• Thomas Jones

Talking About Reparations


America is in the early stages of debate regarding appropriate redress for the sins of slavery. Some commentators propose a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" to establish a public record of harms done, benefits gained, identities of victims, and identities of beneficiaries. They argue that healing begins with truth, and America will never heal if we evade historical truth. Other commentators propose payment of financial reparations to the descendants of slaves. They argue that the historical harm done to slaves in America was so egregious as to warrant atonement through financial and social policy redress, akin to reparations paid by Germany for the Nazi holocaust inflicted on Jews. Other commentators say that no living Americans are responsible for the harms inflicted by slavery, so no living Americans should be burdened with the financial and psychological costs of reparations. How should we navigate this debate?

A simple moral analogy may be useful. If my father stole something of value from your father and both fathers deceased before the theft was acknowledged, but I become aware of the theft, do I have a moral obligation to address it? Am I morally responsible to address the sins of my father? Am I a beneficiary of the sins of my father? Does this analogy weaken if extended to great-great grandfathers rather than fathers?

The value of one's own labor is the primary "wealth producing asset"owned by most of humankind throughout history. This labor value was expropriated from slaves in America and compensated with subsistence wages in the form of minimal food, clothing, and shelter. The beneficiaries were the slave owners, as well as the broader American economy through more rapid capital accumulation and reinvestment of excess profits from cheap slave labor. This system drove America's "economic miracle" from the mid-1700's to the mid-1800's, and laid the foundation for America's emergence as the dominant world economy in the twentieth century. The sins of American slavery were compounded by the failure to pay compensation to slaves when they were emancipated. Union General William Sherman's post-Civil War order to grant each freed slave family "forty acres and a mule", to be paid in part by redistributing land from confiscated slave plantations in the Confederate states, was reversed by President Andrew Johnson after President Lincoln's assassination. As a result, most slaves commenced their freedom with no material possessions other than the rags in which they were dressed.

But it's complicated to assign moral or financial responsibility for the historic depredations suffered by African Americans, or to determine who are the appropriate beneficiaries of any such historic accounting. For example, white Union soldiers and Abolitionists fought to end slavery and several hundred thousand white Union soldiers died in the Civil War; and many white Americans were active supporters of the black civil rights movement from the early 1900's to the breakthroughs in the 1960's; so arguably these people and their descendants should be absolved of blame. It's also true that many black people in America today are immigrants, not descendants of slaves, and poor historical records make it difficult to trace lineage definitively. Also, many American citizens today are Latinos and Asian Americans who themselves have been victims of racism, and who generally played little role in historic injustices against African Americans. Also, new immigrants to America since the 1960's, when racial equality was enshrined in US law, should be absolved of any responsibility for historic racism and discrimination.

America is not like Nazi Germany where few citizens resisted the anti-Jewish holocaust, anti-Semitic laws and actions were policies of the German government, and it was relatively easy to identify both perpetrators and victims in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Similarly, the U.S. legislation in 1988 to pay $20,000 to each living Japanese former internee in America's World War II internment camps worked from clear historic documentation identifying the victims, the internment camps were US government policy, and reparations payments were restricted to internees still living and were not payable to descendants of deceased internees. This line of reasoning results in a relatively narrow slice of white America deemed morally and financially culpable for slavery, and a small pool of potential recipients of reparations payments. But some may argue that this definition is too narrow because all white Americans benefitted from "white privilege" in the systemic racism and discrimination which subordinated and diminished African Americans. They would say institutional racism in business and the arts, and discriminatory government policies, enabled whites of every generation to benefit from superior access relative to blacks regarding education, employment, housing, government benefits, and other economic resources.

My conclusion is that it's probably impossible to untangle the complexities of identifying perpetrators and victims of slavery 150 years after the end of the Civil War, and the effort is probably not worth the racial animosity and vitriol which likely would accompany it. But since educational and housing discrimination are two of the primary reasons for the racial wealth gap in America, I support education and housing grants to all low-income families as a promising path to ameliorating black economic deprivation without sparking racial division by excluding other families situated similarly. I also support a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to establish an official national historic record of slavery in America. That is the least we can do to respect and acknowledge those who lost their lives to slavery. Their lives matter.

What do you think?

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