We all have a lot of things to think about these days, but race relations is again one of the leading issues in our society. I suggest that we give some thought to reparations. A short definition of reparation is “the act of making amends for a wrong.” The wrong, of course, is slavery. But why should I or you feel that they have to make amends over 150 years after the end of the Civil War?

I grew up in a middle class family of eight in Baraboo. I went to college and made my life as a lawyer and judge in Janesville. But where did I really come from?

My father, Richard Bates, was born in Alabama. His great-grandfather was Anderson C. Bates. The 1850 census showed Anderson owned a 12-year-old boy as a slave. Anderson’s father Balum was a planter with nine slaves. Anderson Bates died serving in the Confederate Army in 1863. So my great-grandfather was a slave-owning traitor to our country.

My father’s family continued to live in Alabama through Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights era. I have no doubt they were part of the caste system that kept white people at the top of the social pyramid of the South. In the 1950s, I visited my relatives in Alabama. I swam in a white-only pool and drank from a white-only drinking fountain. My relatives’ needs were met daily by “the help.”

My father married my mother Joyce in Cincinnati after World War II, and they came north for Dad to attend the University of Wisconsin. Dad then became a teacher in Baraboo. My parents were part of the great post-war boom where veterans could use the G.I. Bill to get an education and buy a home. But remember that “Jim Crow” laws were still in effect and Black people, including Black veterans, could not buy homes in most subdivisions with racial restrictions. They could not obtain mortgage loans at most banks or obtain work as easily as their white counterparts. As late as the 1970s, many cities had “sundown laws” that said non-whites had to be out of town by sundown.

I was 18 in 1968. I went to college and had a student deferment from the draft. College students at that time were overwhelmingly white. The military in Vietnam was disproportionately Black. In 1968, the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that was supposed to desegregate schools in 1954 was largely ignored or circumvented in the South and big cities. Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Hampton were assassinated that year. Now, more than 50 years later, race is still an issue as people debate “Black Lives Matter.”

Immigrants who arrived after the Civil War, like many of my mother’s German and Irish ancestors, suffered discrimination, but they were never slaves. They assimilated as quickly as possible into “white” American society taking their place above people of color in our American segregated social and economic system. Their history is well documented by Isabel Wilkerson in her 2020 book “Caste.”

Why should we consider reparations for descendants of slaves?

At first, it seems a bizarre concept to me. But the more I learned and the more I listened, I realized that we lucky white Americans attained our social and economic advantages and status at least in part on the backs of unpaid slave labor.

Conversely, descendants of slaves have suffered the disadvantages of the history of slavery and discrimination that continue to this day. The ability of individuals and families of color to accumulate wealth and political representation has been made more difficult by our society. Reparations would be a means of making amends to them for a wrong that began more than 400 years ago and lives on to this day.

Reparations are a difficult concept, but I ask you to think about it. Keep an open mind and listen to people who have had a different life experience. Perhaps our nation can reach a consensus and at last recognize the cost of our nation’s original sin, slavery.

R. Alan Bates was a longtime Janesville lawyer who was elected as a Rock County Court judge in 2004. He retired from the bench in 2018.


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