How do we make amends for something that can never be erased from our collective memory? The summer of unrest following the death of George Floyd has led to the revival of a liberal focus on reparations for slavery. During the 2020 presidential primary, Senator Elizabeth Warren and now-Vice President Kamala Harris were among a group of Democrat candidates who openly announced their support for such restitution. Former President Barack Obama made his support clear, suggesting reparations are payback for the nation’s wealth and power that “was built on the backs of slaves.” Black Lives Matter organizer Ariel Atkins defended those vandalizing and stealing from neighborhood businesses, claiming that looting was an appropriate form of reparations.
Slavery was an abomination, a horrific blemish on the magnificent history of the American experiment. It was unacceptable that men, women, and children were forced into labor, receiving little to no pay and benefits, often treated harshly and dehumanized. It is indefensible, and any of those individuals subjected to such treatment would be deserving of reparations. So, who today, as a citizen of the United States, has been subjected to the horrors of legalized chattel slavery? I say let that man, woman, or child be first in line for reparations.
Slavery ended in 1865. The Reconstruction period following the Civil War was the time to pay reparations. Those who suffered the indignity of slavery were deserving of restitution for lack of income and property ownership, and the denial of the individual liberty, equality, and rights demanded by the Declaration of Independence, and of simple basic humanity, in general. Who, besides the most racist among us, would ever deny that the freed slaves of the 1860s were owed something by a nation that allowed their oppression and treated them not as human beings, but as property? Even their offspring, who would continue to suffer for years as the nation transitioned to a fully free state, were deserving of compensation. That, however, was over 150 years ago, and although generations of black Americans have continued to struggle, the direct impact of slavery has long passed from the lives of today’s people of color.
While many will point to restitutions paid by the U.S. to Japanese Americans interned during World War II or Germany’s reimbursements to holocaust survivors as reasons that black Americans should be paid reparations, there are some not so subtle differences. Many Japanese Americans lost property and wealth they already possessed, as did the Jewish people who lived through Hitler’s oppression, whereas the black slaves did not have any pre-existing wealth or own any property. This is not to minimize the atrocities of slavery, or to compare the suffering of various peoples, but to acknowledge that there is a difference between reimbursing wealth and property that was seized and paying retribution for wealth and property that was never owned. The payouts to the Japanese Americans and holocaust survivors were also paid out to survivors and first-generation descendants - those generations of black Americans are long gone. As I said earlier, reparations should have been paid in the late 1800s, while the perpetrators of the abomination could have been compelled to pay restitution, and those directly impacted could benefit. Finally, while previous restitutions have had quite minor impacts on national budgets, due to relatively small sums of money, those promoting reparations to descendants of slavery are asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars for each of the 40 million black Americans they say would be eligible - totaling in the range of $10-20 trillion, which is at least half of the nation’s GDP, which would be crippling for the U.S. economy.
Former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts asserted in the past that calls for reparations are nothing more than political stunts, catering to black people in order to secure their votes. As he has said, the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House in the first two years of the Clinton administration (1993-1995) and did nothing to address the issue. Barack Obama also had Democrat control of both houses for the first half of his first administration (2009-2011), yet there was no reparations legislation passed. For far too long, the Democrat party has kept segments of the American people dependent on government to ensure reliable voting blocs, using handouts to purchase votes. Is it not about time that we put politics aside and start empowering these people?
On February 17, 2021, USA Today printed a piece in which it stated that Congress was looking at, “Legislation focusing on how the U.S. can apologize for slavery and make reparations to the descendants of slaves…” Many on the left claim that we cannot heal as a nation without financially rewarding individuals who have done nothing to deserve it other than having ancestors who were treated immorally. Who will pay such reparations? Is it part of the healing process to punish individuals by confiscating their wealth in an effort to “apologize” for wrongs of the past, although neither they nor their descendants had any part in perpetrating the wrong? Is it not divisive to take money from one population of people, who have done nothing to warrant such confiscation, and give to another population, who have done nothing to deserve such rewards? Representative Tom McClintok expressed these views during a committee hearing regarding reparations, stating, "I can’t imagine a more divisive, polarizing or unjust measure than one that would by government force require people who never owned slaves to pay reparations to those who never were slaves." If over $10 trillion in reparations were paid by the federal government, millions of innocent Americans would unfairly be deemed guilty and saddled with a hefty additional tax burden.
It is not possible to ever make amends to those who suffered the harsh reality of slavery. One, because no amount of money could ever undo the pain and suffering endured by those who were slaves. Two, because there are no slaves or first-generation offspring of slaves alive today to benefit from any such restitution. The best way to make things right for the descendants of black slaves is to work together to build a society in which, as Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, we are all judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin. The extermination of racism and the guarantee of racial equality is the apology the slaves of yesteryear deserve.