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In a display of advertising effectiveness commercial marketers can only dream of, an ad is creating a ruckus on college campuses across the nation. It began appearing in college newspapers in February -- Black History Month. The all-text advertisement is entitled "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea -- and Racist Too." Unsurprisingly, it's generated firestorms of protest among students. Intriguingly, the debate has focused not on the ad's argument (such as it is) but on the First Amendment: Should college papers run the ad? If they don't, is that a display of sensitivity -- or censorship?

I believe this ad campaign is actually part of a broad political campaign, one that's literally racist -- aimed at fomenting divisions among races. It's been skillfully designed to divert attention from a real issue -- reparations for a crime -- toward a red herring about press freedom, in a way that makes the protesters seem un-American.

Agent provocateur
First, a key bit of background. The ad, which has run in college papers at the University of Wisconsin, Berkeley and other campuses, was composed by David Horowitz. Mr. Horowitz is co-author, with Peter Collier, of several best-selling biographies of prominent American families that have been labeled "pathographies" because of their focus on social and emotional dysfunction. Decades ago, Mr. Horowitz also was a leading figure in the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society, but his politics later veered to the far right, without ever stopping in the rational center. Then and now, he is an agent provocateur, more interested in stirring up controversy than solving problems. Why else would he include as one of his 10 "principles" the asinine rhetorical question "What about the debt blacks owe to America?"

When the issue of reparations passes into white consciousness, we tend to recoil from any notion of historical guilt, certainly of collective guilt. These are the emotions on which Mr. Horowitz's ad tries to play. If one works to move from emotion to intellect, however, the idea of reparations for slavery begins to take on the glow of common sense. It's a debate that should be joined by legal scholars, political centrists and others who believe slavery is this nation's original sin and a crime of massive proportions whose victims deserve recompense.

Few Americans appear to question Germany's ongoing payments to Israel or to the families of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. American slavery was a crime of Holocaust-like magnitude. After slavery's end, black Americans suffered another century under laws that denied them voting rights, education and employment opportunities. Many of America's South Africa-like laws were eradicated only within the past 40 years. Their residue is still apparent in substandard urban schools, a continuing lack of job opportunity and the ongoing portrayal, by the political right, of the black desire for parity as an extraordinary demand.

Moral obligation
For a crime of such immense proportions and enduring effect, reparations would seem to be a moral obligation, certainly, and perhaps within existing law. Most of the umbrella arguments against them, summarized in Mr. Horowitz's ad, ring hollow. Some say contemporary nonblack Americans should not shoulder responsibility for crimes committed by dead ancestors or predecessors. But Germans, of course, have recognized their responsibility for the crimes of their grandparents. Europe's Holocaust was more recent, comes the retort. So what, then, is the statute of limitations on criminal evil? Moreover, we enforce contracts and treaties as old as slavery, such as casino gambling on Indian tribal land, even if they seem to contravene contemporary mores.

The weakest argument is the claim that "people were different then" -- that slavery was accepted by Americans at the time, enshrined in the Constitution and thus was nothing more than an unfortunate historical artifact. But under that reasoning, other constitutional principles -- such as freedom of speech or habeas corpus -- might, too, one day be dismissed as historical curiosities rather than enduring values.

I'm gladdened by the Horowitz ad. To me, it is helping to spotlight the need for all Americans to recognize a crime -- and to debate the response.

Copyright March 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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