Reparations for slavery is the idea that some form of compensatory payment needs to be made to the descendants of Africans who had been enslaved as part of the Atlantic slave trade. The most notable demands for reparations have been made in the United Kingdom and in the United States. Caribbean and African states from which slaves were taken have also made reparation demands. These reparations are speculative; that is, they have never been paid. They can be contrasted with compensated emancipation, the money paid by some governments to some slave owners when slavery was abolished, as compensation for the loss of the property.
Talks in the U.S. of reparations have ramped up the last few years. Groups like Black Lives Matter along with the NAACP and even members of the Congressional Black Caucus have begun to push for (at least) serious conversations about reparations. And with the 2020 presidential election just around the corner, several of the already declared 20 Democrat presidential candidates are beating the “reparations drum.”
Is it time to have serious discussions about reparations?
We at TruthNewsNetwork think it is a bit premature to do that. Why? Because hardly anyone has looked into the history of slavery, asked all of the important questions to be able to knowledgeably get answers for those questions, so as to understand “If, What, and How” the United States can even seriously consider reparations.
So today we begin the first “serious” conversation about Reparations.
Support For Reparations
Within the political sphere, only one major bill demanding slavery reparations has been proposed, the “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act,” which former Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) proposed unsuccessfully to the United States Congress every year from 1989 until his resignation in 2017. As its name suggests, the bill recommended the creation of a commission to study the “impact of slavery on the social, political and economic life of our nation.”
In 2014, American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates published an article titled “The Case for Reparations,” which discussed the continued effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws and made renewed demands for reparations. Coates makes reference to Rep. John Conyers Jr.’s H.R.40 Bill, pointing out that Congress’s failure to pass this bill expresses a lack of willingness to right their past wrongs.
In September 2016, the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent encouraged Congress to pass the aforementioned H.R.40 Bill to study reparations proposals, but the Working Group did not directly endorse any specific reparations proposal. The report noted that there exists a legacy of racial inequality in the United States, explaining that, “Despite substantial changes since the end of the enforcement of Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights, ideology ensuring the domination of one group over another, continues to negatively impact the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African Americans today.” The report notes that a “dangerous ideology of white supremacy inhibits social cohesion among the US population.”
In 1999, African American lawyer and activist Randall Robinson, founder of the TransAfrica advocacy organization, wrote that America’s history of race riots, lynching and institutional discrimination have “resulted in $1.4 trillion in losses for African Americans.” Economist Robert Browne stated the ultimate goal of reparations should be to “restore the black community to the economic position it would have if it had not been subjected to slavery and discrimination.” He estimates a fair reparation value anywhere between $1.4 to $4.7 Trillion, or roughly $142,000 for every black American living today.
Opposition For Reparations
Opposition to slavery reparations is reflected in the general population. In a study conducted by YouGov in 2014, only 37% of Americans believed that slaves should have been provided compensation in the form of cash after being freed. Furthermore, only 15% believed that descendants of slaves should receive cash payments. The findings indicated a clear divide between black and white Americans on this issue. The study summarized their findings, noting: “Only 6% of white Americans support cash payments to the descendants of slaves, compared to 59% of black Americans. Similarly, only 19% of whites – and 63% of blacks – support special education and job training programs for the descendants of slaves.”
Earlier this year (2019), Democratic Party presidential primary candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders was asked about reparations and responded that there are “better ways” to address the crisis in African American communities than “writing a check.”
Conservative writer David Horowitz wrote a list of ten reasons why “Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea for Blacks – and Racist Too” in 2001. He contends that there isn’t one particular group that benefited from slavery, there isn’t one group that is solely responsible for slavery, only a small percentage of whites ever owned slaves and many gave their lives fighting to free slaves, and most Americans don’t have a direct or indirect connection to slavery because of the United States’ multi-ethnic background.
Conservative political commentator Dinesh D’Souza argues that African Americans are “vastly better off than they would have been had their ancestors not endured captivity and European rule.” He bases this assertion on the better economic conditions for African Americans than Africans, on average. In addition, columnist Stanley Crouch equated reparations with a form of “victim studies,” and described demands for reparations as a “…racial complaint that has existed since the early ’60s.”
In 2014, in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article, “The Case for Reparations,” conservative journalist Kevin D. Williamson published an article titled “The Case Against Reparations.” Williamson explains, “The people to whom reparations are owed are long dead; our duty is to the living, and to generations yet to come, and their interests are best served by liberty and prosperity, not by moral theory.” He goes on to argue that African Americans’ political interests can be corrected through equality under the law, and their economic interests can be served through “…a dynamic and growing economy, preferably one in which the labor force is liberated from the dysfunctional, antique Prussian model of education that contributes so much to black poverty.”
Another article opposing reparations to slavery was also published in 2014 by Canadian-American neoconservative political commentator David Frum. In his article, titled “The Impossibility of Reparations,” he makes a five-point case against slavery reparations.
- First, he predicts that a program providing reparations to Blacks would be a slippery slope, for soon other historically discriminated minorities, such as women or Hispanics, would make similar demands.
- Second, he explains that deciding who qualifies for reparations would be an embittered, borderline impossible process.
- Third, he argues that a reparations program would produce enormous side effects. For example, Frum notes that providing reparations to Blacks may be de-incentivizing them from working and expose “…one of America’s least financially sophisticated populations to predatory practices….”
- Fourth, Frum points out that the program could further exacerbate inequalities, for “…when a government spends money on complex programs, the people who provide the service usually end up with much more sway over the spending than the spending’s intended beneficiaries.”
- Fifth, Frum argues that a reparations program would quickly lose legitimacy, for simply too many logistical problems would arise in deciding how to implement the distribution of money.
Before we get into serious discussions about the process of reparations, let’s look at the sources of slavery in the U.S., how and where it started, and its specifics.
Slavery History in the United States
- American plantations were dwarfed by those in the West Indies. About a quarter of U.S. slaves lived on farms with 15 or fewer slaves. In 1850, just 125 plantations had over 250 slaves.
- U.S. slaves were further removed from Africa than those in the Caribbean. In the 19th century, the majority of slaves in the British Caribbean and Brazil were born in Africa. In contrast, by 1850, most U.S. slaves were third-, fourth-, or fifth generation Americans.
- Slavery in the U.S. was distinctive in the near-balance of the sexes and the ability of the slave population to increase its numbers by natural reproduction.
- Unlike any other slave society, the U.S. had a high and sustained natural increase in the slave population for a more than a century and a half.
- In 1860, 89 percent of the nation’s African Americans were slaves; blacks formed 13 percent of the country’s population and 33 percent of the South’s population.
- In 1860, less than 10 percent of the slave population was over 50 and only 3.5 percent was over 60.
- The average age of first birth for slave women was around 20. Child spacing averaged about 2 years.
- The average number of children born to a slave woman was 9.2–twice as many in the West Indies.
- Most slaves lived in nuclear households consisting of two parents and children: 64 percent nuclear; 21 percent single parents; 15 percent non-family.
- Mother-headed families were 50 percent more frequent on plantations with 15 or fewer slaves than on large ones. Smaller units also had a disproportionately large share of families in which the father and mother lived on different plantations for most of the week.
- Few slaves lived into old age. Between 1830 and 1860, only 10 percent of slaves in North America were over 50 years old.
- Children entered the labor force as early as 3 or 4. Some were taken into the master’s house to be servants while others were assigned to special children’s gangs called “trash gangs,” which swept yards, cleared drying cornstalks from fields, chopped cotton, carried water to field hands, weeded, picked cotton, fed work animals, and drove cows to pasture. By age 7, over 40 percent of the boys and half the girls had entered the workforce. At about 11, boys began to transfer to adult field jobs.
- At the beginning of the 18th century, it was common for small groups of slaves to live and work by themselves on properties remote from their masters’ homes.
- Half of all masters owned five or fewer slaves. While most small slaveholders were farmers, a disproportionate share were artisans, shopkeepers, and public officials.
- Prices of slaves varied widely over time. During the 18th century, slave prices generally rose. Though they fell somewhat before the start of the revolution, by the early 1790s, even before the onset of cotton expansion, prices had returned to earlier levels. Prices rose to a high of about $1,250 during the cotton boom of the late 1830s, fell to below half that level in the 1840s, and rose to about $1,450 in late 1850. Males were valued 10-20 percent more than females; at age ten, children’s prices were about half that of a prime male field hand.
- By 1850, about 64 percent of slaves lived on cotton plantations; 12 percent raised tobacco, 5 percent sugar, 4 percent rice.
- Among slaves 16-20, about 83 percent of the males and 89 percent of the females were field hands. The remainder were managers, artisans, or domestic servants.
- Growing cotton required about 38 percent of the labor time of slaves; growing corn and caring for livestock 31 percent; and 31 percent improving land, constructing fences and buildings, raising other crops, and manufacturing products such as clothes.
- Slaves constructed more than 9,500 miles of railroad track by 1860, a third of the nation’s total and more than the mileage of Britain, France, and Germany.
- About 2/3s of slaves were in the labor force, twice the proportion among free persons. Nearly a third of slave laborers were children and an eighth were elderly or crippled.
- Between 1790 and 1860, 835,000 slaves were moved from Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.
- Slaveholding became more concentrated over time. The fraction of households owning slaves fell from 36 percent in 1830 to 25 percent in 1860.
- If the North and South are treated as separate nations, the South was the fourth most prosperous nation in the world in 1860. Italy did not achieve the southern level of per capita income until the eve of World War II.
- During the Civil War, 140,500 freed slaves, and 38,500 free blacks served in the Union Army.
Is there any way to make it work?
This is the 900-pound gorilla in the “Reparations room.” Who would qualify for reparations and how? From where would the money come? Why is such a system of collective repayment even being considered by a civilized society? Perhaps more fundamentally: Why is anyone alive today deserving of compensation for servitude imposed upon their ancestors, so many generations ago and why should any living American be financially penalized for a system in which their distant ancestors may, or may not, have participated?
Wealth Redistribution Disguised as Justice
Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California – both Democrats – have signaled support for reparations for slavery, though both presidential candidates have been vague on how such a proposal would work.
Harris spoke to The New York Times of “taking an approach that would change policies and structures and make real investments in black communities.” Warren told the paper: “We must confront the dark history of slavery and government-sanctioned discrimination in this country that has had many consequences, including undermining the ability of black families to build wealth in America for generations. We need systemic, structural changes to address that.”
Nobody seems to be suggesting a system of specific payments to individuals, which would be an entirely unworkable idea. So, it appears that the senators are pushing a redistribution of wealth and resources at the community level and justifying it by using the specter of slavery. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Julián Castro, is also in favor of reparations. (Castro, another Democrat, has thrown his hat into the ring for 2020)
How could such a system of government-imposed wealth redistribution along racial lines be considered just? Consider the statistical horrors of simply declaring that all white people, because of their race, must bear the guilt of slavery and that all black people, by virtue of their race, are the victims of this horrible system.
Assigning Blame is Not a Black and White Issue
To begin with, interracial relationships go back to the time of slavery and, obviously, became more common after the ending of segregation. According to 2017 figures from the Pew Research Center, 10% of children in America are mixed race. How many adults are of mixed race, whether they are aware of the fact or not? So, how many white Americans have ancestors who were, themselves, slaves and how many black Americans have ancestors who were slave-owners?
Then, of course, there is the obvious fact that a percentage of blacks living in America today immigrated long after slavery was abolished and the last child of the last slave died. Perhaps they were actually born in the U.S., but their parents or grandparents immigrated to America. Those blacks were never victims of American slave-traders or slave-owners.
…a percentage of blacks living in America today immigrated long after slavery was abolished…
There are even more statistics that illustrate the unfairness of a blanket assignment of racial victimization: While the percentage of whites in America who actually owned or rented slaves is unverifiable, there is no dispute that, even in those states where the owning of slaves was most common, less than 50% of white families owned slaves. In many other states, that percentage was far lower.
Across all the slave states combined, only about a quarter of the white population owned slaves and, on a national scale, that figure falls to something under 10%, though those figures are uncertain, since some people on both the political left and the right offer different numbers to either increase or decrease the impact of slavery. Also, historical research reveals that, in 1830, some 3,700 blacks – themselves, freed slaves – owned a combined total of almost 13,000 slaves.
Historical Sins Cannot be Erased by Dollars
“If” there is any moral justification to direct funds and other resources from certain states and communities to certain other states and communities – based on some unprovable notion of who was and was not implicated in the slave trade – is simply impossible to justify or implement. More importantly, we cannot alter the past. No amount of reparations will ever undo the human catastrophe that was the slave trade or erase the collective disregard that one group of humans had for another.
If the “Reparations Pandora Box” for slavery is opened, that same door is open for many other similar instances: indentured servanthood being chief among those. Then there are Native Americans and the way they were treated. Like the Nazi holocaust, slavery should never be forgotten, but it is a wrong that can never be put right and any suggestion that modern society can somehow retroactively erase slavery’s injustices from history is entirely disingenuous.
The whole concept of reparations to one racial group completely discounts individual rights and imposes collective rewards and punishments based upon which demographic group is favored. It is an idea that can only further aggravate racial tension, mistrust, and even open animosity. There was a time when conscientious Americans proudly used the term “post-racial.” Today, it appears that “Reparationists” are hell-bent on dividing Americans along racial lines to a degree not seen since the 1960s.
We are far away from knowing all of the in’s and out’s that would somehow allow serious consideration of Reparations. To get there, civic and political leaders need to somehow get in a room without the guns and knives, leaving the animus of racial injustice at the door, and discuss realistic ways of looking at this issue. Unless and until that happens, multiple generations of Americans, none of which were ever slaves, will be daily living with that 900-pound Gorilla still running around the room looking for answers.
This issue will probably STILL be an unresolved issue in 2050. (But if AOC and Beto are right, it will not matter: AOC says we won’t be here in 12 years, Beto sees the end in just 10 years!)