A Closer Look at the Case for Reparations

A case for reparations for slavery always involves the idea of white privilege. Those that have urged society to give African Americans reparations for slavery and past disadvantages have also told us that whites have benefitted from an immense amount of amassed wealth.  Proponents argue that the present effects of past disadvantages should be solved by a rule of social justice that involves returning wealth stolen from years of free labor.  Furthermore, many of the ways in which supporters call for a giving back of wealth are vague and consist of demanding large amounts of money from the government, and ultimately the American people.  The politicians and common folk that believe in reparations for slavery seem to be in favor of a solution that basically aims at correcting history, although given, we do not live in a world (or country) of absolute equal opportunities in the present. After pondering this point of view, I have several observations that lead me to question its implications, and comment on the attitudes of those who are informing us of our moral duty to fix the wrongs of our forefathers.

One of my first observations about the argument for reparations is that an attempt at fixing the past would not stop at American slavery.  There is a long list of conquest of land and resources that spans all of history. In our particular country, some might argue that the Native Americans were the first to have the privilege of claiming the land in present day United States and to the south of us. Tribes were located in different areas and fought over hunting rights to specific territories themselves, some winning over others. A model of conquest ethics has been embraced time and time again throughout history.  Some countries like India have been invaded by multiple groups, like the British and Afghans, Persians and the Mongols.  This argument isn’t far removed from the context of reparations for slavery.  Take for instance Father Divine, who has argued that all nations and all peoples who have been involved must pay the African slaves and their descendants for all uncompensated labor. In other words, he is calling to fix an injustice of the past, by putting the burden on the descendants of the guilty. Not only is this complicated, but it also opens Pandora’s Box to compensating every possible oppressed people group in the past…which is just about every tribe and tongue imaginable in some form or another.

However, many supporters of reparations do choose to only focus on American history, specifically on the disadvantages of the African American community as a result of slavery, Jim Crow Laws or housing discrimination.  Although again, things do get complicated quickly when the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission asks “the West” for $ 777 trillion within five years, like in 1999.  It seems that some major taxation would have to take place in order to come up with this amount of money in such a short period of time.  Furthermore, I still wonder what supporters claiming to be beneficiaries of white privilege are going to do about it; after all, the burden falls on them.  Many proposals have called on the government to make direct payments. The problem of complicated genealogies may be a problem here, even for those who are proven descendants of slaves. What about those that are half white and half black? Should they be half punished and half compensated?  Howshua Amariel, a Chicago social activist, demanded that the federal government take radical measures in compensating African Americans: “For those blacks who wish to remain in America, they should receive reparations in the form of free education, free medical, free legal and free financial aid for 50 years with no taxes levied,” and “For those desiring to leave America, every black person would receive a million dollars or more, backed by gold, in reparation.”

It seems that many are waiting for society or the government to enforce their ideology, but may not be doing anything about it themselves.  Please don’t misunderstand me, I respect you completely if you hold this point of view and live in such a way as to demonstrate that you are committed to it. However there are many students who attend a top notch University, let’s say Stanford, Harvard or MIT, taking complete advantage of an opportunity that many others do not have, while still demanding the American government to do something about the discrepancy between white privilege and black disadvantage.  My challenge to these students would be to enforce their own moral code – not wait for society or the “system” to do so. They may want to give up their position in the university to a minority that did not have that opportunity.  My point is, in order to persuade others of your point of view, live it out! You or I may or may not agree with the philosophy of Diogenes of ancient Greece, but I’m sure we can both appreciate his authenticity in living out what he was urging society to do.

I would raise the argument that there is an alternative for correcting history, instead of finding out the people who are in possession of stolen goods and returning them the descendants of African American slaves.  An alternative would be to establish equal rights under the law, to truly be color blind, to treat people according to the content of their character, and not according to their skin color or their ancestors. But also to have compassion on people of all different skin colors.  After all, the white “race” is not the only people group to be racist; all people groups have the potential, and have been racist in the past. There are African American descendants of slaves who are racist and white descendants of good, just people that are racist. Furthermore, making right the wrongs of the past through demanding money is not just, but facilitates more injustice.  Acknowledging and repenting of the past, even of our fathers’ sins, and committing to create equal right under the law is one very viable solution to past discrimination and oppression of our fellow countrymen.

But, my friend, act according to your own conscience….and be completely committed to it.

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