Wholesale Reparations for Slavery: Considerations

Recently I was discussing with some friends the matter of reparations for slavery (general reparations). This is, in my mind, a bad or unworkable idea for several reasons. Now before I get started I want to make it clear that I am not categorically against reparations as a means of restitution. It is only in the case of wholesale restitution that I remain very skeptical. There are some instances, however, where it could work.

For example, many Japanese Americans effected by interment were identified and reimbursed (though with difficulty thanks to the IRS). Firstly, it was not all that long ago and secondly, there are reliable ways of determining who suffers now. Jewish victims of the Holocaust are also reasonable candidates for reparations since again, it was not terribly long ago and the Germans kept impeccable records. Further, in both of these cases, people are actually alive who can account for the individual events with eye-witness testimony; so who suffered and what was taken could be accounted for even if a paper document like a tax return is unavailable.

But if we consider slavery in the United States, easily America’s greatest evil, how exactly would we distribute the reparations? First we’d have to identify those effected. So to begin, what about people of mixed ancestry? Is Tiger Woods entitled to reparations? His mother wasn’t African nor is he wanting for wealth. And what if you’re black but your family wasn’t in the States at the time of slavery? And what about people with longer slave lineages than others? What if one family has slave history lasting until its abolishment but another person only has one slave ancestor and their lineage had been free for the last two centuries? Shouldn’t their reparations differ? After all, surely the consequences would have been greater for those under enslavement longer. And why should reparations only extend to slavery, were not Jim Crow laws equally exploitive and depriving as far as opportunity and labor go? And then of course, there is the matter of how much and how to prove you were effected. Logistically speaking, wholesale restitution is an impassable quagmire.

It has been estimated by Harper magazine that for 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865, with 6% compounded interest, over 100 trillion dollars would need to be paid out. Taking that number and initiative seriously, how would that effect the nation as a whole? After all, government aside, no one alive today participated in slavery. And if we consider America at that time, not everyone benefited directly from slavery either. Might that money be better spent improving our schools, infrastructure, and healthcare? Granted, it won’t be used for that either, but between the two doesn’t it sound the more reasonable and fruitful? Maybe we should be spending our time and energy arguing for that kind of spending.

All this aside, I do support individual cases where one can reasonably prove what wrongs were committed and how they’ve been negatively impacted. I am certain there are families that could prove their historical enslavement and account for the specific reimbursement owed to them.

However, in the case of general restitution, what happens afterward? Can’t they then tell you to stop talking about it? My biggest concern regarding the effects of wholesale reparations would be that many people would feel justified in saying, ‘Okay, you got what you were owed, now can we just move on and shut up about it?’ The moment all that labor is paid for is the same moment assholes would gleefully claim we don’t have to discuss it any longer or even teach it, because hey, they got theirs.

I support the redress of any grievance by government for any individual who can prove it. This, however, is different from wholesale restitution, which by many of the pro arguments, would include far more than just black Americans effected by slavery. Women, LGBT people, Jews, other ethnic groups, the disabled, and many more have been effected in systemic ways by the US government that have easily resulted in lost economic opportunity and great personal cost.

It seems to me that instead of paying out 100 trillion dollars, what we could do to honor the lives of all our exploited Americans, would be to ACTUALLY teach about it. We shouldn’t allow some states to tap dance their way around the events and we should start taking seriously the racism that obviously exists today. Money spent on these endeavors, like training officers how to properly assess situations without gunning down a black American in the process, or overhauling our obviously racist criminal justice system would be nice starting points.

Here is an interesting debate on the topic.

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