The notion that blacks are owed reparations for the awful crimes that slavery visited upon them centuries ago was barely a blip on the screen during the Clinton administration. Now, with the ascension of a white Republican president who happened to be born into a wealthy political clan, black intellectuals are pushing the issue into the mainstream.

Plainly, the civil rights leaders know they can capitalize on voter disenfranchisement in Florida and the black voting public's distrust of the Republican Party to rally the troops around the reparations issue. Along the way, they can empower themselves by making the president seem as racially insensitive as possible.

The implications are frightening: The civil rights leaders are nurturing a movement that would encourage full-grown, capable adults to blame the missed opportunities of their lives on the slavery that transpired centuries ago--as though their pains were interchangeable with those endured by slaves. In the name of racial harmony, the civil rights movement will then insist that the current ruling structure owes them money--as though the current government is interchangeable with the English monarchy that first brought slaves to America in the 17th century. In short, our civil rights leaders are presently prepared to exchange their social activism for the warm pillow of victimization.

This notion of lining one's coffers with reparation money has sent minorities across the country scurrying to adopt the mantle of "victim." This rallying cry has resonated in Chicago and Detroit, where legislators are debating a bill that would give blacks a $330,000 tax credit to make up for the government's false promise of "40 acres and a mule," offered to newly freed slaves during the Reconstruction era.

Supporters argue that such reparation payments would publicly acknowledge the atrocities committed by the English government (America was a colony at the time) when they enslaved thousands of Africans and systematically exported them as slave labor.

And indeed, it is true that the systematic destruction of another culture needs to be raised to consciousness for examination. It is equally true that there remains in this country a cultural division wrought by slavery. I firmly believe that the racism of today isn't so much about skin color as it is about the racial and social hierarchies that a history of slavery and discrimination embedded into our national identity.

This rousing point was not lost on those civil rights activists of the '60s who sought to reorganize those hierarchies. The landmark legislation they secured during the '60s was animated by a single idea: equality between white America and its former "inferiors." Men like the Rev. Martin Luther King advocated not special treatment but merely those basic human rights we associate with happiness: equality and individual freedom. He dreamed not of revenge but of a more perfect union.

Thirty years later, the civil rights movements has shifted from Dr. King's quest for individual equality to a sniveling cry for collective retribution. By failing to draw a distinction between past and present, the reparations issue encourages the view that all blacks are victims, and that all whites are collectively responsible. Simply to regard all members of a group as victims neatly removes such terms as "character" and "personal responsibility" from the cultural dialogue. After all, what need is their for individual striving when it is plainly understood that all the difficulties blacks suffer are the direct result of incidents that occurred centuries ago.

The civil rights movement did not teach blacks to identify themselves as inferior. Nor did it adopt as a rallying cry, "Victims all." In short, the civil rights movement has been hijacked by racial hustlers like Jesse Jackson, Kweisi Mfume, and John Conyers, who empower themselves by dispensing a warm drug, a surrender of the will to the feelings of victimization.

Get it? The civil rights movement has veered from individual rights to social retribution. Sadly, a lot of black Americans are going along with this. Never mind that reparations raises more concerns than it assuages. One wonders, for example, what percentage of black blood would entitle a citizen to reparations? What reparations, if any, would Africa be required to pay for selling their own people into slavery? Would American Indians be able to stake a similar claim? How about the various religious groups that the Puritan settlers persecuted? Would modern-day members of the occult be entitled to reparations to make up for their distant relatives having been burned at the stake?

Bottom line: If it literally paid to be a victim, countless people would rush forward to adopt the label. Forcing this government to pay reparations to the biological, cultural, or religious offshoots of every "group" that has been wronged over the past 200 years would bankrupt this country. For this reason, reparations has no chance of becoming a reality.

Nor should it. To embrace reparations is to embrace the notion that history has indeed made blacks inferior.

The civil rights movement taught us an entirely different lesson. It demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, that social activism, will, and personal responsibility could be the engines that propelled black Americans toward equality. Nearly half a century later, the country has moved closer to achieving Dr. King's vision of a more perfectly integrated union. That is why it pains me to see the civil rights movement shift its emphasis to retribution. Rather than focusing on what it takes to move forward in this country, our cultural prophets now seem content to revel in the tragedies of the past.

I vote NO to victim status, and YES to activism and growth. The alternative is to embrace inferior status by creating a culture of victimization that never moves beyond the initial steps of the '60s civil rights legislation.

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