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The case for and against slave reparations

Written By | Jun 9, 2014

WASHINGTON, June 9, 2014 — The debate over whether American descendants of slaves should receive reparations from the U.S. government continues to rage.

The lead article in the current issue of The Atlantic is “The Case For Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coats.

Much of Coats’s focus is upon how African-Americans were treated in the years after slavery came to an end. He calls for a national reckoning with the inextricable relationship between democracy and slavery.

“A nation outlives its generations,” he writes. “We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Lentze’s rendering has meaning to us. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling ‘patriotism’ while waving a Confederate flag.”

Coats’s recommended prescription is a bill that Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has been trying to advance for a quarter of a century. That legislation would mandate the study of racial injustice and the advancement of proposals for reparations.

READ ALSO: The 1964 Civil Rights Bill was passed by a majority of Democrats

Thus far, Congress has not passed such legislation.

In June 2009, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for slavery, making way for a joint congressional resolution. The Senate apology followed a similar one passed the year before by the House.

One key difference is that the Senate version explicitly deals with the long-standing issue of whether slave descendants are entitled to reparations, saying that the resolution may not be used to support such claims.

The House revisited its resolution to conform to the Senate version.

Charles Ogletree is a Harvard law professor who has championed reparations, and was consulted on the Senate resolution and supported it. He stated that it is not a substitute for reparations. “The battle will be prolonged,” he said.

Randall Robinson, author of “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks,” said that he saw the Senate apology as a “confession” that should lead to the next step of reparations.

“Much is owed, and it is very quantifiable,” he said. “It is owed as one would owe for any labor that one has not paid for, and until steps are taken in that direction we haven’t accomplished anything.”

In 2001, as a serious campaign for reparations got underway, the state of California passed legislation mandating every insurance company licensed in the state to research its past business and that of its predecessor companies.

The law requires each company to report to the state whether it ever sold policies insuring slave owners against the loss of their slave property, and if so, to whom.

A number of other initiatives also have been launched in other states and localities.

Reparations moved further into the spotlight several years ago when David Horowitz, a conservative author and political activist, placed full-page advertisements in a number of newspapers attacking the idea of reparations.

Entitled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks Is a Bad Idea — and Racist Too,” the ad countered several commonly held arguments for reparations.

Among other things, the ad declared:

“Only a minority of white Americans owned slaves, while others gave their lives to free them … There is no single group that benefited exclusively from slavery.”

The ad also stated:

“Slavery existed for thousands of years before the Atlantic slave trade was born, and in all societies, but in the thousands of years of its existence, there never was an anti-slavery movement until white Christians, Englishmen and Americans, created one.”

Sadly, from the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, slavery was the way of the world. Slavery played an important part in many ancient civilizations. Indeed, most people of the ancient world regarded slavery as a natural condition, one that could befall anyone at any time.

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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.”

It has existed almost universally through history among people of every level of material culture, nomad pastoralists of Asia, hunting societies of North American Indians, and sea people such as the Norsemen. It existed in Africa; black Africans were sold into slavery to white Europeans by other black Africans.

Those who now advocate reparations to contemporary black Americans for the slavery which existed one 150 years ago, overlook many important facts. First, reparations usually are paid to direct victims. The U.S. Government apologized and paid compensation to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, and Holocaust survivors received payments from Germany.

Beyond this, not all blacks were slaves and an estimated 3,000 blacks were slaveholders.

Many immigrants not only came to the U.S. long after slavery ended, but many of them were also confronted with discrimination. Should they pay reparations, too? Or should they receive them?

And given the changing demographic makeup of our society, on what basis can we say that recent immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America bear any responsibility for slavery which existed in previous centuries?

Slavery, many argue, has little to do with the problems facing black Americans in the 21st century. In his book “The Black Family From Slavery To 1920,” Herbert Gutman shows that more black children lived in two-parent families during slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow than at the present time.

Walter Williams, the respected black economist, writes that, “Harlem was much safer during the Forties and Fifties than now. Those who argue that today’s pathology is a result of slavery, racism and poverty owe us some answers; namely, why were black families more stable and black neighborhoods safer and more economically viable when racism was rampant and blacks had fewer opportunities for higher education, good jobs and housing? Could it be that the effects of discrimination skipped several generations?”

In his book “Race and Culture,” economist Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution writes:

“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, not in the era before emancipation.”

Dr. Sowell, who is black, points out that many of the values, such as respect for education, which motivated so many former slaves to excel in the years after the Civil War, have been abandoned by many in today’s inner cities. He writes:

“Despite the desperate efforts of freed blacks to educate themselves after the Civil War, and to find family members who had been sold during slavery and sent elsewhere, a segment of today’s black and white intelligentsia excuses contemporary blacks who disdain education as ‘acting white’ or who abandon their families — both patterns being represented as being a ‘legacy of slavery,’ though blacks born under slavery or living immediately after emancipation did not exhibit this pattern to the extent seen today.”

Slavery did not leave its 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. If slavery has a “legacy” for the present day, it may be somewhat different from the one often discussed.

In this connection, Sowell 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 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.”

Reparations would raise more concerns than they relieve, argues black commentator Armstrong Williams:

“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 government to pay reparations to the biological, cultural, or religious offshoots of every group it wronged over the past 200 years would bankrupt the country.”

Those who speak of reparations rarely examine the long and complex history of slavery and where America’s role in that history really can be found. Historically, people became slaves in a variety of ways. Many gave up their freedom because of economic necessity.

In ancient Babylon, Egypt and Rome, and among Africans and Aztecs, a man who could not pay his debts sold himself into slavery to his creditor. In Ancient Greece and China, poor families who could not feed all of their children often sold some of them as slaves. Slavery might also be declared the punishment for certain crimes, such as treason or wife abduction, as in medieval Europe.

When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, not a single nation had made slavery illegal. Denmark became the first nation to abolish the slave trade in 1792.

What is 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 Gouvernor Morris were in the forefront of the 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 to ensure that Southern states would join the union, others understood 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.”

The history of slavery is hardly a simple one. Those who continue to promote the case for reparations would do well to review this complex history and the real problems faced by minorities at the present time.

Their crusade is a diversion we can ill afford.

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.