Are Americans of African decent entitled to compensation for the American South's slavery past? Does the American government owe people whose ancestors were slaves reparations in the form of money, land or capitol goods? Many African-Americans and white liberals feel that black Americans are owed something and a movement in this country has been stirring for a while agitating for forced reparations by the U.S. government. (Conyers 2003) This paper will argue that reparations for slavery should not occur. It will be shown why reparations are wrong and how reparations would ultimately cause deeper divisions in our society then already exist.
Today there are increasing numbers of black professionals and scholars advocating reparations for slavery. Black lawyers have filed lawsuits against the federal government and companies that have profited from slavery. In 1989, Congressional representative John Conyers introduced H.R. 40 titled, "Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act." The bill states that its purpose is:
To acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes."
The bill has yet to be passed in Congress but Congressman Conyers has continued to introduce the bill every year since 1989 in his quixotic quest to force America to legitimize the quest for reparations. Advocates for slavery reparations say their cause would not be necessary if the U.S. government would have followed through on the promises and legislation of the Reconstruction Era. (Lewin 2001) In 1865, the federal government established the Freedmen's Bureau, which offered food and medical care to former slaves. However, the bureau was poorly funded and closed in 1872 Many diverse organizations support the concept of providing reparations to African-Americans including the NAACP, (Mfume 2001), the Rainbow Coalition, (Jackson 2003), and Campus Action (Damu 2003).
Slavery was a heinous form of exploitation that existed mostly in the southern part of United States from the late 1600 until 1865. However, no single group was solely responsible for the sin of slavery during this time. Black Africans and Arabs on the continent of Africa participated in the enslavement of fellow Africans for profit (Horowitz 2001). In addition to white slave holders in the ante-bellum United States, there was an estimated 3,000 slave owners in the U.S. who were of African decent (Horowitz). Since both Africans and Arabs in Africa, as well as fellow blacks in the United States, participated in the slave trade, to apportion blame strictly on Americans of European decent for the crime of slavery is factually incorrect and patently unfair. Unless history was rewritten, to show that only one people from one area of the world was solely responsible for slavery then perhaps an argument about who was completely at fault could be made.
The benefits derived from slavery were not derived by just one group. One of the arguments in favor of reparations states that only whites have benefited from the work done by slaves in the 1800's. (Conyers) Whatever economic carryover of slave labor Americans enjoy today is enjoyed by all Americans. No single race or ethnic group is deprived of the economic benefits of past labor done by slaves, if any still exists. (Engerman, Inikori 1992) It cannot be argued that black Americans have always benefited fully in the American economic process, the argument can be made that the GNP of black Americans, if taken alone, would make African-Americans the 10th most economically powerful nation on earth. (Horowitz). Americans of African decent earn on average between 20 and 50 times what the average African earns on a yearly basis. Clearly, black Americans benefit from America's economic strengths.
The reparations movement wants America to pay for crimes committed over 150 years ago, crimes which most Americans have no direct connection. America, through years of immigration is a diverse, multi-ethnic country whose many races and cultures have had no direct or indirect experience of connection with the slavery of the past. It would be unethical to expect a 3rd generation Irish-American to pay extra taxes out his pocket for the crime of slavery that neither he, nor his ancestor who emigrated to our shores, ever took part in or benefited from. Even the large portion of Americans who buy into the arguments favoring group identity politics, and affirmative action programs that have sprung from them, are hard pressed to morally justify creation of a system of reparations. In fact, the NAACP's own internal poll among its members show that 71% are not in favor of the U.S. government studying the need for reparations for African-Americans (NAACP 2002).
There were approximately 350,000 mostly European-Americans who died in the Civil War, in part to end slavery. In spite of revisionist historical claims to contrary most people in the North knew that slavery was morally corrupt and needed to be ended. Both Northern and Southern abolitionists banged the drum daily for ending slavery in America. Claiming that America owes the ancestors of slaves' money for the past actions of a minority of Americans, does a disservice to the memories and the legacy of those who fought and died. Since there were black slave owning freemen who fought on the side of the Confederacy, should not their ancestors too be held financially responsible for compensation paid to today's African-Americans? (Isaacs 2003)
Historical precedents used by the reparations movement to justify a claim to reparations are invalid. Payments to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, the Reagan era payment of $20,000 to Japanese-Americans and their families who had been placed in internment camps during WWII, and African-Americans who had been victims of the Tuskegee racial experiments regarding sexually transmitted diseases all had direct claims based on demonstrated injury in the first person. Immediate family members of those who were harmed also had legal and moral precedents to go by. Part of the reparations argument points out that family members who were not directly impacted by the wrongs for which money was paid is evidence that they too should be entitled to reparations money. The only way this case could be made is if they were direct, immediate descendents of slaves, which no African-American living today is old enough to lay claim too.
Randal Robinson's book on reparations, "The Debt," which has become a manifesto for the reparations movement, has as its subtitle, "What America Owes to Blacks." The subtitle itself shows that the claim made for reparations is based not on injury but on race. This comes back to an earlier point regarding identity politics and entitlements. If past injustices visited upon a race or ethnic group by a society requires the current generation in that society, no matter how far removed or connected, to pay a price then it would be reasonable to say that Egypt owes the Jews countless dollars in back wages and unshared profits for the building of the pyramids. As silly as that may sound, today's reparations advocates share the same logic.
If one were to make a claim based on injury perhaps the Jim Crow laws that were only abolished in the mid-60's would be a more rational starting point. Jim Crow laws were designed to discourage and disenfranchise blacks in the South from full and equal participation in the social fabric of America. But even then these laws only affected Southern blacks and would need to be shown to have directly harmed specific individuals who would then be the only legitimate claimants of money or other financial gain, from the government.
No evidence has yet been produced by respected and/or qualified economists that prove that living individuals have been adversely affected by a slave system that was ended over 150 years ago. (Engerman, Inikori) (Horowitz). Cleverly, reparations advocates do not always make the claim that today's descendents of slavery have been directly harmed by slavery. Indeed, Adjoa Aiyetoro, a legal consultant to the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, said, "We're not raising claims that you should pay us because you did something to us 150 years ago. We are saying that we are injured today by the vestiges of slavery, which took away income and property that was rightfully ours." (Levin, Itzkoff 1997) This begs the question then of why were blacks doing better in terms of positive gains in employment, education, and social structure 15 to 20 years after slavery then they seem to be doing today? In 1940, illegitimacy among blacks was 19%. From 1890 to 1940, blacks had a marriage rate slightly higher than whites. As of 1950, 64% black males 15 years and older were married, compared to today's 41%. (Levin, Itzkoff). In Philadelphia, in 1880, two-parent family structure was: black (75.2%), Irish (82.2%), German (84.5%) and native white Americans…