(from the archives - April 2001)
1. "Assuming there is actually a debt, it is not at all clear who owes it. "
Slavery constitutes several affronts to humanity. Let us first talk about theft. Slavery requires the theft of wages. The theif is the individual or organization directing and commanding the labor whom, in a free society, would be responsible for payment of those wages. Simple.
The government is also responsible for allowing such a system of theft to exist. It is a conspirator in this theft through the maintenance of laws which denied property ownership to the slave or even the standing to defend his claims in court.
There is also an industry responsible for this theft. Just as the fortunes of American high tech depend on the exploitation of the technologies in microchips, the fortunes of American agriculture depended on the exploitation of the slave. Just as the fortunes of American high tech's new economy drives and effects the national and international economy, so did the fortunes of America's slave economy.
"It was not whites but black Africans who first enslaved their brothers and sisters."
So it was. A supply of African slaves was created due to the demand of the American appetite for slaves. There was not some great surplus inventory of slaves in Africa held by African slave traders just waiting for buyers. There were no African sales representatives running offices in Charleston, New Orleans and Savanna trying to drum up business. In fact, the unique nature of American chattel slavery (in which slaves are bred to produce more slaves) was a response to the fact that Africa was unable to export enough slaves who could survive the deadly conditions of the Middle Passage.
"There were also 3,000 black slave owners in the antebellum United States. Are reparations to be paid by their descendants too?"
A simple principle to follow is this: If you descended from slaves, you get reparations. If you did not, you don't. We could add a dizzying array of moral qualifications on that, but it complicates something that can be kept simple and obscures the fact of the original theft.
Reparations will represent an effort to collect on a debt, only a fraction of which can be expected to be recovered. Each part of the industry of slavery has some margin of responsibility. Each part will have some ability to pay. All these are calculations which can be assessed.
2. "The idea that only whites benefited from slavery is factually wrong and attitudinally racist."
"If slave labor created wealth for all Americans, then obviously it created wealth for black Americans as well, including the descendants of slaves. Free blacks in the antebellum United States surely benefited from the free labor of slaves, along with whites. Are they to be exempted from payment of the debt just because they are black?"
America benefitted from slavery through the profits of the slave industry and supporting industries. Just as there are some blacks today who do benefit from profits in the stock market, certainly there had to be some then who were clever enough to profit from the theft of labor.
"The GNP of black America is so large that it makes the African-American community the 10th most prosperous "nation" in the world. To translate this into individual realities, American blacks on average enjoy per capita incomes in the range of 20 to 50 times those of blacks living in any of the African nations from which they were kidnapped."
Their tax dollars will contribute a significant amount to any payment recieved from the Federal Government and/or the States.
3. "In terms of lineal responsibility for slavery, only a tiny minority of Americans ever owned slaves. This is true even for those who lived in the antebellum South, where only one white in five was a slaveholder. Why should the descendants of non-slaveholding whites owe a debt? What about the descendants of the 350,000 Union soldiers who died to free the slaves? They gave their lives. What possible morality would ask them to pay (through their descendants) again?"
Again? The matter of reparations has not been tried by the Supreme Court or decided with any finality. The case by Ogletree and company has not even been made, much less heard by the American government and people. If indeed it had every American would be able to point to *the* reparations case as readily as they point to Roe v. Wade or Brown v. Board of Education.
We would appeal, having finally made the case to America, to the same morality we ask of all citizens to pay taxes despite the fact that they may disagree with government policy. In general, we can call it patriotism. The truest America abhors slavery and owns up to its responsibility. The truest Americans will support that principle. Beyond that, there is a case to be made on the world stage. Humanity responds to appeals for justice.
4. "Most Americans living today (white and otherwise) are the descendants of post-Civil War immigrants, who have no lineal connection to slavery at all. The two great waves of American immigration occurred after 1880 and after 1960. Is there an argument worth considering that would, for example, make Jews (who were cowering in the ghettos of Europe at the time) or Mexicans and Cubans (who were suffering under the heel of Spain) responsible for this crime? What reason could there be that Vietnamese boat people, Russian refuseniks, Iranian refugees, Armenian victims of the Turks or Greek, Polish, Hungarian and Korean victims of communism should pay reparations to American blacks? "
Most Americans living today are American citizens. Anyone who accepts American citizenship inherits America's fight for freedom. We don't ask new immigrants to rewrite the Bill of Rights, nor do we require them to re-fight the War of 1812. Yet they are beneficiaries of that history. New immigrants also inherit the bad with the good. They inherit all the responsibilities of every American citizen no matter how long they have been here, no matter where they came from or why, without regard to their race, creed, color, religion, gender, sexual preference or other distinction.
5. "The historical precedents generally invoked to justify the reparations claim-that Jews and Japanese-Americans received reparations from Germany and the United States, respectively-are spurious. The circumstances involved bear no resemblance to the situation of American blacks, and are not really precedents at all. The Jews and Japanese who received reparations were individuals who actually suffered the hurt."
Either you believe in inheritance or you don't. If you choose not to, that doesn't absolve you from the fiscal responsibility inherent in estates. Kin can inherit wealth or debt from their forebears. Money laundering itself is a crime. The original theft of labor and the conspiracy to deny property rights from African Americans has never been resolved to the satisfaction of the plaintiffs.
America may owe blacks a great number of things that will not and cannot be corrected or even addressed by reparations suit. Respect is certainly one of them. It is true that one cannot compare internment with genocide with slavery. And so one cannot judge the merits of one case only by looking at the procedures carried out in the resolution of another. However, where there are similarities and the laws and principles are applicable, then they should be applied in proper consideration of precedents.
6. "Behind the reparations arguments lies the unfounded claim that all blacks in America suffer economically from the consequences of slavery and discrimination. It would seem a hard case to prove over a 150-year (or even 50-year) gap, and the only evidence really offered by the claimants is the existence of contemporary "income disparities" and "inequalities" between the races. No actual connection (as far as they're concerned) need be made. On the other hand, African-American success stories that contradict the conclusion are abruptly dismissed."
If we pursue the simplest qualification for a beneficiary class - "The descendents of slaves should get reparations, others should not" - then this question has no standing. If, on the other hand, we decide to divide the beneficiary class into segments then it stands to reason that the plaintiffs themselves should organize that matter.
Aside from that, there is overwhelming evidence that unlike any other ethnic minority, the significant majority of African Americans live in geographically segregated areas. Institutional racism can be described in terms of 'redlined' black neighborhoods all across the country. These neighborhoods, without question, are economically and otherwise disadvantaged. One could easily allocate reparations on the basis of geographic isolation in the major cities of America and cover an average of 73% of blacks in the North and 76% of blacks in the South.
7. "The renewed sense of grievance-which is what the claim for reparations will inevitably create-is neither a constructive nor a helpful message for black leaders to be sending to their communities. Virtually every group that has sought refuge in America has grievances to remember. For millions of recent immigrants the suffering is only years behind them, and can be as serious as ethnic cleansing or genocide."
Whatever messages so-called 'black leaders' send to their constituency is a matter of free speech. Whatever claims recent immigrants have in their home countries is not the subject of debate, but it is preposterous to suggest that they would not recognize the impulse of African Americans to have their grievances addressed.
"How are these people going to receive the payment claims from African-Americans whose comparable suffering lies in the distant past? Won't they see this demand as just another claim for special treatment, for a rather extravagant new handout that is only necessary because some blacks can't seem to locate the ladder of opportunity within reach of others, many of whom are even less privileged than they are?"
Only if they buy this partisan argument.
"To focus the social passions of African-Americans on what some Americans did to their ancestors 50 or 150 years ago is to burden this community with a crippling sense of victimhood. It is also to create a new source of conflict with other communities."
If conflict exists, it is because resolution has not taken place. Avoidance of conflict is denial of the possibility for justice.
8. "This raises a point that has previously remained off the radar screen, but will surely be part of the debate to come: What about the "reparations" to blacks that have already been paid? Since the passage of the Civil Rights Acts and the advent of the Great Society in 1965, trillions of dollars in transfer payments have been made to African-Americans, in the form of welfare benefits and racial preferences (in contracts, job placements and educational admissions) -- all under the rationale of redressing historical racial grievances."
One can glibly misstate the merits of the Civil Rights Acts and of the Great Society, but I would challenge anyone to find language in any of that legislation which refers specifically to repayment and compensation for slavery's theft of labor.
9. And this raises another question that black leaders might do well to reflect on: What about the debt blacks owe to America-to white Americans-for liberating them from slavery?
This is a simple-minded question with an obvious answer. African Americans owe their allegiance to the American struggle for freedom. In short, they should remain in and of this nation and continue the never ending fight to make it live up to its promise. In general, we can call it patriotism. The truest America abhors slavery and owns up to its responsibility. The truest Americans will support that principle.
10. The final and summary reason for rejecting any reparations claim is recognition of the enormous privileges black Americans enjoy as Americans, and therefore of their own stake in America's history, slavery and all.
Black Americans also have the privilege, and responsibility to reject drivel, and pursue the best interests of American freedom. Repairing the theft of African American labor, and removing the stain of government conspiracy to systematically and continually deny property rights to its own people is our collective duty to this nation and those principles upon which it was founded which enjoy worldwide recognition today.