The Dartmouth Observer
Thursday, September 05, 2002
On Slave Reparations
The debate concerning reparations that would be paid to the descendents of slaves is a tricky one. Assessing the damage of slavery and the cost of repairing that damage is not something that is likely to be calculated by any means known to human kind, so great was the cost. And yet many contend and say that there ought to be monetary reparations paid to the descendents of slaves in order that at least some of the damage be repaired. The question I ask is whether reparations to slaves will repair any damage at all. Thereafter I will inquire into who the victims of slavery are and so on.
First and foremost, reparations must, as the name implies, repair something. Reparations are not retributive but are a means to making a tangible wrong a right. For example, following World War II, the reparations paid to surviving Jews (and in effect to Israel) were supposed to rebuild the nation that was destroyed by the Nazi regime. This last example is beautiful, as it is the perfect example of successful reparations. Leaving aside circumstantial politics in the Middle East, Israel has used German reparation to rebuild a nation and community. The question of reparations to Jews, however, was very simple in comparison to the question of reparations to the descendents of slaves in the US. Slavery in the United States ended over 130 years ago. There is not a single former slave alive today. The claimants of reparations are several generations removed from slavery.
The truth, in fact, is that the US government did promise reparations to slaves after they were freed, but reparations only to men and only for their personal exploitation. At no time did the US government offer (as if it could have conceived of offering) reparations for the exploitation of earlier slave labour, as far back as enslavement in any given place on the African continent. The emancipated slave was to be given in reparations “forty acres and a mule.” These reparations were never seen. Today, however, the debate for reparations has never been more heated. There is now considerable pressure on the US government to pay reparations to the descendents of slaves as well as reparations for many other groups that have been “historically wronged.” We must now inquire into why there is a demand for reparations.
Reparations are supposed to repair damage. We must assume, therefore, that within all the nuanced reasons for reparations, the constant is a universal understanding that there is damage residual from slavery. Though this cannot be mathematically or scientifically proved, it seems rather suspect that the descendents of slave as a statistical group, African Americans, are much poorer than the majority European American statistical group, as well as have a lower standard of living, higher unemployment, lower education, higher crime rate (perhaps even allowing for a skewing of statistics in this area eg. the North Carolina moving violation case), lower life expectancy, and a host of other symptoms that cry out “HELP!” Unlike poor immigrants to the US, African Americans, as a group, have not escaped their condition of poverty. Now shall we assume the best intentions and say that reparations are meant to solve these ills.
As it seems as if the history of slavery is inextricably linked with today’s poverty, we ask whether reparations, formerly due to emancipated slaves, will repair the ongoing damage that has taken place in regard to the descendents of those slaves (for we must remember that reparations are no longer reparations once they are retributive). The fact of the matter is that the government, as far as I understand, had a legal requirement to pay-up to the emancipated slave but not to his descendents. If I am correct, then at best the government could be sued with a failure to abide by a contract. In any other case, it seems that the government must not be compelled to pay reparations based on an ancestry rooted in slavery.
There is no denying, however, that the African community on a whole still suffers. I can adequately appreciate this, being Canadian and having lived in ghetto-free (though not racism-free) Canada for all my life. But having read a thing or two, having talked to Americans, having driven down Georgia Ave. in NE, Washington, D.C., I can attest to some very real problems.
These very real problems, on the other hand, though they are most manifest in the inner-city African American community, affect every ethnic, religious, and sexually oriented group. Even Robin Kelly observed this. Why then does he support reparations for slave descendents when he realizes that the problem is not group-specific? In fact, he doesn’t really. He supports reparations for every member of any group that has ever been wronged. Civilisation then, built upon slavery, cannot repay itself. To ask complete and total retroactive payment would cause humanity to implode.
I contend this, that there are huge problems in America that must be fixed but that, while they have their roots in a slavery that happened to be racial, the solutions have little to do with this fact. America is a fundamentally racist state, though I would not say that it is necessarily oppressive. Racism in America comes from all sides and it is perpetuating a groupthink, not just in the upper tiers at Ivy League colleges such as Dartmouth, but in everyday living of most people, in one way or another.
It is the groupthink that is destroying America. It is the fact that United America is fractured. It seems to me that the call for reparations, the prevalence of lobby groups, political propaganda, as well as many other factors are carving America up into groups that hold their self-interest at a higher level than that of the state, much because of a very “anti-system” attitude towards government and the established capitalist economy. (On a side note, if anyone wonders poor immigrants fare better than well-entrenched poor minorities, I would likely say that the poor minorities, because of their history, are anti-system, whereas poor immigrants come to America to buy-in to the system.)
At any rate, reparations based on ancestry, group, or ethnicity is harmful to America. It forces a dichotomy of the oppressed and the oppressor which, though it is a very convenient “structure” to explain, is no longer necessary. Generally, all Americans are legally equal citizens with the same civil rights as any other American. It is therefore impossible to determine privilege for any specific group.
All of this is not to say that the problems of the inner-city are to be ignored and that people who live in poor conditions must just simply find their own way out without any support whatsoever. On the contrary, I believe that this idea of “us and them” must be obliterated, and the only way that this is possible is by desegregation, by integrating Americans politically, socially, and economically with each other. It is doubtlessly a painful process, yet I believe that all will benefit when all truly become Americans, One Nation under God.