Radical Reparations

The House Judiciary Committee has reintroduced legislation aimed at providing reparations to African Americans. H.R. 40, titled Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, intends to establish a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The bill summary states that the commission shall “examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.”

There is nothing realistic about the suggestion of reparations, as the entire premise is extremely convoluted and meeting even subjective parameters is almost impossible.

Let’s first consider the Japanese Americans who were institutionalized during World War II, which might be the only tangible and logical comparison study for reparations, but it is still unrealistic when viewed through the lens of pre-abolition slavery. And here is why.

When considering reparations, specific variables need to be examined and defined. It is much easier to make the case for reparations when:

  • The number of victims is relatively small.
  • The victims are easily identifiable.
  • Many of the direct victims are still alive.
  • The injustice took place during a relatively short time period.
  • The perpetrator is known.
  • The injustice is easily identifiable.
  • The injustice offends values of equality, personal safety and/or the right to own property.
  • There is a symbolic victim around whom advocates for reparations can rally.
  • The monetary amount of reparations asked for is not so large that the public will find it unreasonable.

The number of Japanese-American victims was relatively small, about 120,000. They were also easily identifiable as people of ethnic Japanese descent, whether citizens or not. The injustice took place between 1942, when the Japanese were first interned, and 1945, when the war ended.

The perpetrator, the U.S. government, was easily identifiable. The internment of Japanese-Americans violated the values of ethnic equality and ownership of property, since their property was confiscated.

The government issued checks for $20,000, accompanied by a letter of apology for the internment of over 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. They were the first issued under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, a historic law that offered monetary redress to over 80,000 people.

Now, let’s consider the demand for reparations today, as suggested by Democrats in the United States Congress. It presents as a murky and unreasonable demand when the expectation has become that an entire country must pay for the sins of less than half of the country sixteen decades ago, or more.

And it raises another good question. Are reparations also then owed to the descendants of the 360,000 soldiers who died to free the slaves – and should that be paid by the descendants of those who were freed? Some might consider that to be an outrageous statement at the surface, but the sentiment has meaning that is lost in this. Not all whites owned slaves, and not all blacks were slaves.

Certainly, there were a large percentage who were. More were than weren’t in fact, but that still does not encompass a whole of either group in trying to address it as an absolute more than six generations later.

There are so many challenges to the suggestion of African American reparations. It is easy to identify the perpetrators of those injustices in some cases, but there are so many that it might be difficult to persuade any one perpetrator to pay reparations. At minimum, perpetrators could include the governments of every state that had ever allowed the enslavement of African-Americans. More broadly, they include municipal governments, private businesses, educational institutions, and even some religious institutions.

The problems in organizing reparations to African-Americans lies in the other characteristics of successful social movements for reparations. It is difficult to identify which people of African descent in the U.S. today are the descendants of enslaved people.

If all descendants are considered worthy of reparations, regardless of the number of generations since their ancestors were enslaved, then the number might be in the tens of millions of people.

None of the direct victims of enslavement are still alive. There is no single individual who can be considered symbolic of the reparations movement, because all the immediate victims have long passed.

It isn’t impossible, but it should be driven at private, compartmentalized levels to be even remotely reasonable. In fact, some businesses, universities and churches have acknowledge their roles in slavery. Georgetown University in Washington, for example, has offered reparations in the form of preferential admissions to the 4,000 descendants of the 272 slaves it sold in 1838.

There have also been reparations for some injustices during the Jim Crow period that followed emancipation. In 1923, about 120 African-Americans were burned out of their homes in Rosewood, Fla., and several were murdered. In 2002, victims and victims’ descendants were awarded $2 million in compensation.

Attaining reparations to African-Americans is, and will continue to be, much harder than it was for Japanese-Americans. We cannot make blanket payments based on subjective, and in many cases absent definition.

In order to even be considered as a logical idea, one must first identify which people of African descent in the United States today are the true descendants of enslaved people, and then identify a more targeted list of perpetrators in today’s society – that have verifiable ties to ancestors who owned slaves.

It is not the responsibility of modern descendants of Polish Immigrants who arrived in the 1900’s, to pay reparations for the actions of some American citizens in the 1800’s.

That is not only absurd, it is also theft.

It is also unreasonable for an African-American who arrived in the United States from Ethiopia in the 1990’s to receive reparations in atonement for unrelated people who were enslaved 14 generations before he even came to the country.

The melting pot is continually churned, and nobody alive today in the United States has ever owned slaves, just as nobody alive today in the Unites States has ever been enslaved. The economy of our post-industrial nation should not be further enslaved to compensate for the transgressions of people who in many cases committed those acts before the United States was even established as an independent country. Take it up with the British.

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