Everything about Randall Robinson's 2001 bestseller The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks is wrong. Wrongest of all is his overwhelming belief that most black Americans are broken. Broken in a way that only white people can fix.
For 250 pages, in spurts of purple prose, Robinson goes on and on about the "vicious psychological wake of slavery," the "crushing legacy of slavery-based social disabilities," the "debilitating psychic pain" that has left African Americans "so badly damaged," the "disabling injury" responsible for our "every devastating failure."
Robinson is so caught up in hyping black people's victim status, he seems unaware of the repercussions of such rhetoric. If we black folks are so damaged, so disabled, so debilitated, so devastated, then why should any white employer want to hire us? Clearly we can't be expected to perform as well as whites on the job, given this "crushing legacy" that has crippled us spiritually and emotionally. Why shouldn't white homeowners worry when some of these psychological basket cases move into their neighborhood? Why should white parents want their children to attend schools alongside such human trainwrecks?
The case for reparations, as laid out by Robinson, relies upon overstating the lingering damage of slavery. But the more he overstates it, the more he validates every white racist impulse to write off black people as inadequate and fundamentally different from whites. The Debt conveniently ignores the millions of black Americans who've risen into the middle class and beyond.
According to 2004 U.S. Census data, nearly 4 million black Americans over the age of 25 hold either a bachelor's degree or (like Robinson) an advanced degree. That's 18 percent of those who classify themselves as black or partially black, compared with 28 percent of all Americans and 31 percent of non-Hispanic whites. This doesn't quite fit Randall Robinson's tragic narrative of a people crippled by "the mind-breaking psychological price of slavery's unbearable weight." Sounds to me more like a triumph of the spirit... a story in progress of African-American uplift.
The Debt doesn't just sell black people short, it sells white people short. To Robinson, American society is "deeply, stubbornly, poisonously racist." After two and a half centuries of slavery, he writes, black people were told to fend for themselves, in the face of continuing hatred and discrimination. Nowhere in his 250 pages does Randall Robinson mention these two words: "white philanthropy." Or, as it used to be known, "Northern philanthropy."
The fact is, soon after Emancipation, the U.S. government and Protestant activists in the North undertook the mission of educating the former slaves. What became of these white people's good will, hard work and money? Howard University, founded in 1867 by the federal government, is today perhaps the most esteemed historically black institution of higher learning in the world. Morehouse College, created by the American Baptist Home Mission Society in 1867, is today called "the Harvard of black colleges." Among other schools established by this body of Northern white Baptists was Virginia Union University, from which Randall Robinson received his bachelor's degree.
Hampton University, Fisk University and other black schools were founded by white Congregationalists. Meharry Medical College, Cookman Institute (now part of Bethune-Cookman College), New Orleans University (now part of Dillard University) and others were founded by white Methodists. Most historically black colleges in America today were created by white people.
And through the early decades of the 1900s, wealthy white businessmen and philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Julius Rosenwald and Caroline Phelps Stokes donated millions of dollars to the cause of black education. Carnegie at one point cut a $600,000 check to Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute. Spelman College is named after Rockefeller's wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller.
Randall Robinson acknowledges none of this in his book, even as he writes that, "in any effort to balance America's racial scales, education... must be assigned the very highest priority." Robinson owes his undergraduate education to the beneficence of Northern whites, as does his son who went to Howard and his daughter who went to Spelman. But all he wants to talk about is how white folks owe a massive unpaid debt.
I'd love to discuss the issue of reparations with Randall Robinson one day. That'll be hard to do because Robinson, in his disgust with racist America, has moved to the island of St. Kitts. He even wrote a book about it, called Quitting America. I don't think I'll be reading that one.