WASHINGTON: The first African slaves to reach the English colonies arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Four hundred years ago, these souls were brought by Dutch traders who had seized them from a captured Spanish slave ship. This occasion is cause for calls for reparations to African-Americans who are their descendants.
The call for reparations is not new
Former Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) regularly introduces legislation calling for reparations. However, the legislation never receives much support. Democratic Party leaders such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders, oppose the idea as “very divisive.”
Kamala Harris (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as well as Obama administration Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, all Presidential hopefuls, are saying they support reparations for African-Americans. The candidates all decline to offer specifics of what such a program would entail.
What traditional advocates of reparations, such as Professor William Darity of Duke University, have called for is having the federal government send checks to the descendants of those who had been enslaved. Self-help guru Marianne Williamson, who announced her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in January, offers a reparations plan in which black Americans would collectively receive $100 billion.
Sen. Warren would also include Native Americans in her Reparations plan.
Any discussion of reparations must include education as to the history of slavery.
Sadly, from the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, slavery was common. Slavery is an important part in many ancient civilizations growth. Indeed, most people of the ancient world, including those found in the Bible, regarded slavery as a natural condition. A condition that could befall anyone at any time.
The legal codes of ancient Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the fourth millennium B.C. The Sumerian symbol for “slave” in cuneiform writing suggests “foreign.”
The history of slavery is widely misunderstood, as is America’s role in the practice.
Historically, people became slaves in a variety of ways. Often in history, the winners of a war will make slaves of the losers. Many people gave up their freedom because of economic necessity. In ancient Babylon, Egypt, and Rome, as among Africans and Aztecs, a man who could not pay his debts sold himself into slavery to his creditor.
In Ancient Greece and China, families who could not feed all of their children often sold some of them as slaves. Slavery could also be declared the punishment for certain crimes, such as treason or wife abduction, as in medieval Europe.
Slavery existed throughout history, among people of every level of material culture. Nomad pastoralists of Asia, hunting societies of North American Indians, and the sea people such as the Norsemen all captured and used slaves.
Slavery has long existed in Africa. Warring African tribes would enslave members of the tribes they defeated. Furthermore, Africans were sold white Europeans by other black Africans.
The current reparations movement has, thus far, not adequately considered many complicating factors.
First, reparations are usually paid to direct victims. The U.S. Government apologized and paid compensation to Japanese-Americans interned during World War ll, and Holocaust survivors received payments from Germany.
This is not quite so easy with a practice that is long past. During the era of slavery in the U.S. some 3,000 free blacks were slaveholders. How do we identify who is a descendant of a slave or a freeman? Additionally, not every black American is the descendants of slaves. Over the last two hundred years, immigration from Africa, Jamaica, and Latin America bringing in many blacks that never suffered under slavery.
Most white Americans are the descendants of immigrants who arrived from Europe long after slavery ended. Another easily ignored fact is that many of those white immigrants suffered discrimination. Many of those from Ireland, Europe and Poland were indentured servants.
The Know-Nothing movement, an American nativist political party that operated nationally in the mid-1850s, was as hostile to Irish and Italian Catholics as to blacks. A rising tide of immigrants, primarily Germans in the Midwest and Irish in the East, seemed to pose a threat to the economic and political security of native-born Protestant Americans.
Do the descendants of the Know-Nothing party owe reparations to non-native-born Protestant Americans?
Reparations might raise more concerns than they relieve
Pushing for reparations adds another layer of racial division to an already divided society. It is for this reason that many liberals, Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton among them, have never endorsed this idea. When Rep. Conyers began promoting reparations more than a decade ago, black commentator Armstrong Williams provided this assessment:
“One wonders, for example, what percentage of black blood would entitle a citizen to reparations? What reparations, if any, would Africans be required to pay for selling their own citizens into slavery? Would American Indians be able to make a similar claim? How about the various religious groups that the Puritan settlers persecuted? Would modern-day members of the occult be entitled to reparations to make up for the fact that their predecessors were burned at the stake? If it literally paid to be a victim, countless people would rush forward to adopt the mantle. Plainly, forcing this government to pay reparations to the biological, cultural or religious offshoots of every group it wronged over the past two hundred years would bankrupt the country.”
When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, not a single nation had made slavery illegal.
Denmark became the first country to abolish the slave trade in 1792. What may be historically unique is not that slavery was the accepted way of the world in 1787, but that so many of the leading men of the American colonies wanted to eliminate it, and pressed vigorously to do so.
Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were ardent abolitionists. John Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice, was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. Rufus King and Gouverneur Morris were in the forefront of opposition to slavery and the slave trade. One of the great debates of the Constitutional Convention related to the African slave trade and George Mason of Virginia made an eloquent plea for making it illegal.
While many have criticized the Framers for their decision not to eliminate the slave trade immediately in order to draw Southern states to join the union, others argue that they had set in motion an opposition to slavery that would bear fruit in the future.
Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut stated: “Slavery in time will not be a speck in our country.”
Is the history of slavery the cause of modern-day racial disparity
Beyond this is the question of whether the “legacy of slavery” is the primary cause of current disparities between the black community and other Americans. The respected black economist Thomas Sowell, discussing the decline of the two-parent black family in his book “Race and Culture,” notes:
“In reality, most black children were raised in two-parent homes even during the era of slavery, and for generations thereafter; Blacks had higher rates of marriage than whites in the early 20th century and higher rates of labor force participation in every census from 1890 to 1950. Whatever may be the real causes of the very different patterns among blacks in the world of today must be sought in the 20th century, and not in the era before emancipation.”
Sowell argues that slavery did not leave the victims without certain attitudes, just as it left former slaveholders with a mindset which, in the end, has proven harmful to the descendants of both. In this connection, he notes,
“Among the negative aftermaths of slavery has been a set of counterproductive attitudes toward work, among both the slaves and their descendants, and the non-slave members of slave societies and their descendants.
‘Work is for Negroes and dogs’ is a Brazilian expression that captures a spirit bred by slavery and not unknown in the American South and among the whites in South Africa. Nor is this purely a racial.phenomenon. Descendants of the slave-owning and slave-trading Ashanti tribe of West Africa have exhibited a similar disdain for work.
Free women in Burma were unwilling to do disagreeable work which had been associated with slaves. There were similar reactions by the Egyptian lower classes against doing work associated with slaves and by the white lower classes in the antebellum southern U.S. against doing work associated with blacks, slave or free.
Slavery in America was uniquely oppressive.
When it finally came to an end, it was not replaced with equality and equal citizenship, but with segregation, lynchings and, in large parts of the country, an inability to vote or educate one’s children. It was unique in another way as well.
In Ancient Greece and Rome, slavery was embraced as the way the world worked. Those who became slaves were not categorized as racially “inferior.” They were just a benefit of winning in battle.
However, in America, because we proclaim that “all men are created equal,” there was a need to justify slavery?
We defined African-Americans as a separate, inferior variety of men, just as the architects of apartheid did in South Africa. Even after slavery came to an end, such attitudes persisted.
Our goal today should be to bring our diverse society together, not further divide it.
Millions of newer Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Africans, had no part in American slavery. The ancestors of millions of white Americans arrived after slavery ended.
Other white Americans are descendants of those who fought, and died, in the Union Army to bring slavery to an end. To ask them to pay “reparations” would be widely viewed as divisive and unjust.
Candidates for the presidency should promote ideas to bring Americans of all races and backgrounds together, not advocate contentious policies which will further divide them.
Senator Harris Reparations is one of these. It is a diversion we can ill afford.