Should blacks get reparations?
The US senate's apology for slavery revives the debate. Compensation seems fair, but complications abound.
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Nor was slavery confined only to the 11 Southern states of the old Confederacy. It was legal in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey as late as the 1820s. If reparations are what's in view after an apology, the real target has to be the states; and if reparations are demanded from Alabama, it will want to know why it's more guilty than other states.Skip to next paragraph
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2. Who should be paid? At first glance, the answer seems obvious: the slaves. But the victims of slavery are now long dead; it is the heirs of those victims who stand next in line for compensation. Still, the line is a shaky and complicated one, with the chief complication lurking in the genes of African-Americans themselves.
Slavery was a system of bondage; it was also a system of forced rape and violent sexual exploitation across the old slave South. The mixed-race offspring of slavery were plain to see on every plantation.
And the long-term result is that the average African-American today has been estimated, in genetic terms, to be approximately 20 percent white – and much of that 20 percent includes the genes of the white slaveholders who originally owned his great-grandparents.
By what logic do we pay reparations for slavery to those who, in all too many cases, are literally descendents of the actual slaveholders? And should reparations for slavery include the descendents of those blacks who – like President Obama – did not arrive in the US until after slavery was ended?
3. What about the Civil War? Slavery did not end by evaporation. It took a catastrophic civil war, which cost 620,000 dead – equivalent to nearly 7 million today; it cost $190 billion (in today's dollars) to wage and multiplied the national debt by 400 percent; and it inflicted a casualty rate of 27 percent on Southern white males between the ages of 17 and 45, the very people most likely to own slaves.
At that time, there was no shortage of racists in the North who insisted that the Civil War was being waged only to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery. But Lincoln knew otherwise, and he charged both North and South with knowing it, too. Slavery "constituted a peculiar and powerful interest" in the South, Lincoln said in 1865, and "all knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war."
The war, Lincoln said, was God's instrument for the ultimate reparation – every drop of blood drawn with the lash had been paid for with blood drawn by the sword. The blood-price of the Civil War may not automatically silence the case for reparations on its own. But the case for reparations cannot ignore it, either.
Reparations are held up as a gesture of retroactive justice, righting the wrongs that were done to our great-grandparents and before. Yet there is a deep instinct in the American national psyche that bucks at the notion of defining the present by the definitions of the past, which is one reason why reparations lawsuits have so routinely failed.
If it is racial justice we seek, the greater wisdom lies in addressing it directly, for this generation.