Reparations of Slavery
Review of Pro-Reparations Literature
Rebuttal of the Reparations Arguments
One issue that has come to the surface in recent discussions of race in America is the issue of Slavery Reparations. This is essentially the idea that modern descendents of American slaves should receive some form of financial reparations for the oppression and other hardships endured by their ancestors. One notable advocate of this scheme is Randall Robinson, as quoted in Watts-Jones (2004). He claims economic reparations to the descendents of slaves are a necessary as well as morally correct thing since so much of the United States’ wealth in prior centuries was derived from the uncompensated labor of slaves.
Review of Pro-Reparations Literature
Adebajo (2004) describes the conditions that have led to modern African-Americans affinity for the reparations argument. Unlike modern European-Americans, who may feel no particular affinity toward Europe (nor to each other), modern African-Americans do have feelings of affinity for Africa, other African-Americans, and issues affecting both.
Four centuries of a sordid trade in human cargo of Africans by American slave masters was followed by a century of colonial enslavement of Africa by European imperialists. These defining historical events have shaped the relationship of African-Americans and Africans with the West, and no serious examination of U.S. policy toward Africa can avoid focusing on the blighted legacy of slavery and colonialism, both of which created a bond between African-Americans and their ancestral home, resulting in their efforts to influence U.S. policy toward Africa.”
Here we see the underpinnings for the origin of the reparations movement.
As quoted in Watts Jones (2004), Russell Robinson, author of the Debt: What America Owes Blacks, states that much of the current wealth of the United States is traceable to the labor of slaves and that “economic reparations are a necessary component of the recovery from slavery and its aftermath.” Martha Biondi (2003) echoes this view though articulates it in more Marxist terms, and blithely suggests that opponents to the idea of reparations are racist themselves, though of a kind that is not explicit but symbolic; also addressed by Andrews (2003).
Judith Harman (also quoted in Watts-Jones (2004) goes on to declare that modern African-Americans suffer from post-traumatic slavery disorder, and that reparations may be the necessary treatment.
Martha Biondi (2003) celebrates the fact that recent pressure by African and Asian lobbyists seems to be forcing “the West to confront its own history” regarding slavery. She lists stages and influential individuals in the development of the reparations movement, basically claiming that there has always been one, but that it lacked the momentum necessary to gain national attention and serious debate until fairly recently.
She cites recent government movements toward a kind of reparation, for instance in 1988 to Japanese-Americans interred during World War II, in 1994 to survivors of the 1923 Rosewood massacre. However, she also notes that in these two cases, the people who were actually wronged are still alive to be compensated for the injustices they suffered. This is not the case regarding slavery; the last American slave was Charlie Smith, who died in 1979 (Library of Congress, 2005).
She goes on to claim that since discrimination has persisted, at least privately, against African-Americans, reparations payments should be extended to African-Americans for these injustices as well. Her claims for government-sponsored discrimination against African-Americans (that social security initially excluded the occupations of agricultural workers and domestic service because these were the occupations that most African-Americans held) are conspicuously unsubstantiated, and may only be her opinion.
She is right about one thing, however. Like Robinson has said (quoted in Watts-Jones 2004), much of the economic wealth accumulated in the United States prior to the abolition of slavery was made possible precisely because of slavery. If modern corporations could be traced back to the period in question, and shown to have prospered at the expense of slaves, then a case could be made that the corporations themselves ought to make some kind of reparations, since corporations exist in perpetuity.
This is a bit dangerous, however. If we force modern corporations to pay for their sins, we’re really forcing consumers (many of them African-American) to pay for them; no company is just going to soak up such a cost if it can pass some of it on to consumers. If we drive New York Life or Aetna into bankruptcy because these companies or their ancestors prospered from the slave trade, what happens to all the African-American employees of these firms? It may be counter-productive to bite the open hand that feeds us today just because it was a fist in previous generations.
Jeffries (2004) claims that since slaves in Texas were not freed until nearly two years after Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, they are “entitled to reparations comparable to two and a half years unpaid backbreaking labor.”
What the author has failed to realize is that since the Confederacy was an independent country at the time Lincoln signed the proclamation, the proclamation had as much legal import there as if it had been designed to liberate the Russian serfs. Today we would laugh if the Japanese parliament passed a law it to be enforced in Argentina. This is exactly what Lincoln signed.
Further, even if we admit that modern descendents of slaves deserve reparations, the Emancipation Proclamation is not a good starting point to measure “back wages owed” because slavery was not actually made a crime until June 19th, 1865. It seems paradoxical to seek to punish the descendents of people for crimes that were not legally crimes when they were committed, or to seek to compensate the descendents of their victims.
Another reason why the Emancipation Proclamation is a bad starting place is because it only freed the slaves in the Confederate States, and not those slaves residing in the border states of Delaware, Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland. It is not hard to see why Lincoln failed to free slaves in these states, especially in the case of Maryland – the federal capital Washington, DC straddles the border between Virginia and Maryland. The author never suggests that descendents of slaves living in those states be compensated as well, but if we are allowing sympathy to sway reason, we should be even more willing to make reparations to their descendents because even the government that was, ostensibly, in favor of their liberation failed to officially do so until after the cessation of hostilities.
These kinds of mistakes on Jeffries’ part only contribute to readers’ incredulity for his claims.
Forde-Mazrui (2004) argues in favor of reparations, but concludes that the problem is that both camps are incapable of taking each others’ arguments seriously, and that if they began to do so, the problem would be resolved. For instance, opponents to reparations have sometimes said that expecting modern Americans to pay for past injustices to dead African-Americans is like making modern America make amends for whites who have suffered injustice because of reverse discrimination. Because of this, says Forde-Mazrui, conservatives are opposed to the notion of reparations, while advocates of reparations see this point-of-view as hysterical. What Forde-Mazrui suggests is to accept these terms as legitimate and extend reparations to those victims of reverse discrimination. The rest of Forde-Mazrui’s paper is devoted to making this case. Basically, if we admit that whites who have suffered reverse discrimination should be compensated for this injustice, then we must compensate descendents of slaves for the injustices suffered by their ancestors. The logical problem with this, and about which Forde-Mazrui is quite silent, is that the whites in question are being subjected to reverse discrimination in the here and now, and not hundreds of years ago.
In any event, the movement toward reparations seems to be growing (Yamamoto, et al., 2003). According to Dubinsky (2004) African-Americans are encouraged by the Holocaust slave labor settlement and Armenians take heart from the Holocaust insurance and banking litigation.
Rebuttal of the Reparations Arguments
The fundamental flaws in all arguments in favor of reparations are these.
First, the people who actually endured slavery have all succumbed to the passage of time; the last former American slave died in 1979 (Library of Congress, 2005). The time for a disbursement of money in the form of reparations is long gone when the last victim of slavery itself has passed away. There are many people still living who have met or known former slaves, just as there are many people alive today who remember aged Confederate and Union soldiers participating in holiday parades in the early part of the 20th century. But it has literally been decades since the last member of that generation passed away, and having passed away, the dead have no rights (Baets, 2004).
If not one person is alive today who ever had to endure life as a slave, then who should receive the economic reparations for their suffering and lost years? If we are going to say that the descendents of slaves deserve compensation for the suffering of their ancestors, then we set foot into realms where angels fear to tread.
There are approximately 60 million Americans of Irish descent, and most of their ancestors arrived in America as refugees from an Ireland colonized and exploited in the harshest ways by the then-contemporary government of Britain. Should Americans of Irish descent (or Irish people still living in Ireland for that matter) demand reparations for the hardships suffered by their ancestors at the hands of colonial British “masters?”
Irish immigrants to the United States during the 1800s faced apartheid-like discrimination by the majority groups at the time – mostly people of English and German descent. An oft-observed sign at factories and construction sites was “Help Wanted – Irish Need Not Apply.” Should modern Irish-Americans demand reparations for the discrimination suffered by their immigrant ancestors upon arrival here?
Should Armenians demand reparations for the suffering of their ancestors at the hands of the Ottoman Turks prior to the First World War? Should the descendents of Chinese and Filipinos killed by the occupying armies of Japan in the Second World War receive reparations for their ancestors’ suffering and murder? Japanese soldiers were recorded on film tossing Chinese babies into the air and catching them on their bayonets; surely there is a case that deserves some kind of “payback.”
How about reparations for Indians who suffered generations of oppression at the hands of the British, or reparations to descendents of Tibetans killed or oppressed by Maoist China? Should the United States seek reparations from the United Kingdom for all the indignities suffered by Colonial Americans prior to the American Revolution?
The point here is that if we go far enough back in history, we observe that every group has been exploited, enslaved, pillaged, or otherwise kept at some kind of disadvantage by other groups. If we are going to start saying that it is right and good that the descendents of one group of oppressed people deserve reparations for their ancestors’ oppression, then it must be right and good that the descendents of every oppressed group deserve the same. It becomes a slippery slope, and slippery slopes always lead downhill.
Similarly, if all of the people who actually endured these injustices have passed away, in most cases so have their oppressors. While there are still victims and perpetrators of atrocities alive from World War II, and in some cases these have received reparations – such as the case of Japanese-Americans interred during WWII – there are no more former American slave owners. The last person who directly benefited from the uncompensated labor of slaves is long-gone. So who should make the reparations – the descendents of slave owners?
There are four problems with such a suggestion. First, the notion that a descendent of a criminal should be held liable for his ancestor’s crimes seems almost medieval in the scope of its unjustness. It does not sound like a notion held by modern, democratic, civilized people, but by denizens of Homer’s Iliad or America’s Wild West, “…your daddy stole my daddy’s horse, so I’m takin’ yours…”
This notion is dangerous for other reasons. If it ever became broadly accepted as a fair principle, then what will future generations do to the descendents of perpetrators of violent crimes in this generation? African-American males represent significantly less than 10% of the population of the United States, yet account for over 70% of the violent crime here. According to Biondi (2003), 15% of the adult male African-American population consists of convicted felons.
If we permit reparations now because we are willing to believe that the descendents of criminals are economically liable to the descendents of their victims, it opens the door for future generations of white racists to argue that white Americans are entitled to economic compensation for the costs to society of criminal acts perpetrated by ancestors of their African-American fellows; not just for the direct costs in terms of lost property and human suffering, but in terms of money spent prosecuting, defending, and incarcerating so many criminals from this one group.
That is not a road we can travel and survive as a nation of free men and women.
Second, even if the notion that people are somehow liable for the crimes of their ancestors does not offend modern sensibilities as it should, there is the problem that not every American of European descent owned slaves during the time slavery was legal in the United States. The last United States census conducted before the outbreak of the American Civil War showed that 1.4% – 6% of whites owned slaves at that time, whereas up to 28% of free Southern African-Americans owned slaves (Perry, 2003; Koger, 1995). This makes it difficult to determine who exactly should do the paying.
Third, and even more confusing, is the fact that since so many of those Americans who did own slaves sexually exploited their female slaves (Thomas Jefferson is perhaps the most famous case of this), there are many people claiming to be of African descent today who are actually also of European descent. In other words, many of the people who believe they are entitled to receive reparation payments are just as entitled to make them. The line between exactly who should be paid and who should be paying is one that is vague, at best.
Fourth, many of the people who would be required to make payments if we implement an across-the-board tax toward reparations for slavery are themselves either immigrants or descended from immigrants who came to this country since the abolition of slavery. Should we expect these people to help pay for crimes none of their ancestors committed, or should we issue post 1865 immigrants and their descendents “reparations tax-exemption” cards?
Fifth, and most significantly, even if we assume that the descendents of those people who kept slaves are liable for the suffering of their ancestors’ victims, who is the worse criminal, the person who buys an enslaved person or the person who enslaves a free one? Just as most modern people would attribute the greater guilt to the pusher selling illicit drugs than to the addict who consumes them, so should they also attribute the greater guilt to the African governments who sold their own citizens (or citizens occupying coveted territory) into slavery than to the people who bought them. Yet there is no discussion in the reparations rhetoric about demanding economic compensation from any of the modern descendents of these African slavers. In point of fact, the slave trade in Africa continues to be a going concern.
Why are reparations advocates so quiet about the culpability of African slavers? Is it because the modern descendents of African slavers have too little money to make them attractive as targets, because they are too distant and under the protection of another national flag, or simply because they are not of European descent and therefore not suitable targets of modern African-Americans’ vitriol?
Had the slavers themselves been European instead of African, and were their descendents still living in African countries today, it is unlikely that reparations advocates would miss the opportunity to extend culpability for slaves’ suffering to the slavers’ descendents. The fact that reparations advocates have been conspicuously silent on this issue is very telling. Their silence reveals the foundation upon which the reparations movement is built for what it is; racism.
If we scour the historical record for examples of just how wretched human beings can be toward each other, there very few examples more telling than the story of slavery in the New World. How ironic that the idea of the New World should conjure up mental pictures of new opportunity, new freedom, and a fresh start for civilization, when in reality the history of slavery in the New World shows that it was one of the darkest periods of recent human history.
Reparation movements sometimes have their heart in the right place, though sometimes not. Were we to pass reparations legislation, we would be forcing the economic exploitation of one group (modern European-Americans) for the benefit of another (modern African-Americans); not a bad definition of slavery. Doing so would solve none of the problems facing the African-American population in the United States today, but would create new problems and inflame old ones. For these reasons, plus the bad logic upon which the pro-reparations argument is based, it is unlikely that reparations legislation will ever be seriously considered by Congress.
The long-term fate of European-Americans and African-Americans is intimately intertwined (all people’s fates are, according to Banatar, 2003). Some kind of solution is there that will permit both groups to unload the generations of emotional baggage they have been carrying and make progress toward a finer kind of civilization, but reparations is not it.
Adebajo, Adekeye (Spring, 2004) Africa, African-Americans, and the Avuncular Sam. Africa Today. 50(3). 92-110.
Andrews, Vernon L. (2003). Self-Reflection and the Reflected Self: African-American Double Consciousness and the Social (Psychological) Mirror. Journal of African-American Studies. 7(3). 59-79.
Baets, Antoon. (2004). A Declaration of the Responsibilities of Present Generations Toward Past Generations. History & Theory. 43(4). 130-164.
Benatar, Solomon R. (2003). Bioethics: Power and Injustice: IAB Presidential Address. Bioethics. 17(5-6). 387-399.
Biondi, Martha. (2003). The Rise of the Reparations Movement. Radical History Review. 87. 5-18.
Dubinsky, Paul R. (2004). Justice for the Collective: the Limits of the Human Rights Class Action. Michigan Law Review. 102(6). 1152-1190.
Forde-Mazrui, Kim. (2004). Taking Conservatives Seriously: a Moral Justification for Affirmative Action and Reparations. California Law Review. 92(3). 685-753.
Jeffries, Judson L. (2004). Juneteenth, Black Texans and the Case for Reparations. Negro Educational Review. 55(2/3). 107-115.
Koger, Larry. (1995). Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860. University of South Carolina Press.
Library of Congress (2005) “Voices From the Days of Slavery” http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/voices/vfssp.html#CharlieSmith.html
Perry, John C. (2003). Myths and Realities of American Slavery. White Mane Publishing Company.
Watts-Jones, Dee (2004). The Evidence of Things Seen and Not Seen: The Legacy of Race and Racism. Family Process. 43(4). 503-508.
Yamamoto, Eric K. Serrano, Susan K. And Michelle Natividad Rodriguez (2003). Reparations, Human Rights, and the War on Terror. Michigan Law Review, 101(5). 1269-1337.
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