Among many tell-tale signs of the tectonic fissures dividing the nation, perhaps the most telling is the call by prominent Democrats and others for reparations. A recent proposal by California governor Gavin Newsom calling for reparation payments of a potential $223,200 per black resident pushes the matter once again to the fore.
Reparations refers to a compensatory payment made to the descendants of African slaves brought to America through the Atlantic slave trade. It is unworkable but speaks loudly of the state of our politics and culture.
Proponents of reparations argue passionately of the stain of slavery, the long, dark shadow cast by this cruel institution across the American soul. They say this great evil, the original sin of slavery, has cursed the nation at its inception, at the founding, and in our founding documents. The country is thus irredeemably marred and defective, and the blot of that dark inheritance is fixed in our moral DNA. Reparation proponents claim this insidious legacy lives on in America, in the systemic racism that pervades the nation and the disparate outcomes of blacks and whites in all sectors of society today.
But there are counterarguments. We begin with the obvious. Slavery ended in America 150 years ago by something known as the Civil War, and roughly 750,000 soldiers died in that cataclysm, a great and bloody cleansing of the nation over that mortal sin. Furthermore, slavery is illegal today in America, and sons and daughters are not responsible for the sins of their parents—let alone distant ancestors of more than a century ago.
At America’s inception, many of the Founding Fathers and newly formed states deeply opposed slavery. But some Southern states demanded that the slave trade be protected. To obtain broad support to ratify the Constitution, the framers made concessions to pro-slavery factions. Had they attempted to eliminate slavery at the time, a political impossibility, there would have been no nation or Constitution. The Founders were painfully aware that the existence of slavery clashed with the belief that “all men are created equal,” but they also understood that they could not resolve the terrible inconsistency at the time. They had planted the seeds for ending slavery in the founding documents and the principles of the American Revolution, and they established states and a central government robust enough to ultimately eradicate the institution in a later generation.
There are other complexities to the matter of reparations as well. There were over 3,000 free black slaveholders who owned some 20,000 slaves. American Indians were also slaveholders and held them even after the end of the Civil War. Most Americans, even in the antebellum South, did not own slaves.
Black Africans, too, enslaved other black Africans and sold them. The Atlantic slave trade began here. Without this, there likely would have been no slaves brought to America or the Americas. Perhaps, sub-Saharan Africa should pay reparations.
Additionally, bondage in North America was a small percentage of slavery in the Americas. In total, about 12.5 million African slaves were brought to the Americas through the Atlantic slave trade. Over 95 percent of the 10.7 million who survived the journey went to South and Central America and the Caribbean while less than 5 percent went directly to North America. Would reparations account for this other over 95 percent as well, and if so, how?
Most Americans today, including black Americans who came later, have no relationship to slavery in America as they or their ancestors came after the Civil War (with the two great waves of immigration that began in the late 1800s and 1900s). It would be improper to link them to slavery in this country.
Further, the reparations claim is not based on specific injury (such as Jewish victims of the Holocaust or Japanese American victims of “internment” under FDR) but on race. It perpetrates a new injustice against those who committed no crime for the benefit of those who are not victims.
There is also little evidence that individuals living today are disadvantaged by a slave system that ended 150 years ago. There are many successful black people in America today, including black entrepreneurs, black millionaires, black billionaires, and a black president, among many black success stories.
Furthermore, poverty rates for black Americans were shrinking in the decades preceding the expansion of the liberal welfare state in the ’60s. Black Americans were coming out of poverty and entering the middle class despite actual institutionalized racism at the time. Most black children then were raised in two-parent families.
That earlier progress halted and retreated dramatically with the onset of the federal welfare system and its associated social and cultural pathologies. These policies and behavioral factors explain racial disparities today far more than “systemic racism” or the “legacy of slavery.” Plus, many Americans are mixed race, with complex ancestries that would be challenging to sort out for reparations claims.
Since the ’60s, there have been trillions of dollars in wealth transfers to black Americans through welfare payments and preferential treatment based on race (affirmative action). Additionally, western, Christian nations ended slavery, beginning with Great Britain in 1833.
Still, slavery persists today. In fact, there are more slaves worldwide now than during the peak of the Atlantic slave trade with some 40 million people working in forced labor, being trafficked, or otherwise owned, exploited, or enslaved today.
Yet those clamoring for reparations, so concerned with American slavery that ended over 150 years ago, have little to say about slavery today.
No, reparations are not likely to bind the nation’s racial wounds, rather it will rip them apart. But perhaps that is the point. Peddling race in this way has been a major growth industry in America, and many who traffic in racism have benefitted from it. But they have also done great damage to black Americans, race relations, and the nation as a whole.
Image credit: Flickr-Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.014 comments