From: "Lee Corbin" <email@example.com>
> Here is an essay written in August concerning reparations.
> I don't know anything about "The American Enterprise Online"
> web site, and so don't know if arguments written by people
> affilitated with it should be dismissed out of hand.
As some list participants don't have web access, here's the article.
(This article has convinced me to support reparations. How 'bout you?)
Has the Debt Been Paid?
The activist campaign demanding payment of "slavery reparations" to today's
black Americans probably strikes some readers as too far-fetched to take
seriously. Better stop and look afresh. I myself realized that the concept had
moved beyond faculty lounges, radical salons, and afrocentric pamphlets and
into the realm of serious political struggle when I looked over the roster of
a legal group convened to plot practical strategy for winning such
compensation. It included not only DreamTeamer Johnny Cochran, Harvard Law
School professor Charles Ogletree, and other ideologically predictable
backers, but also one Richard J. Scruggs.
Scruggs is a white Mississippi trial lawyer with a single interest: causes
which have a good chance of winning him lots of money. He is in the process of
collecting billions of dollars (literally) for his part in the 1998 tobacco
settlement. He is next trying to shake down HMOs and other unpopular
businesses with the threat of legal action. He has his finger in dozens of
other polemicized class-action suits. Scruggs also happens to be the
brother-in-law of Republican Senator Trent Lott. When legal vultures like
Scruggs, Dennis Sweet (hyper rich from Fen-phen diet pill suits), and
class-action specialists Willie Gary and Alexander Pires begin to circle-they'
re all currently members of a "Reparations Assessment Group" which has both
government and major corporations in its sights-some juicy carcass is usually
about to be picked clean.
There are other hints that the push for payments to slave descendants is
gaining momentum. Over the last year, a dozen big-city councils have passed
resolutions calling on the federal government to investigate reparations
payments. Representative John Conyers has a bill in Congress that would
require that. Representative Tony Hall, a white born-again Christian, is
pushing a different proposal that would take up reparations; Republican
congressman J.C. Watts has expressed guarded support. Quasi-conservative
Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote a column in April
proposing to give African-American families a lump sum of $50,000 each.
Among blacks on the street, meanwhile, interest in reparations is shifting
from pipe dream to popular demand. When I was in Dallas last year I heard
hortatory ads by pro-reparations groups on black radio stations. Longstanding
activist calls for black taxpayers to deduct "slavery credits" from their tax
payments are being heeded by more African Americans. The IRS field office
responsible for the region stretching just from northern Virginia to Delaware
received 500 tax returns claiming such a credit (illegitimately) last year.
"We're not talking about welfare. We're talking about back pay," is how the
executive editor of Ebony magazine now describes reparations. Overall, polls
show that most black Americans support having the government make
slavery-restitution payments (see page 61)-in some surveys by considerably
more than two-to-one.
This subject is not going to just quietly go away, as many Americans probably
wish it would. The question must be faced. Are there merits to the case for
I myself would characterize reparations as a good idea whose time has come and
long since gone. In the years leading up to the Civil War there were various
proposals for ending slavery through government payments. Lincoln called for
federal compensation to states according to the number of slaves they
emancipated. A portion of these payments could have been used to help the
freed blacks establish themselves in a new life. Unfortunately, nothing came
After financial dickering gave way to war, Union General William Sherman
issued his famous field order decreeing that all freed slaves should be issued
a mule and forty acres of land appropriated from plantation owners. But this
was later countermanded. Much to the frustration of Republicans, new President
Andrew Johnson vetoed such payments.
The result-a miserable one for blacks and for our nation-was that slaves,
though liberated, were not provided any resources to help them transform
themselves into self-supporting Americans. The "new Negro," Frederick Douglass
wrote, "had neither money, property, nor friends. He was free from the old
plantation, but he had nothing but the dusty road under his feet.. He was
turned loose naked, hungry, and destitute to the open sky."
If cash had been spent as it should have been in the 1850s or '60s on
reparations to slaves and indemnities to slaveowners, a terrible war might
have been avoided. If money had been spent as it should have been during early
Reconstruction to help the victims of slavery get themselves on their feet, a
subsequent century of degrading poverty and segregation among blacks could
have been mitigated.
But those opportunities were squandered, and there is no way to get them back.
As black economist Walter Williams summarizes, "Slavery was a gross violation
of human rights. Justice would demand that slave owners make compensatory
reparation payments to slaves. Yet since both slaves and slave owners are no
longer with us, compensation is beyond our reach."
Ah, but even with all the parties involved long dead, couldn't we make some
sort of cleansing payment that would set things right? The answer is no. The
two favorite models for slave reparations-payments to Holocaust victims and
interned Japanese-Americans-are utterly different situations, because in those
cases the injured parties and the injurers are still alive, and able to make
direct restitution, one to another.
Meanwhile the identities of "slave" and "slaveholder" have blurred and melted
away over the generations to the point where it is now impossible to say who
would pay and who would receive in any accounting for slavery. There are
plenty of Americans who have members of both groups in their family trees. The
vast majority of us have neither-we weren't slaves; we weren't slave masters.
Indeed, the majority of today's Americans descend from people who were not
even in America when slavery was practiced. And of the people who were here, a
much larger number fought against slavery than practiced it.
It gets even messier than that. There were, for instance, approximately 12,000
black freemen living in the Confederacy who themselves owned slaves. Moreover,
most of the individuals who came to America as slaves were dispatched into
that state by other blacks in Africa. Who owes whom what in these cases?
The villains and the heroes of slavery have evaporated into the misty vapors
of our past, and are now impossible to delineate clearly or bring to justice.
Trying to pay slave reparations in our current decade would, as one observer
puts it, mostly be a case of individuals who were never slaveholders giving
money to people who were never slaves. A clear absurdity.
Political scientist Adolph Reed wrote recently in The Progressive that the
only certain result of a reparations program would be to "produce a lively
trade for genealogists, DNA testers, and other such quacks." Even Holocaust
reparations-which are much simpler transfers directly to still-living
victims-have turned extraordinarily unseemly and debasing. As Gabriel
Schoenfeld noted recently in Commentary, "In the free-for-all to obtain
Holocaust victims as clients.competing lawyers from the United States have
barnstormed across Europe soliciting clients, publicly castigating each other,
and privately maneuvering to oust their adversaries." If you think a subject
as somber as slavery wouldn't be exploited (and ultimately decay into
grasping, self-serving tawdriness) the second financial opportunism became
possible, think again.
American blacks would take little solace from simply being told it's too late
for restitution, that practical impossibilities leave reparations for slavery
out of reach. But that's not the whole story. The whole truth, which ought to
offer black America real peace, is that the U.S. already made a mighty payment
for the sin of slavery. It was called the Civil War.
I first decided to put together a TAE issue on this subject almost exactly two
years ago, when my hometown newspaper ran a Memorial Day ad honoring local men
who had been killed in America's wars. The ad listed the names of 85
individuals who had died fighting the Civil War. I later did some research and
discovered that the complete total for the three small towns that comprise our
local school district was 105 killed.
The thing you need to know to put that figure in perspective is that our rural
village contains less than 3,000 people (and was not much different then). The
surrounding towns add a couple thousand more. For our little community to have
offered up 105 young men to be swallowed by the grave-most all of them between
18 and 29, the records show-was a great sacrifice.
Cazenovia's example was not a bit unusual. In all, more than 620,000 Americans
died in the struggle to eliminate slavery. That is more than the number killed
in all of our other wars combined. It amounted to a staggering 1.8 percent of
our total population in 1865. That would be the equivalent of killing more
than 5 million young Americans today.
The crux that defined and drove this ferocious fratricide was a determination
to purge ourselves of slavery. It would be hard to overstate the pain and
pathos involved in bringing that decision to its conclusion. President Lincoln
's own family is an example: No fewer than seven of his brothers-in-law fought
for the Confederacy; two were killed in battle. Yet Lincoln never wavered in
doing what was right.
Though they are often now ignored, our nation is peppered with many powerful
Civil War memorials. Pictured on the next page is a monument located down the
road from my own home in New York state. Erected by a village of about 5,000
people, it hints at the magnitude of feeling which went into America's
struggle to end enforced servitude. Our nation surely did run up a "debt" (as
reparations advocates like Randall Robinson-who is pictured on our cover-like
to put it) for allowing black bondage. But that bill was finally paid off, in
And not only in blood. After tardily recognizing their error, Americans have
tried to compensate for the historic harm visited upon African Americans. The
massive infusions of money into income support, education, and special
programs to benefit blacks that activists like Robinson are now calling for
have already been offered up. Economist Walter Williams notes that over the
last generation the American people have particularly targeted the black
underclass with more than $6.1 trillion in anti-poverty spending. Private and
governmental agencies have tried to improve black socioeconomic status with
measures ranging from affirmative action to massive philanthropic efforts. And
as our two cover essayists, John McWhorter and Deroy Murdock, point out on
pages 19-23, American blacks have made remarkable progress.
But to the activists, this is not nearly enough. Perhaps there can never be
enough done to placate them, because many are driven by an implacable sense of
grievance more than a practical desire to see blacks flourish. In his book The
Debt, Randall Robinson insists that blacks do not like America, and cannot be
part of it. It's clear that is his own posture, and he actively urges other
African Americans to share it. "You are owed," he tells his audience. "They
did this to you" (with the italic emphasis in his text).
This is a poisonous political path. It will be psychologically unhealthy for
many blacks, and it is very likely to inspire a nasty backlash among other
Americans. In his thorough article on Holocaust reparations (which, again, are
far more solidly founded, because the actual victims are still with us)
Gabriel Schoenfeld points out that renewed pressure on Europeans over Nazi-era
atrocities has unleased on that continent "a tide of anti-Semitic feeling
unseen since the pre-World War II era." Aggressive reparations demands have
created resentment both among intellectuals and on the streets, in the
political arena as well as in social life.
Rehashing historical offenses is rarely constructive-especially since there
are so many, extending in all directions and involving all races and groups.
Despite the common references to slavery as America's "peculiar institution,"
the reality is that until the early nineteenth century there was hardly a
country on earth without some kind of institutionalized slavery. One of my
great-great-great-grandfathers, Mark Staggers, arrived here from England as a
"bound boy"-in an indentured servitude which lasted for the rest of his
childhood and much of his young adult years. My German ancestors were poor
tenant farmers-the European equivalent of sharecroppers-who were repeatedly
abused by Napoleon during the very years when U.S. slavery was at its peak.
Human bondage was not an American invention, it was a condition suffered by
many people in many places across time. The northern U.S. states that outlawed
slavery were among the first governments on the globe to do so. Rather than
being some unique American stain, slavery was actually a commonplace sin, and
almost six generations have now passed since it was outlawed throughout our
And balancing the ugliness of historical slavery in our country is the
contemporary reality of enormous freedom and opportunity. Reparations
activists will never say it so I will: Despite some harsh imperfections,
America has, on the whole, been good to blacks, just as it has been good to
other struggling groups who washed up on these shores. As economist Williams
writes: "Most black Americans are middle class. And almost every black
American's income is higher as a result of being born in the United States
than in any country in Africa."
In the process of taming the wilderness, America's Anglo pioneers suffered
heavily from human cruelty, natural disaster, disease, and deprivation. Even
the most successful families sacrificed over and over. Of the 56 men who
signed the Declaration of Independence to launch America, nine died of wounds
or hardship during the Revolutionary War, five were captured or imprisoned,
many had wives and children who were killed or imprisoned, 12 had their houses
burned to the ground, 17 lost everything they owned, a number died bankrupt
and in rags.
Those who followed bore other burdens. The Irish were felled in great numbers
building our first canals and railways. Southern Europeans, Asians, Hispanics,
and many other immigrants endured long indignities and drudging work helping
to civilize a new land. The American society that sprang from the hardships
endured by our ancestors now belongs to each of us-very much including blacks,
who were some of our earliest arrivals.
There is no perfect accounting in the cosmos, and none of us sitting here in
twenty-first-century America really did much to "deserve" the prosperity,
pleasure, and long life that our country presently allows (to the great envy
of the rest of humanity). We-including those of us who are black-are just
lucky to be able to profit from those earlier sacrifices. The American
blessing is available today to every citizen, regardless of how rocky our
family's entry into the country. There is no "us" or "them" to give manna, or
take it, only a heavily interwoven "we" who share a common interest in the
success of our one system. The ultimate compensation America offers current
residents is a seat in the free-est and richest society yet created by man. It
's the final payment, a gift to one and all.
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