Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Reparations For Slavery – Social and Political Considerations

Jun 15, 2019

The ever-growing field of Democratic hopefuls for the 2020 US presidential election shows no signs of abating anytime soon. And the many contenders are stumbling over each other to see who can be the most leftist of the lot. In an already crowded field of look-alike candidates, they gotta do something to try to stand out. And it seems they have all decided to do pretty much the same thing: to try to pretend how different they are!

And that is mainly being done by pushing as many leftist hot buttons as possible. Thus things like socialism in all its forms (free health care, free education), abortion on demand, and the like are on the lips of most of them. Another big-ticket item is reparations for slavery and apologies to Blacks for past wrongs.

How are we to think of things like race-based reparations? Are they good ideas, moral ideas, sensible ideas? To set the stage, let me offer to you a hypothetical. Suppose that my great-great-great grandfather stole a hunting rifle from your great-great-great grandfather. Should I now be forced to apologise for that and pay you for the stolen goods? Um, I did not steal anything, and you did not have anything stolen from you. So how do we proceed?

But let me point out that there are other calls for apologies for past wrongs, such as apologising for the Crusades. I have written about that elsewhere, so I urge you to have a read of this piece, since so many of the concerns related to that also relate to the US slavery debate:

Similarly, Australia has had national sorry days and the like. That too I have previously discussed:

So there has been plenty of this going on already. And the calls seem to be never ending. Consider just one such recent example – this time from Europe:

“A few days ago, the new president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Abrader, demanded that King Felipe VI ask for forgiveness for the conquest by Spain, and now a mosque in Seville is doing the same but for the Reconquista (the Reconquest, when the Muslim rulers were driven out of Andalusia-Spain).”

All sorts of aggrieved groups, along with the left in general, are keen to call for ever more things from the past that must be apologised for, if not compensated for. Whether the demands for amends are by means of a payment or some other compensation, we seem to have a never-ending list of ‘evils’ that the West – and people in the West – must now atone for.

But let me return to the renewed calls in the US for reparations for slavery. Democratic hopefuls such as Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are now strongly pushing this – or at least for a major debate on it. But is it really such a good idea? I don’t think so. Let me first look at some political, social and economic reasons, and then look at some possible biblical concerns in Part Two.

A number of issues arise here. Indeed, there are just so many questions that can be raised – and they all need some very careful answers. Here are just some of them:

-Just who will be paid?
-Who will decide this?
-How much will they be paid?
-Who will decide this?
-Who will pay for this?
-Since governments pay for nothing – only taxpayers – will they be coerced into making these payments?
-Will it be a once-off payment, or extend into the future without limit?
-If payments for slavery are made, how many other past actions and deeds must be compensated for as well?

It seems this simply opens up a Pandora’s Box. Once we go down this path, every other aggrieved group around – whether the complaint is real or imagined – will be demanding their own reparations. It seems there will be no end in sight, and soon enough the main consequences of this will be a government that has simply gone broke.

Indeed, “University of Connecticut professor Thomas Craemer recently estimated that reparations would cost the country between $6 trillion and $14 trillion.”

The same article says this:

The likelihood that reparations would ever become official remains slim, with even prominent leaders in the black community calling the idea nearly impossible to implement. “You’ve got to satisfy two problems, one of which is the legality of it and the other is the practicality of it,” argued Majority Whip Jim Clyburn in an interview with The Hill, pointing out, for instance, the question of whether mixed-race descendants of slaves had intangible advantages over their counterparts.

And of course a big elephant in the room is this: it was the Democratic Party that was the big supporter of slavery, while it was the Republican Party that was the big supporter of emancipation. But this inconvenient truth is not talked about much by the Democratic contenders today. See this important brief video for more on this:

But my illustration of the stolen rifle is a key issue here. What do we do about crimes and wrongs that happened so long ago? We do have such things in our law as statutes of limitation. As one online definition puts it:

A statute of limitations is a law passed by a legislative body in a common law system to set the maximum time after an event within which legal proceedings may be initiated. When the period of time specified in a statute of limitations passes, a claim might no longer be filed, or, if filed, may be liable to be struck out if the defense against that claim is, or includes, that the claim is time-barred as having been filed after the statutory limitations period.

Um, slavery ended in the US a century and a half ago. The American Civil War (1861-1865) effectively ended it, and the Thirteenth Amendment (December 1865) formally ended it. So we are talking about something from over 150 years ago. How far into the past can we go as we seek to say sorry for certain things, at least in terms of compensation and the like?

Columnist George Will looks at this and related matters and says this:

If reparations are owed to the descendants of all members of minority groups that experienced protracted discrimination, the Irish can apply, citing the widespread practice of employers posting admonitions that “Irish need not apply.” Italians, too: An 1895 advertisement seeking labor to build a New York reservoir said whites would be paid $1.30 to $1.50 per day, “colored” workers $1.25 to $1.40, and Italians $1.15 to $1.25. Asians on the West Coast were subject to severe discrimination and violence. And Jews were restricted from acquiring the momentum that elite universities impart on the path to wealth.

Native Americans and African Americans experienced uniquely severe injustices. However, there must be some statute of limitations to close the books on attempts to assign guilt across many generations to many categories of offenders (racial, ethnic, class). How does one compute the compensation that can justly be extracted from persons who, although they participate today in the national prosperity to which slaves involuntarily made substantial contributions, had no participation in the injustices inflicted?

It is also true that the nation as a whole was injured by the exclusion of African Americans’ talents from American dynamism, both before and after hundreds of thousands of white Union soldiers were killed or maimed — should their descendants be exempted from paying reparations? — in the Civil War that ended slavery. But, then, semi-slavery survived for almost a century in Jim Crow laws after the end of Reconstruction.

If, however, you doubt that American discord can become much worse, try launching a scramble among racial and ethnic constituencies to assign varying degrees of guilt to others for varying degrees of injuries. Should reparations be means-tested, making affluent African Americans ineligible? To avoid using moral micrometers to measure guilt and injuries, should lump sums (taken from whom? by what mechanism?) be awarded to groups? Does it matter that 3.1 million African Americans identify themselves as of mixed race? Or that in the 2010 census, 1.8 million people self-identified as both white and black? Who would administer reparations? And at what cost to social harmony? Racial preferences (“affirmative action”) remain broadly unpopular after more than 50 years (the Philadelphia Plan to integrate building construction unions began in 1967).

And which African Americans shall count when counting for purposes of reparations? In 2005, the New York Times reported that since 1990, the average annual flow of immigrants from Africa — about 50,000 — had been more than came in chains in any of the peak years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

And recall my question about who will get stuck paying for all this. There can be only one answer: taxpayers – whether they like it or not. As Black American economist Walter Williams rightly says:

Punishing perpetrators and compensating victims is not what reparations advocates want. They want government to compensate today’s blacks for the bondage suffered by our ancestors. But there’s a problem. Government has no resources of its very own. The only way for government to give one American a dollar is to first — through intimidation, threats and coercion — confiscate that dollar from some other American. Therefore, if anybody cares, a moral question arises. What moral principle justifies punishing a white of today to compensate a black of today for what a white of yesterday did to a black of yesterday?

Yet some folks will look to other, more recent forms of reparations and argue that we have done it before, and we should do it again. Consider the 100,000-plus Japanese-Americans who were interred during the Second World War. In the 1970s and 80s they did receive financial reparations as well as government apologies.

But this is a case of apples and oranges. Current victims might be one thing – but long dead victims are quite another. As Richard Epstein points out: “But there, the payments were made to specific persons who were direct victims of wrong by the government. No program that seeks to remedy the wrongs of the past 350 years could hope to duplicate that level of precision.”

A major philosophical and moral point about all this has to do with fairness and justice. Why do I today need to cough up my hard-earned money for something I never did, and for something that happened long ago? As one short but to the point quote puts it, “Why should people who never owned slaves give money to people who were never slaves?”

That is a very good question indeed. But by way of summary, this 2-minute video featuring another Black economist, Thomas Sowell, may be the best, briefest and brightest answer available to the demand for national reparations:

Christians should also be quite concerned about such matters, so Part Two of this piece will look at related matters to the debate:

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5 Responses to Reparations For Slavery – Social and Political Considerations

  • Bill,

    Do I get a cut rate? You have to go back to 1670, when my ancestors had slaves in Maryland, according to the records, the family had over 600 slaves. My great grandfather was a Union soldier, Charles A. Love. Is this another discount? Since all my family comes from the UK, are those that are still there in the UK going to be charged? Since many were Irish and enslaved in America, do I get another discount?

    In America it is a tradition to make tax paying people pay for other peoples bad behavior, Just look at our immigration problem! Look at LBJ’s Great Society. The list is endless!

  • New Zealand has been operating something called the Waitangi Tribunal for almost 45 years. Despite reparations having been paid for decades there seems to be no end to the claims. As Kipling wrote, “once you have paid him the Danegeld/ You never get rid of the Dane”.

    Why should slavery reparations be any different? And once one class of citizenry can claim reparations from the rest for the suffering of ancient members of their class, what right has the government to deny other reparation claims? As this piece notes, Irish, Italians, Jews, Asians, and many many more can claim the forebears of their class also suffered unjustly. In my own family tree ancestors who emigrated out spent their portion of the family fortune on a large lush looking farm. Except it wasn’t. The year they bought it was the one year the property wasn’t drought stricken and so the privileged couple ended up walking off the property with little more than the clothes on their backs. Should my family be able to claim compensation for the sufferings of my forebears?

    And to modify the short quote that summarises the problem with the issue, why should people who never owned slaves, and whose ancestors never owned slaves nor approved of the practice, give money to people who were never slaves, and whose ancestors were never slaves? Oh it’s far finer focus than the original quote, but reparations doesn’t make any allowance for that either.

    Seems to me that reparations is simply code for rob Peter to buy votes from Paul.

  • Excellent and informative articles Bill. People should grow up. Life is not for sissies.
    Germans have been paying for their “guilt” for more than 60 years now:
    Were do you draw the line. 27,000 Afrikaner Boer women & children died in concentration camps due to British greed (gold). Anyone claimed or claiming compensation? The Democrats and African Americans should read the following book which should give them a whole new perspective on slavery: Slavery, Terrorism and Islam by Peter Hammond.

  • This is wrong. America gave out welfare checks for years and decades. How much more can Americans be expected. Our SS is doomed already, reparations?…For what. The America before Lincoln had almost nothing to do with today’s situation. Americans need to take care of their elderly who suffer. the homeless, who suffer.The lonely veteran whos family didn’t want him or her minus his legs. finding homes without a hassle for veterans, who cannot buy a condo, unless its on a list, yes they make it sound easy ask anyone who has tried a VA home Loan. Even the seller and realtor, try to steer you away from the VA. So now everybody who deems self worthy of reparations want exactly that?…give them a Mule and 40 acres in Alaska, hell, that better than my 0.33 and no mule!

  • Reparation?……for what? Something someone did almost 200 years ago. Can we ever let anything go?…build a true united States. This stuff is divisive and plain wrong. Many immigrants who came to this country were unjustly treated, and many starved. Does the family of those people get reparations to, because many slaves, were not just black..c’mon take a mule and 40 acres in the great state of Alaska, build a home, work the rivers, just like it was in the 1800’s. bet you can’t do that!

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