Among many tell-tale signs of the tectonic fissures dividing the nation, perhaps the most telling is the call by prominent Democrats and others for reparations. A recent proposal by California Gov. Gavin Newsom calling for reparation payments of some $223,000 per black resident pushed the matter once again to the fore.
Reparations refer to compensatory payments made to the descendants of African slaves brought to America through the Atlantic slave trade. It is an unworkable idea, but speaks loudly of the state of our politics and culture.
Proponents of reparations argue passionately about the stain of slavery, the long, dark shadow cast by this cruel institution on the American soul. They say this great evil, the original sin of slavery, cursed the nation at its inception. The country is thus irredeemably marred and defective, and that dark inheritance is fixed in our moral DNA. Reparations proponents claim this insidious legacy lives on in the “systemic racism” that pervades the nation, and in the disparate outcomes of blacks and whites in all sectors of society today.
But there are counterarguments. We begin with the obvious.
Slavery was ended in America more than 150 years ago by something known as the Civil War; roughly 750,000 people died in that cataclysm, a great and bloody cleansing of the nation over that mortal sin. Slavery is illegal in America and has been since the 13th Amendment was passed and then ratified by the states on Dec. 6, 1865. No one alive today in America is a slave or slaveholder, and sons and daughters are not responsible for the sins of their parents — let alone distant ancestors of more than a century ago.
At America’s inception, many of the Founders and newly formed states deeply opposed slavery. But some Southern states demanded that the slave trade be protected. To obtain broad support to ratify the Constitution, the framers made concessions to pro-slavery factions. Had they attempted to eliminate slavery at the time, a political impossibility, there would have been no nation or Constitution.
The Founders were painfully aware that the existence of slavery clashed with the belief that “all men are created equal,” but they also understood that they could not resolve the terrible inconsistency at that time. But they had planted the seeds for ending slavery in the founding documents and the principles of the American Revolution, and they established states and a central government robust enough to ultimately eradicate the institution in a later generation.
There are other complexities to the matter of reparations. Many Americans are mixed-race, with complex ancestries that would be challenging to sort out for reparations claims.
There were 3,000 free black slaveholders who owned some 20,000 slaves. American Indians were also slaveholders and held them well after the end of the Civil War. Most Americans, even in the antebellum South, did not own slaves. Black Africans, too, enslaved (other) blacks and sold them. Without them, there would have been no slaves brought to the Americas. Perhaps sub-Saharan Africa should pay reparations?
Most Americans today, including blacks, have no relationship to slavery in America, as they or their ancestors came to this country after the Civil War (with the two great waves of immigration that began in the late 1800s and 1900s).
Further, the reparations claim is not based on a specific injury (such as the Holocaust or the internment of Japanese-Americans under FDR), but on race. It perpetrates a new injustice against those who committed no crime for the benefit of those who are not victims.
There is also little evidence that individuals living today are disadvantaged by a system that ended over 150 years ago. There are many successful black people in America today, including black millionaires, billionaires and a black president, among many success stories — even as the black middle class is prosperous and growing.
Furthermore, poverty, unemployment and incarceration rates for black Americans were shrinking in the decades preceding the expansion of the liberal welfare state in the ‘60s, in some cases bettering their white counterparts. Blacks were coming out of poverty and entering the middle class despite actual institutionalized racism at the time. Most black children then were raised in two-parent families.
That progress has retreated dramatically since the onset of the federal welfare system and its associated social and cultural pathologies. These policies and behavioral factors explain racial disparities today far more than “systemic racism” or the “legacy of slavery.”
The Civil Rights Act and “Great Society” programs that began in the ’60s already represent trillions of dollars in wealth transfers to blacks through welfare payments, subsidies and preferential treatment based on race (affirmative action).
Slavery, furthermore, was not unique to the United States. It is a universal phenomenon involving all races and cultures that dates back more than 5,000 years to ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and beyond.
Bondage in North America was a small percentage of slavery in the Americas. Brazil, for example, had 4 million African slaves, compared to 400,000 in America. Cuba had 800,000. In total, about 12 million African slaves were brought to the Americas through the Atlantic slave trade, 95 percent of which went to South and Central America and the Caribbean, while less than 5 percent went to America.
Then there is the Arab Muslim slave trade, which has existed since the eighth century when it began enslaving Africans. Muslim slave traders between 1500 and 1900 transported approximately 5 million African slaves. Arab Muslims also enslaved more than 1 million Europeans (Slavs, hence the word “slave”) between the 16th and 19th centuries, more than double the number of Africans brought to America.
Western (white Christian) nations ended slavery, beginning with Great Britain in 1833. But slavery persists in other parts of the world, particularly the Muslim world. Indeed, only a handful of Muslim nations have officially ended slavery, and then not until the late 20th century.
There are some 40 million slaves worldwide today, including nearly 10 million in Africa, many of them black Christians enslaved by Muslims. In fact, there are more slaves today — those in forced labor, trafficked, or otherwise owned or exploited — than during the peak of the Atlantic slave trade. Yet those clamoring for reparations, so concerned with a system that ended over 150 years ago, have little to say about slavery today.
No, reparations are not likely to bind the nation’s racial wounds; rather, they will rip them apart.
But perhaps that is the point. Peddling race in this way is a major industry in America, and many who traffic in “racism” have benefitted from it. They have done great damage to American blacks, race relations and the nation as a whole.
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