Sunday, February 27, 2005

Slavery Reparations: the devil is in the details

February in the United States is known as "Black History Month", and as such produces an increase in discussions about reparations for slavery. This concept, while it may seem interesting on the surface, devolves into a totally unworkable conundrum when you try to analyze it further.

The theory behind reparations is relatively straightforward: for hundreds of years, blacks were captured in Africa, forcibly taken to the United States and other countries, and made to work as slaves on plantations. The concept of reparations is that these people's labor should not have been free, and that the descendants of those who gained the benefit from the slaves' labor should repay the descendants of those slaves who performed it. There are some recent legal prededents in favor of this: lawsuits by Jews who were forced to perform slave labor in Nazi Germany.

The main difference with slavery reparations, however, is that the enslavement of Africans in the United States ended 140 years ago while other places (Haiti, Jamaica, etc.) even earlier, and both the perpetrators and victims of slavery are all long dead. This greatly complicates the situation, and introduces four major questions:

Question #1: Who should pay?

The easy answer would be "white people", but things are not that simple. Not all white people participated in slavery. What do we do with the descendants of people who immigrated to the United States after the Civil War was over? What about the descendents of whites in northern states where slavery never took root? What about the descendents of Union soldiers who sacrificed their own lives to end slavery, or the descendents of those who ran the "underground railroad" smuggling slaves to freedom in the North (should they pay or be paid)?

An additional major question is whether a person can be held liable for the actions of his/her ancestors at all. If the answer to this question is no, then the only entities from which slavery reparations could be gathered would be the few corporations that have been around over 140 years and which directly played a role in slavery.

Simply having the US government pick up the tab does not work, because the US government is funded by taxpayers, and all taxpayers would have to pick up the tab, including those who would not otherwise have to pay.

Question #2: How much should each individual pay?

Should the descendents of a major plantation owner who held many slaves pay more than the descendents of a minor bit-player who perhaps owned a single slave? Should the descendents of slaveholders who were kind to their slaves pay less than the descendents of slaveholders who were mean?

In theory, if each slaveholder is equally culpable, would it not make sense that if a slaveholder had many descendents, his/her liability would be more diluted among these descendents than if a slaveholder had only a few descendents? How do we account for descendents who are dead, or who are living outside the jurisdiction of the US legal system (in other countries, etc.)? How would we construct a formula for this?

Question #3: Who should receive payment?

Like the first question above, the easy answer to this question to this question is "black people", but this is really an oversimplification. Not all blacks were slaves in this country. Some came here as immigrants from Africa after slavery ended. Some came as immigrants from other countries (Jamaica, etc.) and their ancestors were never slaves here and thus should not rightfully be paid anything in any settlement.

Another key challenge is proving one's own ancestry. For hundreds of years, slaves were bought and sold as commodities, much like cattle are sold today. And, slaveholders sometimes did not keep good records, or even for those who did keep good records, there are very few paper records that can easily survive 140 or more years.

Many descendents of slaves rely on oral history passed down from generations past for whatever knowledge they may have of their background. For example, the author Alex Haley knew of his ancestor Kunta Kinte (the subject of his book Roots) through oral history. However, oral history is considered by most judges to be "hearsay" and thus not admissible in court. So, even if a person is a descendent of slaves, how is he/she to prove it?

Question #4: How much should each individual be paid?

In the lawsuits for reparations for Jewish slave labor in World War II, the companies who had employed Jewish slave labor were paying money either directly to the victims or to the victim's estates. If we extend this paradigm to reparations for African slavery in America, we would be paying money into the estates of each slave.

So, by extension, the descendents of a slave who had many children should receive less money than the descendents of a slave who had only a few children. But, how do we derive a formula for this? And, what if the descendent of a slave had a will (which is supposed to override an equal distribution among descendents) - how would we account for this? And, how should we account for the prior generations of slaves, since slavery went on for about two hundred years?

Another key question is how do we deal with biracial (mixed) people? Some of their descendents may have been slaves, but some of their descendents may have been slaveholders. It is estimated that at least 30% of black Americans have at least one white ancestor. How should we account for this when some of the person's ancestors were victims and some were perpetrators? Should it matter if that person's white ancestry came from a loving relationship between two people, or from the rape of a black woman by a white slaveowner? And, if it should matter, how can one prove whether the relationship between his/her slaveholder ancestor and slave ancestor was voluntary or not?


You will notice that this post contains a lot of questions and very few answers. You may be able to read each of these questions and suggest answers that might seem to be common sense, but at the same time, you must admit that someone else could make an equally compelling argument in favor of a different answer.

If there is ever any serious attempt at slavery reparations, the whole process would likely degrade into one big argument over the answers to all of the questions I've listed above, along with a plethora of additional questions people may think of to try to get out of paying money, or to get paid more money. In that process, the only real winners would be the lawyers, who would fight this legal fight on behalf of their clients and take the lion's share of whatever settlement money might be there. The losers would be the American public - black, white, and all other ethnic groups - some of whom would pay out money, some of whom would receive a pittance, and all of whom would be the subject of fractious ethnic wrangling.

Slavery was borne from the poisonous ideology that some people are inherently superior or inferior because of the color of their skin. This ideology was wrong 140 years ago, and remains wrong today. Why, then, do some people want to reopen old wounds and try to make people who never personally enslaved anyone pay a group of people who were never personally enslaved? With all the legal wranglings that would undoubtedly be dredged up by this whole process, it leads to the question, "why bother?"

Personally, I think we would all be better served by leaving this whole Pandora's Box closed and instead spending our efforts to ensure that equal opportunities exist for everyone, regardless of our race or ethnic background.