Term Paper: Reparation of Slavery

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Reparations of Slavery

Review of Pro-Reparations Literature

Rebuttal of the Reparations Arguments

One issue that has come to the surface in recent discussions of race in America is the issue of Slavery Reparations. This is essentially the idea that modern descendents of American slaves should receive some form of financial reparations for the oppression and other hardships endured by their ancestors. One notable advocate of this scheme is Randall Robinson, as quoted in Watts-Jones (2004). He claims economic reparations to the descendents of slaves are a necessary as well as morally correct thing since so much of the United States' wealth in prior centuries was derived from the uncompensated labor of slaves.

Review of Pro-Reparations Literature

Adebajo (2004) describes the conditions that have led to modern African-Americans affinity for the reparations argument. Unlike modern European-Americans, who may feel no particular affinity toward Europe (nor to each other), modern African-Americans do have feelings of affinity for Africa, other African-Americans, and issues affecting both.

Four centuries of a sordid trade in human cargo of Africans by American slave masters was followed by a century of colonial enslavement of Africa by European imperialists. These defining historical events have shaped the relationship of African-Americans and Africans with the West, and no serious examination of U.S. policy toward Africa can avoid focusing on the blighted legacy of slavery and colonialism, both of which created a bond between African-Americans and their ancestral home, resulting in their efforts to influence U.S. policy toward Africa."

Here we see the underpinnings for the origin of the reparations movement.

As quoted in Watts Jones (2004), Russell Robinson, author of the Debt: What America Owes Blacks, states that much of the current wealth of the United States is traceable to the labor of slaves and that "economic reparations are a necessary component of the recovery from slavery and its aftermath." Martha Biondi (2003) echoes this view though articulates it in more Marxist terms, and blithely suggests that opponents to the idea of reparations are racist themselves, though of a kind that is not explicit but symbolic; also addressed by Andrews (2003).

Judith Harman (also quoted in Watts-Jones (2004) goes on to declare that modern African-Americans suffer from post-traumatic slavery disorder, and that reparations may be the necessary treatment.

Martha Biondi (2003) celebrates the fact that recent pressure by African and Asian lobbyists seems to be forcing "the West to confront its own history" regarding slavery. She lists stages and influential individuals in the development of the reparations movement, basically claiming that there has always been one, but that it lacked the momentum necessary to gain national attention and serious debate until fairly recently.

She cites recent government movements toward a kind of reparation, for instance in 1988 to Japanese-Americans interred during World War II, in 1994 to survivors of the 1923 Rosewood massacre. However, she also notes that in these two cases, the people who were actually wronged are still alive to be compensated for the injustices they suffered. This is not the case regarding slavery; the last American slave was Charlie Smith, who died in 1979 (Library of Congress, 2005).

She goes on to claim that since discrimination has persisted, at least privately, against African-Americans, reparations payments should be extended to African-Americans for these injustices as well. Her claims for government-sponsored discrimination against African-Americans (that social security initially excluded the occupations of agricultural workers and domestic service because these were the occupations that most African-Americans held) are conspicuously unsubstantiated, and may only be her opinion.

She is right about one thing, however. Like Robinson has said (quoted in Watts-Jones 2004), much of the economic wealth accumulated in the United States prior to the abolition of slavery was made possible precisely because of slavery. If modern corporations could be traced back to the period in question, and shown to have prospered at the expense of slaves, then a case could be made that the corporations themselves ought to make some kind of reparations, since corporations exist in perpetuity.

This is a bit dangerous, however. If we force modern corporations to pay for their sins, we're really forcing consumers (many of them African-American) to pay for them; no company is just going to soak up such a cost if it can pass some of it on to consumers. If we drive New York Life or Aetna into bankruptcy because these companies or their ancestors prospered from the slave trade, what happens to all the African-American employees of these firms? It may be counter-productive to bite the open hand that feeds us today just because it was a fist in previous generations.

Jeffries (2004) claims that since slaves in Texas were not freed until nearly two years after Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, they are "entitled to reparations comparable to two and a half years unpaid backbreaking labor."

What the author has failed to realize is that since the Confederacy was an independent country at the time Lincoln signed the proclamation, the proclamation had as much legal import there as if it had been designed to liberate the Russian serfs. Today we would laugh if the Japanese parliament passed a law it to be enforced in Argentina. This is exactly what Lincoln signed.

Further, even if we admit that modern descendents of slaves deserve reparations, the Emancipation Proclamation is not a good starting point to measure "back wages owed" because slavery was not actually made a crime until June 19th, 1865. It seems paradoxical to seek to punish the descendents of people for crimes that were not legally crimes when they were committed, or to seek to compensate the descendents of their victims.

Another reason why the Emancipation Proclamation is a bad starting place is because it only freed the slaves in the Confederate States, and not those slaves residing in the border states of Delaware, Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland. It is not hard to see why Lincoln failed to free slaves in these states, especially in the case of Maryland - the federal capital Washington, DC straddles the border between Virginia and Maryland. The author never suggests that descendents of slaves living in those states be compensated as well, but if we are allowing sympathy to sway reason, we should be even more willing to make reparations to their descendents because even the government that was, ostensibly, in favor of their liberation failed to officially do so until after the cessation of hostilities.

These kinds of mistakes on Jeffries' part only contribute to readers' incredulity for his claims.

Forde-Mazrui (2004) argues in favor of reparations, but concludes that the problem is that both camps are incapable of taking each others' arguments seriously, and that if they began to do so, the problem would be resolved. For instance, opponents to reparations have sometimes said that expecting modern Americans to pay for past injustices to dead African-Americans is like making modern America make amends for whites who have suffered injustice because of reverse discrimination. Because of this, says Forde-Mazrui, conservatives are opposed to the notion of reparations, while advocates of reparations see this point-of-view as hysterical. What Forde-Mazrui suggests is to accept these terms as legitimate and extend reparations to those victims of reverse discrimination. The rest of Forde-Mazrui's paper is devoted to making this case. Basically, if we admit that whites who have suffered reverse discrimination should be compensated for this injustice, then we must compensate descendents of slaves for the injustices suffered by their ancestors. The logical problem with this, and about which Forde-Mazrui is quite silent, is that the whites in question are being subjected to reverse discrimination in the here and now, and not hundreds of years ago.

In any event, the movement toward reparations seems to be growing (Yamamoto, et al., 2003). According to Dubinsky (2004) African-Americans are encouraged by the Holocaust slave labor settlement and Armenians take heart from the Holocaust insurance and banking litigation.

Rebuttal of the Reparations Arguments

The fundamental flaws in all arguments in favor of reparations are these.

First, the people who actually endured slavery have all succumbed to the passage of time; the last former American slave died in 1979 (Library of Congress, 2005). The time for a disbursement of money in the form of reparations is long gone when the last victim of slavery itself has passed away. There are many people still living who have met or known former slaves, just as there are many people alive today who remember aged Confederate and Union soldiers participating in holiday parades in the early part of the 20th century. But it has literally been decades since the last member of that generation passed away, and having passed away, the dead have no rights (Baets, 2004).

If not one person is alive today who ever had to endure life as a slave, then who should receive the economic reparations for their suffering and lost years? If we are going to say that the descendents of slaves deserve compensation for the suffering of their… [END OF PREVIEW]

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