Friday, August 13, 2004


Unlike John Kerry, I'm open-minded on the subject of reparations to American blacks.

The thing that most affects my thinking is this will written by Enoch Deason in the early 1800s. The first portion says this:

Bedford County, Tennessee

I, Enoch Deason, considering the uncertainty of this natural life and being of sound mind and memory, blessed be to Almighty God for the same, do make and publish this my last will and testament in mind and form following:

First: I give and bequeath unto my beloved wife, Rebecca Deason, for her lifetime; if she should be the longest living, all my property perishable and unperishable, to wit: ten negroes, household and kitchen furniture and stocks of various kinds and that the clear profits shall be approprated for the maintenance of my beloved wife Rebecca aforesaid entirley no trading or trafficating of any of the above property without the lieve of my term and legal assign.
Enoch Deason was an ancestor of mine. A distant ancestor, to be sure, but still an ancestor. And he obviously owned at least "ten negroes."

I'll never know who those slaves were. But what if I were to come across one of their descendants today? What would I say? Well, perhaps the descendant would turn out to be Michael Jordan, in which case I would politely demur that I could do nothing to improve his worldly circumstances.

But Michael Jordan is the exception. Statistics from the U.S. Census still show that the median white family is worth $67,000, while the median black family is worth merely $6,166.

That kind of thing matters. My grandparents, for example, owned a small farm in Arkansas, one that they had bought from my great-grandfather. They were poor by my standards. But then a lot of blacks in my great-grandfather's time period (not to mention before that) didn't even have the chance to own farms. As a result, they couldn't pass on property to their children and grandchildren. Nor did they have the opportunity to mortgage the farm to provide the capital for starting a business, or to give a kid a college education.

So I'm open-minded when it comes to reparations. The main problems are (1) How to identify who should pay; (2) How to identify who should receive payment; and (3) What form the payment should take. These problems may be insuperable, of course. I'm just saying that in principle, I'm open to reparations, particularly if I came across someone who could say, "Your great-great-great-great grandfather enslaved mine, and as a result could provide more opportunities and property to your great-great-great grandfather, who in turn could provide much more resources to your great-great grandfather, and so on down the line."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As horrible as slavery was for those who were slaves, it cannot be denied that their descendents are better off than they would have been had their ancestors had not been taken away from their native countries. African-Americans, if they were a separate country, would be one of the ten wealthiest countries in the world.

11:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think at some point we have to invoke a kind of statute of limitations. If you go back far enough, everybody's ancestors have done something nasty to somebody else's ancestors. Should I be given reparations for what the British did to my Irish ancestors during the potato famine? Ancestors who, not incidentally, all came to this country long after slavery was abolished...

The very concept is dangerous, as it represents an abandonment of individualized guilt and innocence in favor of collective guilt, collective punishment. And looking at comparative crime rates, I REALLY think blacks do not want to legitimize the concept of collective racial guilt. The downside potential is just too terrifying.

9:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I concur with Anonymous II. The past that was slavery in America is long gone; it wasn't practiced by everyone who was white; arbitrarily marking a particular era as being eligible for reparations ignores all other eras when things worse than slavery existed. Anyone willing to consider reparations for the descendants of people crucified by the Romans? By the way, the Romans most definitely did NOT invent the practice of crucifixtion.

12:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The standard measure of "damages" in a legal suit is, "how much would it take to put the plaintiff in the same monetary postition as he would be in if the defendant had not broken the law?" The defendant is then required to pay that amount to the plainfiff in an effort to (at least monetarily) "make him whole."

Applying this standard to the reparations question yields the surprising result that the "descendants of slaves" should be paying money to the descendants of the people who enslaved them. At least in terms of money, most African-Americans are substantially better off than most African-Africans.

Now, one could argue that Africans would be better off today if Europeans and Euro-Americans (and Arabs) had just left them alone. That colonialism left them in a semi-permanent state of under-development. In so, the
case for reparations is broader and has many more "plaintiffs" and "defendants."

8:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your thoughts on this subject are more specific than the general "white guilt" that whites are taught to feel these days -- you can actually connect the dots back to a slave-owning ancestor. But even so, SO WHAT? If my great-grandfather forced someone to provide free labor, does the victim's great-grandson have a cause of action against me for monetary damages? It's flawed reasoning that (as the other posters have noted) has all sorts of wacky slippery slope applications.

Yet another example that in today's culture, you're nothing if you're not a victim. White guilt is insulting to both whites that had nothing to do with the past crime, and to blacks who are patronized yet again.


10:55 AM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Lots of anonymous comments here. If you use a name, even a fake one, it is easier to reference your comments.

Anonymous 1 and Anonymous 4:
You both point out that blacks in America are better off than blacks in Africa. True for most people. Does this matter? I don't think so. It seems odd to say, in effect, "Hey, you should be thankful for slavery." Would this kind of logic apply to kidnappings within the same country? I.e., "My great-grandfather kidnapped yours and stole everything he owned; but as a result, your great-grandfather ended up living in New York City rather than Podunk, North Dakota, and you are better off as a New Yorker than as a North Dakotan. So the kidnapping was really to your benefit."

Or would it apply to crimes done to the same person? I.e., "I may have stolen all your money last year, but if I hadn't done that, you wouldn't have bought that lottery ticket last week in desperation, and you wouldn't have won the lottery. So you really owe me for stealing all your money."

Anonymous 2: The statute of limitations question is a valid one. There is a reason that most legal cases expire after a certain time -- witnesses die or forget what happened, etc., etc. But the most serious crimes -- murder, for example -- have no statute of limitations. And as discussed below, I'm not talking about a cause of action, but about my own moral responsibilities.

Anonymous 3 -- We gave reparations to the imprisoned Japanese from World War II, via the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which was passed under Reagan. Why should that era be "arbitrarily" marked for reparations when much greater evils were done to blacks? (Don't forget that the evils of segregation and Jim Crow extended for 100 years after slavery was ended.)

Anonymous 5: The question is not whether someone else has a cause of action against me, but whether I can imagine having a moral obligation towards someone else. To put it hypothetically: If my great-grandfather stole a farm from your great-grandfather, and the end result is that I have a $300,000 farm today whereas you have no savings and live in an apartment, it might be true that as a legal matter you can't sue me for the farm. But the real question, as far as I'm concerned, is whether I would have a moral obligation to help you out if possible.

Not that you should adopt the attitude of a forlorn victim; you should still take personal responsibility for your life. But the fact remains that I'm better off by $300,000 because my great-grandfather stole something from you rather than having personal responsibility for himself! Should I do anything about that?

11:36 AM  
Blogger TY said...

I don't think the Japanese-American internment reparations is the right analogy, though. There, the reparations went to actual victims of the wrongdoing, not to great-great-great-great-grandchildren. That said, I don't think it changes the substance of your post.

12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Civil War was reparations for slavery. Name another country that used its own citizens to fight a war to end the enslavement of some other people that didn't have the same status as its own citizens. USA didn't start slavery, it ended it. (Well, except that it still goes on around the world today.)

That said, the post-Civil War period must have millions of examples of civil rights violations that can be prosecuted today! Why sit around and bandy about the possibility of reparations for crimes perpertrated by people on people that all died hundreds of years ago when the courts can be filled right here right now with violations of the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments.

Slavery was clearly wrong but it was constituted and agreed upon all around by the politicos, legislatures and courts of the day, so I think it would be pretty tough to find a way to sue. Furthermore the question of who has to pay and who gets paid--not to mention the criminal charges that can be raised--is really just an opportunity for loud people to publicly argue--and good god don't we get enough of pointless rhetoric in America today?

Skip the discussion of slavery reparations and get busy serving out post-War justice.

(Sorry, its just easier to post as 'anonymous' because blogger wants you to register and all that.)

12:30 PM  
Blogger Tim McNabb said...

I'm on board with the last anonomous on the civil war. Thousands of white northerners perished to liberate the slaves, and a great deal of toil and tears went into securing equal rights. Until slave descendents can come up with a payment for all the non-slave owners whose end was as a fly-flecked corpse on the hills of Gettysburg, you will be unable to balance the sheet.

Though not insensitive to your personal connection to slavery and the felt obligations, I fear ultimately that reperations is an issue that is poisonous.

Ours is a Christian nation, and forgiveness is a much better ideal than an endless recursion into the past looking for insult. Muslims are tormented by 400 year old injuries - look what it got them.

For the record, I think the reperations for Japanese internees is a bit much.

12:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a brief comment and a link from a conservative African American writer Joseph Perkins on the topic. Let's look at this from another perspective - suppose we do give them reparations. What type of fallout do you think would occur? Do you think racial tensions would be better or worse? Where would the money come from? As some have said in the media from corporations that used slave labor, would that bankrupt those organizations, thus not giving them the opportunity to employ. If it is payment from the government, tax dolars, it is nothing more than redistribution of wealth. There are a lot of other issues in this as well that would make this an ugly situation.

By the way here is the article from Joseph Perkins:

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