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There are approximately 60 million Americans of Irish descent, and most of their ancestors arrived in America as refugees from an Ireland colonized and exploited in the harshest ways by the then-contemporary government of Britain. Should Americans of Irish descent (or Irish people still living in Ireland for that matter) demand reparations for the hardships suffered by their ancestors at the hands of colonial British "masters?"
Irish immigrants to the United States during the 1800s faced apartheid-like discrimination by the majority groups at the time - mostly people of English and German descent. An oft-observed sign at factories and construction sites was "Help Wanted - Irish Need Not Apply." Should modern Irish-Americans demand reparations for the discrimination suffered by their immigrant ancestors upon arrival here?
Should Armenians demand reparations for the suffering of their ancestors at the hands of the Ottoman Turks prior to the First World War? Should the descendents of Chinese and Filipinos killed by the occupying armies of Japan in the Second World War receive reparations for their ancestors' suffering and murder? Japanese soldiers were recorded on film tossing Chinese babies into the air and catching them on their bayonets; surely there is a case that deserves some kind of "payback."
How about reparations for Indians who suffered generations of oppression at the hands of the British, or reparations to descendents of Tibetans killed or oppressed by Maoist China? Should the United States seek reparations from the United Kingdom for all the indignities suffered by Colonial Americans prior to the American Revolution?
The point here is that if we go far enough back in history, we observe that every group has been exploited, enslaved, pillaged, or otherwise kept at some kind of disadvantage by other groups. If we are going to start saying that it is right and good that the descendents of one group of oppressed people deserve reparations for their ancestors' oppression, then it must be right and good that the descendents of every oppressed group deserve the same. It becomes a slippery slope, and slippery slopes always lead downhill.
Similarly, if all of the people who actually endured these injustices have passed away, in most cases so have their oppressors. While there are still victims and perpetrators of atrocities alive from World War II, and in some cases these have received reparations - such as the case of Japanese-Americans interred during WWII - there are no more former American slave owners. The last person who directly benefited from the uncompensated labor of slaves is long-gone. So who should make the reparations - the descendents of slave owners?
There are four problems with such a suggestion. First, the notion that a descendent of a criminal should be held liable for his ancestor's crimes seems almost medieval in the scope of its unjustness. It does not sound like a notion held by modern, democratic, civilized people, but by denizens of Homer's Iliad or America's Wild West, "...your daddy stole my daddy's horse, so I'm takin' yours..."
This notion is dangerous for other reasons. If it ever became broadly accepted as a fair principle, then what will future generations do to the descendents of perpetrators of violent crimes in this generation? African-American males represent significantly less than 10% of the population of the United States, yet account for over 70% of the violent crime here. According to Biondi (2003), 15% of the adult male African-American population consists of convicted felons.
If we permit reparations now because we are willing to believe that the descendents of criminals are economically liable to the descendents of their victims, it opens the door for future generations of white racists to argue that white Americans are entitled to economic compensation for the costs to society of criminal acts perpetrated by ancestors of their African-American fellows; not just for the direct costs in terms of lost property and human suffering, but in terms of money spent prosecuting, defending, and incarcerating so many criminals from this one group.
That is not a road we can travel and survive as a nation of free men and women.
Second, even if the notion that people are somehow liable for the crimes of their ancestors does not offend modern sensibilities as it should, there is the problem that not every American of European descent owned slaves during the time slavery was legal in the United States. The last United States census conducted before the outbreak of the American Civil War showed that 1.4% - 6% of whites owned slaves at that time, whereas up to 28% of free Southern African-Americans owned slaves (Perry, 2003; Koger, 1995). This makes it difficult to determine who exactly should do the paying.
Third, and even more confusing, is the fact that since so many of those Americans who did own slaves sexually exploited their female slaves (Thomas Jefferson is perhaps the most famous case of this), there are many people claiming to be of African descent today who are actually also of European descent. In other words, many of the people who believe they are entitled to receive reparation payments are just as entitled to make them. The line between exactly who should be paid and who should be paying is one that is vague, at best.
Fourth, many of the people who would be required to make payments if we implement an across-the-board tax toward reparations for slavery are themselves either immigrants or descended from immigrants who came to this country since the abolition of slavery. Should we expect these people to help pay for crimes none of their ancestors committed, or should we issue post 1865 immigrants and their descendents "reparations tax-exemption" cards?
Fifth, and most significantly, even if we assume that the descendents of those people who kept slaves are liable for the suffering of their ancestors' victims, who is the worse criminal, the person who buys an enslaved person or the person who enslaves a free one? Just as most modern people would attribute the greater guilt to the pusher selling illicit drugs than to the addict who consumes them, so should they also attribute the greater guilt to the African governments who sold their own citizens (or citizens occupying coveted territory) into slavery than to the people who bought them. Yet there is no discussion in the reparations rhetoric about demanding economic compensation from any of the modern descendents of these African slavers. In point of fact, the slave trade in Africa continues to be a going concern.
Why are reparations advocates so quiet about the culpability of African slavers? Is it because the modern descendents of African slavers have too little money to make them attractive as targets, because they are too distant and under the protection of another national flag, or simply because they are not of European descent and therefore not suitable targets of modern African-Americans' vitriol?
Had the slavers themselves been European instead of African, and were their descendents still living in African countries today, it is unlikely that reparations advocates would miss the opportunity to extend culpability for slaves' suffering to the slavers' descendents. The fact that reparations advocates have been conspicuously silent on this issue is very telling. Their silence reveals the foundation upon which the reparations movement is built for what it is; racism.
If we scour the historical record for examples of just how wretched human beings can be toward each other, there very few examples more telling than the story of slavery in the New World. How ironic that the idea of the New World should conjure up mental pictures of new opportunity, new freedom, and a fresh start for civilization, when in reality the history of slavery in the New World shows that it was one of the darkest periods of recent human history.
Reparation movements sometimes have their heart in the right place, though sometimes not. Were we to pass reparations legislation, we would be forcing the economic exploitation of one group (modern European-Americans) for the benefit of another (modern African-Americans); not a bad definition of slavery. Doing so would solve none of the problems facing the African-American population in the United States today, but would create new problems and inflame old ones. For these reasons, plus the bad logic upon which the pro-reparations argument is based, it is unlikely that reparations legislation will ever be seriously considered by Congress.
The long-term fate of European-Americans and African-Americans is intimately intertwined (all people's fates are, according to Banatar, 2003). Some kind of solution is there that will permit both groups to unload the generations of emotional baggage they have been carrying and make progress toward a finer kind of civilization, but reparations is not it.
Adebajo, Adekeye (Spring, 2004) Africa, African-Americans, and the Avuncular Sam. Africa Today. 50(3). 92-110.
Andrews, Vernon L. (2003). Self-Reflection and the Reflected Self: African-American Double Consciousness and the Social (Psychological) Mirror. Journal of African-American Studies. 7(3). 59-79.…[continue]
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