Posts Tagged ‘Reparations for Slavery’

Right now reparations is a wedge issue

May 22, 2019

David Brooks wrote a couple of months ago in the New York Times that slavery and racism are America’s original sin and that some form of reparations for that sin is spiritually necessary to heal the nation.

But when you talk what form compensation should take, and who should receive it, reparations ceases to become a means of spiritual healing.  It becomes a wedge issue.

It divides not only whites from blacks, but blacks from other people of color and blacks among themselves.

There is a new organization, American Descendants of Slavery, whose leaders insist that reparations go specifically to black Americans whose ancestors were slaves, and not to minorities in general or black people in general.

They argue that they have benefitted very little from diversity programs, affirmative action hiring, set-asides for minority small business and other such programs.

They point out, correctly, that white women, Hispanics and Asian-Americans benefitted much more than African-Americans and, within the black community, African and West Indian immigrants and their progeny benefitted much more than descendants of enslaved black Americans.

All black immigrant groups on average out-earn blacks of old American stock, and some black immigrant groups do better than the national average.  So they don’t need any special help, according to ADOS advocates.

Some of the things they advocate are:

  • Reinstituting the protections of the Voting Rights Act
  • A multi-billion dollar infrastructure plan targeted to American descendants of slaves (ADOS) communities
  • Legislation to triple the current federal allotment to historically black colleges and universities.
  • A health care credit to pay for medical coverage for all ADOS .

They also favor looking into making direct payments as reparations.

If you accept the argument for reparations for slavery, it is hard to deny the argument for limiting the benefits to those who are actually descended from American slaves.

The problem is that once reparations become large enough to be meaningful, they get in the way of doing what’s needed for

Suppose you enacted a multi-billion dollar infrastructure plan that focused on black communities, but was part of an overall infrastructure plan that benefitted everyone.  Would that be reparations?

Suppose you provided a health care credits that paid for medical coverage of all ADOS and also of everyone else.  Would that be reparations?

Or would reparations have to be something that minorities or black people or ADOS get, and that whites don’t?


The argument for slavery reparations revisited

May 22, 2019

Ta-Nehisi Coates made the argument back in 2014 that the United States owes reparations to the descendants of American slaves for slavery and for denial of basic rights continuing into the second half of the 20th century.

Since reparations has become an issue in the 2020 Presidential campaign, it’s time to take another look at his argument

Coates pointed out that even after slavery was theoretically ended, the Jim Crow system subjected black people in the South to a system in which their property, their freedom and their lives could be taken from them at any time.

When black people moved to the North, they were still refused jobs and credit based on their race.

This meant that, unlike all other ethnic groups in American history, they were unable to build up through wealth generation by generation.

Coates said reparations is not a claim against individual white people for what their ancestors may or may not have done.  The claim for reparations is against the government of the United States for what the nation has done.

When Union Carbide was sued and forced to pay damages to victims of the Bhopal, India, chemical plant disaster in 1984, the executives, employees and stockholders at the time of payout in 1999 were not all the same individuals as when the disaster occurred.  Claims are still being made, including claims against Dow Chemical, which became a part-owner of the plant in 2001.

The idea is that a corporation is a continuing enterprise, separate from the individuals who own and run it.  The present-day executives and stockholders benefit from the profits earned by those who came before.  They also inherit the claims and liabilities incurred by those who came before.

When nations pay reparations, it is based on the same idea.  A nation is a continuing entity.  All Americans, whether they were naturalized last week or trace American ancestors back to 1776 and before, are heirs of what their nation has done in the past, both good and bad.

Reparations will not get rid of racist thinking, racial prejudice or racial discrimination.  That is not the purpose.  The purpose is compensation for a wrong.

Do people in the present still suffer from the effects of slavery?  Maybe they wouldn’t if African-American slaves had been given full citizenship rights after the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted.  But they weren’t.


The case against reparations

May 28, 2014

I wish that every American would read The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the June issue of The Atlantic.  It is painful reading.  It tells how U.S. government policy has worked against African-Americans from the days of slavery and Jim Crow down to the present time.

But while I think the facts he cites are true and important, I do not think he makes his case.  The word “reparations,” like the phrase “white privilege,” diverts attention from the real issue, which is equal justice for all.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates

The word “reparations” shifts attention away from present injustice to past history.  The problem with focus on the past is that all of us, except for a few kings and aristocrats, are descended for poor, oppressed people, and have historic grievances.  It is human nature to be more aware of injustices committed against your own group than injustices against others, and any claim that one historical injustice deserves more attention than all the others is bound to meet with resistance.

There have been many crimes against humanity besides the enslavement of the American Indians—the Nazi Holocaust (which was not limited to the Jewish people), the crimes of Communism, the dispossession of the American Indians, U.S. military aggression against Mexico and Spain, the Irish potato famine and on and on.

Now perhaps there is somebody in the world with enough wisdom and Olympian detachment to make an objective judgment as to which historic injustice is worst.  But I don’t think that there is anyone in the world with enough moral authority to make people accept that judgment.

atlantic.reparations300I grant that in present-day USA, African-Americans on average will be treated worse than others, no matter what their position on the social scale.  In fast-food restaurants, you will find members of minority groups in the kitchen and white people serving customers—not always, but typically.  Black people earning $100,000 a year typically live in the same kind of neighborhoods as white people earning $30,000 a year.  And if the Obama daughters were ever as rowdy as the Bush daughters, the press would cut them a lot less slack.

Nevertheless race and racial prejudice aren’t everything.  The Obama and Bush daughters have many more life experiences in common than they have with middle-class members of their own races.   And black and Hispanic fast-food workers are not going to get anywhere until they join forces with their white Anglo co-workers to demand better pay and working conditions for all.

The key to ending racial prejudice in the United States is not by trying to make white people feel guilty, but by showing them that it is in their self-interest to unite with black fellow citizens to achieve common goals.

Labor has always been weaker in the United States than in other industrial countries, and the reason for this is that working people have been divided against each other along racial, religious and ethnic lines.  “Reparations” is a trigger word that widens these divisions.


What does the USA owe its black citizens?

May 28, 2014

Almost all nations have things in their past that their peoples find hard to come to terms with.   We Americans have not yet come to terms with our nation’s history of slavery and white supremacy.

Racism in the United States is more than just the bad attitudes of certain white individuals toward black people.  It is the history of government action t0 enslave black people, to deny black the rights of citizenship after slavery was abolished in law, and to exclude them from full participation in society.

The New Deal was tailored so as to freeze out black people from most of its benefits.  Social Security was written so as to exclude domestic servants and agricultural laborers, which were the majority of black people in the 1930s.  The Federal Housing Administration for decades had a policy of refusing to lend money in any neighborhood in which a black family lived.  White suburbanites who said that the value of their house would be destroyed by having a black family in their neighborhood were speaking the literal truth.  This was official government policy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic goes into all this an interview with Bill Moyers, which is shown above, and in an article, The Case for Reparations, in the  Atlantic’s  June issue.

Coates reported on black families who escaped to Chicago from the Deep South, where they were outside the protection of the law, where their incomes were sobject to the whims of white people, and where their property could be taken from them at any time.  In Chicago, they were confined to ghettoes by action of the government, the banks and white mobs, who had the same impunity as white mobs in the South.  Their red-lined neighborhoods are the parts of Chicago where poverty and crime are highest today.

Nor is this all in the past.  The new voter ID laws and other voting restrictions are aimed at discouraging black voting.  Refusal to expand Medicaid disproportionately affects blacks.  Drug laws are enforced selectively against poor young black men, who as convicted felons are then excluded from the protection of anti-discrimination laws for the rest of their lives.

Coates doesn’t deny there has been progress.  The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a better start in life than Frederick Douglass, but he did not have an equal start with white peers.   Black people once were barred from many occupations.  Now it is just more difficult for them to be hired.

“Reparations” is a trigger word that is easily misunderstood.  Coates did not call for the government to write checks to the descendents of American slaves.  Rather he called on Americans to recognize that the nation (not just white people, but the nation as a whole) owes something to black people, and to discuss just what that is.

I have reservations about the word “reparations,” but I think that Coates is absolutely right to say that we Americans need to face up to our history—the bad along with the good.  I think every American should read his article.


Reparations for slavery?

April 1, 2010

The problem I have with the idea of reparations for slavery is the underlying assumption that the problems of black Americans are mainly due not to injustice in the present, but to things that happened in the past.

We face the historical consequences of more than 200 years of slavery and a century of Jim Crow enforced at gunpoint. But all of us, except a few kings and aristocrats, are descendants of poor oppressed people. What’s more relevant is the fact that a law-abiding black person has less chance of getting a job than a convicted white felon right out of prison.

Take as an example three young girls in the same class in an inner city school. One is the descendant of black slaves; another is the daughter of black immigrants from Jamaica or Nigeria; the third is a white girl whose ancestors did, in fact, own slaves. Is there any reason why any of these girls is more or less entitled to a good education and the chance for a good job than any of the others?  To say “yes” is to set them against each other, and lessen the chance of changing the system.

The same thing is true of hate crimes legislation.  The underlying assumption is that the problem is the lack of extra punishment for crimes of hate, whereas the real problem is that people who commit crimes against hated minorities may not get any punishment at all.

Like most human beings, I tend to think that any advantages of the group to which I belong are part of the nature of things.  I will reluctantly give up advantages in the name of equal justice for all.  I will not agree that some group other than my group deserves special treatment, no matter what historic injustices they’ve served.

If you really did want to make reparations for African-Americans for the effects of slavery, the best way to do it would not be through a token payment of money, such as the government of West Germany made to the government of Israel. It would be to assure that the children of African-American families had the opportunity to get good educations, and then good jobs that would reward work and ability.

And the only way to do that would be to provide a good school system and a high-wage full-employment economy for everyone.