Paying for the sins of the fathers
By John D. Turner
10 September 2001

Reparation. n. 1. the making of amends for wrong or injury done. 2. Compensation or indemnity. 3. Usually, reparations. Compensation payable by a defeated country to the victor or victors for damages or loss suffered during war. 4. Restoration to good condition; repair. --Syn. 1. Indemnification, atonement, satisfaction, compensation. See redress. 3. Renewal, renovation; repair.

Recently, the question has arisen as to whether America owes reparations to black Americans for the years their forefathers spent under the yoke of slavery in this country. This question has gained immediacy based on the reparations paid to Japanese Americans for their forced relocation during the second world war. Arguments have been made that if Japanese Americans are deserving of such, then surely Americans of African descent deserve something for what they have had to endure.

At the risk of being labeled a 'racist', I must respectfully disagree with this proposition.

It is undeniable that the rights of Japanese Americans in this country during world war two were violated. People were unjustly imprisoned not for anything they did, but simply because of the ethnic group to which they belonged. The reasons were complex, and beyond the scope of this article. It certainly was not a moral high-point in the history of this country. It is interesting to note that despite the way they were treated by their country, most of these people still considered themselves 'Americans'. Many volunteered to fight for the United States in that conflict, despite the fact that their families were imprisoned in the relocation camps stateside. The Nisei battalion, one of the most highly decorated units in the European theater of operations, was made up of Japanese American volunteers.

Time passed. A national debate ensued. And reparations for this abuse of Government power were eventually paid to those who had suffered through this shameful period of American history. Shameful in two regards; first that the Government actually did it, and second, because a case can be made that it had to be done for their own protection, from a populace incised by Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and afraid of anyone who even looked vaguely Japanese. The point, however, is that the reparations were made to those who had been wronged, the people who had actually been rounded up and interred in the camps.

This is not the case with Americans of African descent. It has been 136 years since the end of the Civil War, and the end of slavery in the United States of America. Those to whom reparations might be owed are long dead and gone. The issues here are much more complex than those surrounding the issue of reparations due to Japanese Americans imprisoned during world war two.

Reparations should be logically paid by those perpetrating the act for which the reparations are due. Thus, logically, the slave owners should bear the burden. Why should those who had no responsibility be the ones to shoulder the burden? Alas, the slave owners too, have passed into the dust of history, and can no longer be held accountable by the living.

That leaves the U.S. Government. It allowed slavery to exist, after all. Of course, had Jefferson (who was himself a slave owner) not, under pressure, removed the clause in the Declaration of Independence condemning the institution of slavery, the point would be moot as there would be no United States government. The vote to separate from England and form a new nation had to be unanimous, and the South would not vote in favor as long as that passage remained. It was Jefferson's opinion that slavery (which John Adams considered an abomination before God) was in direct violation of everything the Declaration stood for, and that a nation so constituted carried with it the seeds of its own destruction.

But only half of the country allowed slavery. The other half didn't. Should the descendents of those north of the Mason-Dixon Line be held responsible for the actions of those in the south? And what about those south of the Mason-Dixon line whom didn't own slaves? Should their descendents be held liable as well?

How about people who emigrated here after the Civil War? Are they and their descendents culpable also?

Which brings up another question: Who gets the money? Should being black be the only criteria? That you claim "African-American" on some government form? If the 'reparations' are for slavery, shouldn't there be some requirement that you actually had ancestors who were slaves in the United States? How would you prove that? There has been a lot of intermarriage between races since 1865, particularly within the past 30 years. Even before that, liaisons resulting in children were not unknown. Exactly how much African-American blood would you need to qualify? 1/2? 1/4? 1/8? More? Less?

Suppose your ancestors were slaves, but not in the United States. Suppose you immigrated here from Haiti, for example. Does the U.S. have an obligation to you also? What if you or your ancestors came here from Africa (or some other country) after 1865, as a free man having never been a slave. Does the U.S. government have a fiduciary obligation to you as well, as a 'legacy of slavery'?

Should only whites pay? Suppose one of your parents is white, the other black. Should you pay yourself?

And how much money would be enough? $500? $1000? $10,000? How about 40 acres and a mule? And does anybody seriously believe that if money, however much, was paid, that things would be OK all of a sudden? That those in the "black leadership", like Jessie Jackson, Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan, et al would just fade into the background, and the country would dissolve into one giant, happy, lovefest? Is this really about righting a wrong, or is it just about money and politics?

Ultimately, the U.S. Government is the people. The Government doesn't have its own little stash of cash lying about somewhere. It all comes from taxes, taxes paid by every taxpayer in the country, citizen and non-citizen alike, from every race, color, and creed that makes up this nation. Including blacks. I guess as long as you get more back from the Government than you paid out in taxes, you are ahead, but wouldn't it bother you just a bit that your 'reparations' are at least in part being paid by other blacks, including yourself? Or do you really care, just as long as you are getting a piece of the pie?

Part of the rationale behind the reparations movement is a lingering 'legacy of slavery'. The argument is that blacks are held back because their ancestors were slaves. That it is, at least in part, a self-esteem problem. Does this mean that a government handout is all that is required to fix the problem? If this is the case, why hasn't it worked over the last 30 years?

I have never lived in the inner city, so I can't speak to conditions or attitudes there. I have however known and worked with a lot of black Americans. I can't think of one who thought him or her self inferior to whites. Be that as it may, if one does feel this way, how will any amount of money change that viewpoint? It seems to me that what is needed here isn't money, but rather an attitude adjustment. Perhaps the "black leadership" should spend less time telling folks how downtrodden they are, and quit trying to find excuses and handouts, and start encouraging folks to work to improve their lives instead. It seems odd to me that black folks who emigrate here from other places, like Haiti (where slavery was also practiced), seem to have little problem finding jobs and making ends meet. How is it they can do so, but many blacks born and raised here in the US have this "legacy of slavery" issue to deal with? It isn't as if they have "my ancestor was a slave" tattooed to their forehead.

The argument has also been made that black Americans should thank their lucky stars their ancestors were slaves here in America. Otherwise they would be living in Africa now (assuming they were even born), far from the comforts many of us take for granted here in the US. Such things as air conditioning, automobiles, sanitary drinking water, satellite - TV, microwave ovens, telephones, and many other common day-to-day things that we don't even think about. True, these do exist in Africa, but they are not nearly as common there as here in the US, where even welfare families commonly have these "basics" of American civilization.

Then there is freedom, which is in short supply in many parts of the world. Or how about the fact that we don't have a burgeoning AIDS epidemic going on here in the US, running rampant throughout the heterosexual population as well. Many countries in Africa are looking at 25-50% of their populations dying from AIDS within the next 20 years or so. The infection rates are horrendous. The latest figures I have seen for the South African armed forces, for example, are that 90% are HIV positive. Shocking numbers. And this is a disease that at present has no cure.

Of course, white Americans who make this argument are labeled "racists", while black Americans (such as Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, and Alan Keyes) who express these views are merely called "Uncle Tom's. I should note that I am not defending slavery, or in any way trying to say that it was a good thing. I am saying that that was then and this is now. This is the 21st century, not the 19th. It is time to put that era of our history behind us where it belongs, in the history books, and move on.

My main point here is that the whole idea of reparations for the past "legacy of slavery" is illogical. There is no fair way to proceed. And while we are at it, why stop there? Most everyone has had ancestors who had to endure something unpleasant. Why not reparations for Native Americans? For those who remained loyal to King George during the American Revolution and were reviled, or deprived of life, livelihood, or property? How about reparations for those of Irish descent, who suffered from discrimination when they first came to America? Or to the descendents of the Chinese who came here to work on the transcontinental railroad, who weren't treated much better than slaves themselves. The list goes on. Where does it stop? Do we owe money to homosexuals and transvestites? To Catholics or Jews for ills they suffered? How about to Mormons, for forcing them to flee across the country to Utah, after being kicked out of everywhere else, and having an extermination order signed against them by the Governor of Missouri? How about to non-Christians "forced" to live surrounded by those who believe in Christ.

Instead of pursuing this and other issues that divide us, why not enter the 21st century with a clean slate, and a firm resolve that we are all Americans. Let us instead put the past behind us, and begin forging ahead to make our future. To quote Rodney King out of context, "why can we all just get along?" Let's drop the hyphens and the race labels, and just be Americans, citizens of one of the greatest nations the world has ever seen.

Let's worry about reforming government, the tax system, and social security instead. This would be of much greater benefit for all Americans, black Americans included, than any reparations the government could possibly bestow.