Reconcile & Repair–Natives, Braceros & Plutocrats

Picking up from last Tuesday:  For Native Americans, it’s been complicated—no real apology yet, but their side’s leverage is improving.


Native Americans

It’s beyond argument, of course, that this continent’s original owners—a Euro-centered, possession-oriented classification they rejected spiritually—have been done wrong.  In early 2000, GQ magazine published the “75 funniest jokes of all time.”  Number 60, from a comic named Jon Stewart:

I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way.  I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.

Folks my age have been disabused by education and, sometimes, experience of the early lessons to the contrary we learned from Randolph Scott, John Wayne and—yes—Ronald Reagan.  I’ve already written about how much fun it was to watch the Congress get twisted into a knot when the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot People found that their latter-day tribal recognition rendered their 1790-1830 land-transfer treaties—60% of the State of Maine—null and void.  They bypassed the Feds, went straight to court, and found some success.  After a decade of wrangling and expanded negotiations ordained and supervised by President Carter, they settled for and the Congress approved settled for a total of $81.5 million in compensation and buy-back rights.  (While staffing a Montana Senator who was filling out an unexpired term in the late 70s, our office heard complaints from more than one oil or coal company representative who came out of tribal lease negotiations without his trousers, because he didn’t realize at the time that counsel Sammy Two Bears was a Harvard law graduate.)

That situation represented a blend of two of the three general types of reparations that Native Americans have negotiated from the federal government, from oldest to newest:

  • Cash payments, through the operation of the Indian Claims Commission and the U.S. Court of Claims.
  • Land, through an occasional action of Congress to return control over land to particular tribes.
  • Tribal recognition, by either Congress or the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The first has proved least satisfactory, measured by long-term impact on Indian communities. Excluding comprehensive recognition and the right to buy back 300,000 acres at fair market value, the Maine tribes settled the remainder for $6.68 per acre.  That ain’t $24 in beads for Manhattan, but it ain’t Trump Tower, neither.  The federal government paid $5 million in 1975 for lands worth $5 million in 1865 and, in 1978, the Supreme Court developed a distinction between aboriginal title and recognized title; interest could not be earned on awards based on aboriginal title.

The second, by itself, has been better but rare.  The Taos Pueblo, for example, acquired U.S. Forest Service land.  The Hopi received land, but Navajos were removed.  Maine’s palefaces had a scare, but thus far no tribe has received land that required White people to leave their homes.  Last May, the London Guardian reported that a visiting United Nations investigator

…probing discrimination against Native Americans has called on the US government to return some of the land stolen from Indian tribes as a step toward combatting continuing and systemic racial discrimination.

James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, said no member of the US Congress would meet him as he investigated the part played by the government in the considerable difficulties faced by Indian tribes.

Howling in response (see “Comments”) from these shores was predictable, but you can only imagine the self-indulgent snickering in that newsroom when our patriarchial allies put that story to bed.

It’s been asserted that the last method—recognition of tribal sovereignty and the implementation of self-government—has achieved the most significant results, because economic development has tended to follow assertion of governing powers.  Casinos and resorts are the most familiar representations; whether they’ll succeed in the long term is an open question.  Some self-governing tribes have forged other alliances for development, but most are not yet empowered enough to build solid economies.

So—in this case there would be less “why” and more “how,” especially since our State Department dropped its opposition to U.N. recognition of the rights of “indigenous peoples” two years ago.  Still, it wouldn’t hurt to sanction a refresher course for those of us who know more about Lady Gaga than Geronimo.


Starting in 1942 and until 1964, between 200,000 and 300,000 Mexican guest workers—Braceros (from brazos, meaning “arms”)—were admitted to supplant our host farm labor population, decimated by World War II enlistments.  Throughout that period, as many as 2,500,000 were admitted under the program.  These workers had 10 percent of their wages withheld by our government, with the stated expectation of getting it back.  That money was transferred to the Mexican government for return to those individuals.  It wasn’t.  Many Braceros alleged they were never paid, nor always aware of the deductions and their entitlement to them.

Serious pursuit of reparations began with a class action filed in California against Mexico, the United States and Wells Fargo Bank  in 2001.  The Mexican government acknowledged that some $32 million the United States took from laborers had been deposited into Mexican banks.  Without admitting liability, in 2005 Mexico established a reparations program to pay about $3,500 in compensation for Braceros, but required them to return to register; ultimately, only 49,000 of the 212,000 applications received could provide the required documentation.  Dismissals of actions and defendants , including the U.S. and Wells Fargo, followed by demonstrations against the Mexican government by elderly Braceros and their heirs, led to an eventual settlement of the class action suit in late 2008.  Under the agreement, each bracero or heir was entitled to a one-time, $3,500 award, regardless of present residence.  Compensation for many has been problematic, due to age, infirmity, or conflicting or nonexistent documentation.

Like other precedents, this process required litigation to produce settlements.  It is of value because it is the most recent and shortest concluded.


Every year since 1989, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI)—my boss on the Subcommittee on Crime from 1974-78—has introduced H.R. 40 (emblematic of the promised “40 Acres & A Mule” that freed slaves never received), which would establish a Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.  “Acknowledg[ing] the fundamental injustice and inhumanity of slavery,” the bill would authorize the Commission to:

  • Study slavery, its subsequent racial and economic discrimination against freed slaves;
  • Study the impact of those forces on today’s living African Americans; and
  • Make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies to redress the harm inflicted on living African Americans.

He remains resolute, but in a quarter-century he’s gotten no farther than growing support among aggrieved descendants and a mention in last year’s Democratic Party Platform.  (A Concurrent Resolution, H. Con. Res. 96, that apologized for slavery introduced in 1997 languished in the 105th Congress.  On July 29, 2008, the Democratically-controlled House passed H. Res. 194, also containing an apology, by voice vote with 120 cosponsors.)

What are we afraid of?

Surely, the fear of liability for reparations among the advantaged informs the resistance to apology or even study.  The moral claim is absolute, and the issues of damages and remedies are thorny and will be contentious—as they have been among supporters.


My theory?  The largest obstacle to even the exercise of study—and, therefore, admission, followed by apology and accounting—is ignorance about slavery, which I think cannot justly be laid only on those who are under-educated.  Who cried out loudest during last year’s Presidential campaign about “entitlement” and “class warfare” when confronted with undeniable evidence of race, gender, and economic inequality?  The most privileged and educated—the One Percent!  (Well, okay—their minions.)  How is that possible?  In her book, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, Chrystia Freeland portrays in some depth the masters of the new Gilded Age.  Unlike their forbears, who at least had a mine or factory floor to visit, their isolation creates and reinforces in them the notion they are creatures of their own devising—truly self-made.  How else to explain adopting Atlas Shrugged as a belief system and canonizing Ayn Rand as a prophet?  (At least she really got chased by a proletariat.)  Any breach by reality to the contrary by, say, the duly elected, genuinely hurts their feelings.

Since history, philosophy, and the humanities seem to have been untouched electives in the relentless pursuit of those M.B.A.s, a broad institutional inquiry might force some practical economic lessons on them to our mutual benefit.  Here’s a decent course description:

White Americans must be taught to view racism for what it is: a tremendously wasteful set of practices, legitimized by ancient myths, that deprive its victims, its perpetrators, and U. S. society as a whole of much valuable human talent and energy and many social, economic, and political resources.  Feagin & Vera, “Reparations for Catastrophic Human Waste,” Poverty & Race, Vol. 3, No. 5 (Sept./Oct. 1994), pp. 4-5.


  1. Elizabeth Varadan

    Good article, Tim. Thought provoking. In the strides that have been made in recent decades, the public forgets the toll that earlier decades took and how much remains to be done.

    1. E.G. Fabricant

      Mitty, I just love it when a discerning reader gets the point AND agrees with me! (Seriously – thanks.)

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