What About Reparations?

As the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign begins to take form, one of the issues we hear of increasingly is the need for the U.S. government to pay black people currently in the U.S. money in consideration of the slavery endured by their (possible) ancestors here in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The wrong was slavery; the wronged were negro race people forced into that role by slave traders, and the villain was the country in which that wrong took place.

It would belittle the topic of slavery to recite how unjust it was. Female slaves were particularly susceptible to rape by their male overlords. Education was withheld. Male slaves were emasculated by right of their position and role as less than human. The question is not was there a wrong done to negro slaves. It is self-evident to any who would bother to review some of the history of their plight. There was, in fact, injustice done.

The question we have to wrestle with is: “Is paying current members of the race that was treated unjustly 200 years ago justice?”

I’m no lawyer, but it is quite plain that those guilty of perpetrating this injustice are long gone, and unavailable to receive any justice or resulting punishment stemming from their crimes. The defendant is long dead.

“Oh but”, you might say, “the country that enabled the injustice is still here.” You might point out that the country is culpable due to its condoning, for around 100 of those 200 years, the practice of slaveholding to carry on.

Slavery began to be practiced in what would become the U.S. in 1500s. The 1600s saw it flourish as agricultural development in the South created a big demand for workers. Various states where it was practiced enacted laws governing the keeping, selling and freeing of slaves in this period.

In the 1700s resistance to the practice surfaced in various people and groups, from the Quakers to Underground Railway conductors, committed to the safe passage of their “clients” into slavery-free areas, like the Northwest Territory. The significant event of the 1700s to notice is that the U.S., the one held culpable for the injustice and the one on trial, was created.

The 1800s were fraught with conflict over slavery. Luminaries from Douglass to Tubman to John Brown struggled against the practice and were resisted fiercely by those committed to it. Riots and acrimony were commonplace.

And then Lincoln was elected. And we fought a Civil War to end it. And some 750,000 Americans died, nearly 14 times the number that died in Vietnam, and just shy of the million that died in WWII. Then followed the Emancipation Proclamation – the proclamation of the end of slavery nationally, and the Thirteenth Amendment to our Constitution banning the practice in 1865.

So where does that leave those expecting the U.S. to pay them for its sins of the past? Well, first, the U.S. as an entity didn’t even exist for the first 200 years of the practice, the period during which it became entrenched. It did exist for the nearly 100 years between its inception and the end of slavery, enforced by the action of the U.S. government against the states imposing it, through the loss of 750,000. So it seems some consideration needs to be given to the U.S. here.

Perhaps those seeking reparations should simply go after the individual states that would become the U.S. Of course, you’d have to exclude Florida, as they were an avowed refuge for slaves throughout the entire period. And very early on Vermont passed legislation outlawing the practice, and consistently Pennsylvania (perhaps as a result of its Quaker influence) was a persistent voice against slavery and for abolition.

Also, you’d have to exclude all the states that were then not even states nor part of the United States but that in any event never condoned nor supported the practice of slavery – essentially everything west of the Mississippi, as well as the upper Midwest.

So what they might most practically do is simply sue the states of the Confederacy. They’re the low hanging fruit in terms of commitment to slavery, and persistence in its practice, which eventually led to the war. That’s a legitimate possibility, assuming you have some provable case that you, specifically, have been injured and, as a result, are owed money by these defendants. Seems like a long shot.

But the U.S.? The country that gave its own blood and treasure to end the practice and give all of its people freedom? You want it to pay you? For what, exactly? For the roughly hundred years some of its member states carried out the practice? Or for the four years it sent its men to die wholesale to end it?

But before you answer that, you need to answer this: who’s going to get paid, how much, and why? How do you decide? In other words, what is the basis of your claim? Do you contend that there are some today, four generations removed from the event, the great, great, great grandchildren of potential slaves, that are actually suffering some injury inherited from their distant ancestor’s suffering? How does that work? What injury have they inherited? How do you establish the harm that has been inflicted so that the common man hearing your case can understand and appreciate your claim?

If you can formulate a coherent statement of how injury will be documented and shown to be valid, either for a class or applicable to qualifying individuals, your countrymen are willing to hear it and compassionately respond if they accept your claims.

However, if you’re just looking to grandstand for your own self-aggrandizement or the benefit of your grievance industry; if you have no valid, rational case that you can present; if you are simply pandering to “white guilt” and trying to profit from it, then we won’t expect to hear you make such a case. We’ll simply to expect to hear more soundbites, more emotionally-charged appeals to guilt, that do nothing to explain your grievance but everything to build up political capital with your base.

Forgive me if I remain a little skeptical, both of your ability to present a rational claim, but more importantly, your motives.