Well before the birth of our country, Europe and the eventual United States perpetrated a heinous wrong against the peoples of Africa and sustained and benefited from the wrong through the continuing exploitation of Africa’s human and material resources. America followed slavery with more than a hundred years of legal racial segregation and discrimination of one variety or another. It was only in 1965, after nearly 350 years of legal racial suppression, that the United States enacted the Voting Rights Act. Virtually simultaneously, however, it began to walk away from the social wreckage that centuries of white hegemony had wrought. Our country then began to rub itself with the memory-emptying salve of contemporaneousness. (If the wrong did not just occur, then it did not occur in a way that would render the living responsible.)

But when the black living suffer real and current consequences as a result of wrongs committed by a younger America, then contemporary America must shoulder responsibility for those wrongs until such wrongs have been adequately righted. The life and responsibilities of a nation are not limited to the life spans of its mortal constituents. Federal and state governments were active participants not only in slavery but also in the exclusion and dehumanization of blacks that continued legally up until the passage of key civil rights legislation in the sixties. Black calls for reparations began almost from the moment that slavery officially ended in 1865. However, although our calls far predate those of either the Japanese or the Jews, only the latter two communities have been responded to in a spirit of sober compassion and thoughtful humanity.

In response to our call, individual Americans need not feel defensive or under attack. No one holds any living person responsible for slavery or the later century-plus of legal relegation of blacks to substandard education, exclusion from home ownership via restrictive covenants and redlining, or any of the myriad mechanisms for pushing blacks to the back of the line. Nonetheless, we must all, as a nation, ponder the repercussions of those acts.

There are many ways to begin righting America’s massive wrong. But resolving economic and social disparities so long in the making will require great resources (in the form of public initiatives, not personal checks) and decades of national fortitude. Habit is the enemy. Whites and blacks see each other the only way they can remember seeing each other–in a relationship of economic and social inequality. The system, which starts each child where its parents left off, is not fair. This is particularly the case for African-Americans, whose general economic starting points have been rearmost because of slavery and its aftermath. Slaves for two and a half centuries saw not just their freedom taken from them but their labor as well. Were it a line item in today’s gross national product report, that value would undoubtedly run into billions of dollars.

America has made an art form by now of grinding its past deeds, no matter how despicable, into mere ephemera. And African-Americans, unfortunately, have accommodated this amnesia all too well. It would behoove African-Americans to remember that history forgets first those who forget themselves. To do what is necessary to accomplish anything approaching psychic and economic parity in the next half-century will require a fundamental shift in America’s thinking. Before the country in general can be made to understand, African-Americans themselves must come to understand that this demand is not for charity. It is simply for what they are owed on a debt that is old but compellingly obvious and valid still. (Do not be fooled by individual examples of conspicuous black success. They have closed neither the economic nor the psychic gaps between blacks and whites, and are statistically insignificant.)

The blacks of Rosewood, Florida, and Greenwood, Oklahoma, have successfully brought their case for reparations to national attention. Indeed, in Oklahoma a biracial commission has just concluded that justice demands that reparations be paid to the victims of Oklahoma’s Greenwood massacre. Congressman John Conyers has introduced HR 40, a bill “to examine the institution of slavery,” subsequent “de jure and de facto discrimination against freed slaves and their descendants,” the impact of these forces “on living African-Americans” and to make recommendations to Congress on “appropriate remedies.” Passage of this bill is crucial; even the making of a well-reasoned case for broader national restitution will do wonders for the spirits of blacks.

This is a struggle that African-Americans cannot lose, for in the very making of it we will discover, if nothing else, ourselves. And it is a struggle that all Americans must support, as the important first step toward America’s having any chance for a new beginning in which all its inhabitants are true co-owners of America’s democratic ideals.