thank you, Ms. Rehm. I want you know that I have always appreciated listening to you.
MARINITABut I also would like to show your guests how much I appreciate them on behalf of many of us who are descendants of the American slave. I just want to point out that it's an atrocity that we have all had to shoulder, that being us African Americans, as well as those who are the descendants of that slave trader. And what I want to know most of all is, where do we think that we're going to from now since this is being put out there and it's creating a conversation for us?
BLIGHTDiane, may I comment?
BLIGHTWell, I just want to say that the reparations debate is a debate deeply worth having. And I couldn't agree more with Richard that the kind of statistics about resource use, the quantification of this story of discrimination would be extremely useful as part of our public discourse, but let's be honest, in our political culture in the United States -- this may be different in the Caribbean and Laurent needs to comment...
DUBOISMm hmm, yeah.
BLIGHT...on this Caribbean initiative. But in our political culture in the United States, reparations as financial restitution has virtually no chance. Look at our political culture. I would prefer if this debate took the direction of demanding of those people of a particular political persuasion who are engaged right now in trying to restrict the right to vote, who are engaged in voter suppression in very transparent, obvious ways.
BLIGHTIf one member of their own party and their own persuasion would simply stand up and say, this is wrong, we must stop this and we must maximize the right to vote, at least then we'd have some small beginning of a discussion and a debate about real political restitution apart from the financial question, which in the U.S., at least, is almost always a dead end.
DUBOISAnd, yeah, I would just follow up by saying the Caribbean initiative here is very interesting because you have 15 governments who are basically saying, on behalf of a whole region...
DUBOIS...and on behalf of people who are largely descendants of slaves, the Caribbean is very different from the U.S...
DUBOIS...in which most of the population are descendent of a slave. But this is a whole region saying our history today -- the limits we have on our possibilities are shaped by this history and their demanding kind of as governments. It's a really interesting case to watch and, I think, might take a different course than the other ones.
REHMAnd to whom are they directing these lawsuits, Laurent?
DUBOISSo they're taking to court the European countries that were involved in the slave trade. You do have to remember that 45 percent of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas went to the Caribbean, only 5 percent to North America. So the Caribbean was truly built out of the slave trade in very direct ways. And so they're basically calling that, as well as the plantation economy, to the attention of particular European countries. So it's an international law debate rather than an individual one, which is interesting.
REHMWhat are they asking for?
DUBOISThey're actually asking for reparations as a region. They're asking for the European countries to recognize that their own contemporary wealth is based on the poverty of the Caribbean. And what they're doing is reversing the usual idea which is that the Caribbean is in debt to foreign banks and suggesting that, in fact, Europe is in debt to the Caribbean. It's a pretty remarkable claim, but that it's been followed by all these governments, I think, tells you something about how deep this question still is in the Caribbean.
REHMAnd have they named a dollar figure?
DUBOISThey have not, actually. They hired the attorneys who just got a massive restitution for Kenyan rebels who had been tortured by the British. So they have a law firm. My suspicion is that, along the lines of what David just said that this is going to be more of a question of the debate that emerges from it, it's very difficult to imagine it will happen that direct restitution will be paid. But it's central for both Caribbean and European societies to really confront this problem, and this is one way to do it.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Jacksonville, Fla. Hello, David.
DAVIDHey, good morning, Diane.
DAVIDI just want to tell you I don't get to listen to your show very often because of my work hours. I should record it, and I really enjoy your show. I really enjoy your guests.
DAVIDMy comment really has to do with the whole process that's going on here, too, and that's the -- that's the process that resources the amount expended to go back and calculate restitutions due to African Americans for slavery. Agreed, agreed, agreed -- everything I agree with. My problem is -- and I've even gone to places like Charleston to better get a -- to get a white American's appreciation for slavery. And the more I find out, the more disgusted I am, the more that I'm sorry it ever happened.
DAVIDMy problem is is when I look at statistics for African Americans, everything you can imagine is bad. It doesn't matter, economic, social, whatever. My problem with this work that he's doing is not personal, but I wish we would take these kinds of leaderships and these kinds of resources and say, enough, I'm done. What can we do as African Americans to push our cause forward on our boot straps? You know, let's take this analysis warehouse that we have -- let's take this analysis potential and move forward. And I just don't -- I don't see it.
REHMAll right, Richard America.
DAVID...I see too much of looking back, pointing fingers, and I can't blame you. I can't blame it, but I'm -- like, if I was in those shoes, I'm moving on.
REHMAll right. OK, David, thanks for calling. Richard America.
AMERICAWell, it's not looking back. The point is understanding the current problem requires a historical analysis, a historical audit, and that is the point of the quantifying exercise. In 1993, I did another book, "Paying the Social Debt" and a good part of that is self-analysis. That is what is required in the way of change in the African American community, and many others, Dubois and, well, Douglas, historically, have focused on our own issues and development challenges and the things that we can do apart from public policy, but...
REHMAnd Martin Luther King, of course.
AMERICA...Well, sure. I mean, that's sort of straightforward. That's what the NAACP, the National Urban League and others are in the business of, as well as protecting civil liberties and civil rights. But we don't understand the problem of poverty and inequality without doing the economic analysis. And it's going to be done.
AMERICAAnd with respect to Prof. Blight's point, my view is that, a hundred years from now, this will be commonplace. This will be standard. We will have done this. In the short term, yes, we are in a difficult atmosphere, but in order to get to parity, which is the goal, which means median family income and wealth, black and white at par, this is a necessary part of it.
REHMLast quick word, David Blight.
BLIGHTWell, to the caller, David, I mean, the fact is African Americans have always looked ahead. They've always worked on the future at the same time they look back. As the poet Robert Hayden said, "If you're African American, only a fool doesn't look backward."
REHMDavid Blight of Yale University, Laurent Dubois of Duke University, Marjoleine Kars of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Richard America of Georgetown University, thank you all so much.
KARSThank you, Diane.
AMERICAThank you, Diane.
DUBOISThank you so much.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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