“Issue #20: Is Now the Time for Reparations for African Americans?”
The question of reparations to African Americans owing to slavery, lost opportunities, and state-enforced segregation has been long unresolved. The issue keeps emerging into the realms of national debate. The American psyche would not be healed till the time the question of reparations to African Americans is laid to rest, one way or the other.
Arguments for Reparations
Robert Allen, Adjunct Professor for African American Studies at the University of Berkeley, lends his voice in favor of reparations for African Americans. Allen is the editor of the Black Scholar journal and has written eight books covering the odyssey of the blacks in America. Allen’s viewpoints merit the fullest consideration in view of his substantial experience and credentials in the field of African American issues.
Historical Background. Allen begins by recounting how prominent personalities and agencies have argued for reparations throughout history. In 1854, a Black convention sought a ‘national indemnity’ as a ‘redress’ for wrongs committed on the black population in America. Black activists, Sojourner Truth, Callie House and Frederick Douglas, made public demands for reparations for the black community to no avail. Religious leaders like Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and Rev. Amos Brown lent their voice to the cause. The cause for reparations was echoed in the Islamic world. In a declaration by the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1920, the western world was declared guilty of appropriating the ‘treasures and possessions’ of the African people, and a call was made for the return of African assets to Africa. More recently, after the Second World War, the Black Panther Party recounted the defaulted American promise for forty acres of land and two mules to all black people after the civil war, and demanded that the black population of America be recompensed, just as the Germans were bearing reparations to Israel for the sins of the holocaust. In 1969, SNCC leader James Froman articulated the ‘Black Manifesto’, where he demanded reparations from the Church as an intermediate step towards the liberation of blacks from white dominance. In 1972, the Republic of New Africa (RNA), a black umbrella organization representing the southern states, demanded that land be given to blacks to form self-sustaining communities. In 1972, in the National Black Political Convention held in Gary, a declaration stated that the ‘economic impoverishment of the black community’ was attributable to ‘historic enslavement’ and to ‘racist discrimination’ since emancipation. In 1970, Dempsey Travis calculated that the current value of the 40 acres of land promised to former slaves amounted to $21.6 billion. In 1973, Boris Bitker stressed upon state-sanctioned discrimination that arose as a result of the Jim Crow laws, and demanded that the state make reparations for its wrongs committed on the black population. In 1974, Robert Brown justified the transfer of capital through reparations on the grounds that ‘racial disparities are traced to disparities in ownership of capital assets’. Economist David Swindon echoed the demand for the ‘repair’ of ‘historical damage to black capital stock’. The voices in America found traction in the wider world, with the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) demanding the ‘cancellation of external debt of African nations and return of stolen art objects’ to Africa. In 1989, Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill in Congress demanding reparations for the ‘institution of slavery sanctioned by the US government from 1798 to 1865’. Ever since, the Conyers bill has blocked in committee hearings and has not found its way for Congressional debate.
Justification for Reparations. Allen summarizes the argument for reparations on the basis of historical calls for reparations, books written by Manning Marable (How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America) and Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro (Black Wealth/ White Wealth), and through his own personal observations. Echoing Manning, Allen argues that blacks remained under-developed not due to the process of capitalism, but because of state intervention in ‘expropriation of surplus value from black workers’ in and ‘blocking capital accumulation by African Americans’. Allen recounts the historical bias against black labor. In 1662, the state of Virginia declared bondage of black slaves to be hereditary, while conferring the privilege of ‘whiteness’ to European indentured servants. The state circumcised the freedom of Black free people by adopting the practice of licensing, which exempted them from certain professions, and by debarring them from testifying in courts against whites. Due to such practices, the proportion of land owned by blacks in Virginia reduced from 11% in 1666 to 0.25% in 1860. Even after the civil war, the US government pended the abolition of the slave trade for twenty years. The property rights of slave owners were extended regardless of location. The understanding that ‘blacks were inferior’ received state sanction in the Dred Scot case. No land redistribution occurred after the Civil War, despite the 1865 Freedman’s Bureau Act promising 40 acres of land to each erstwhile slave. Planters’ rights to their lands were upheld, reducing blacks to the role of sharecroppers, forever in debt of the plantation owners. Blacks lost out on homeowner equity due to suburban home ownership policies. The Federal Housing Authority, by decreeing that if a neighborhood was to have stability, its social structure should not change, effectively closed the door for blacks to move into better localities. Loans were refused to blacks on frivolous grounds. Those who could afford to buy a house were invariably forced to buy houses in inner cities, where their houses lost value. Oliver and Shapiro calculate the loss attributable to ‘higher interest rates, lost home equity, mortgages denied to qualified borrowers’ to $82 Billion in 1982. Allen echoes Clarence Munford, arguing that ‘emancipation and the ending of legal segregation’ are not enough; blacks suffer from a ‘wealth imbalance’ that is centuries old. The crux of Allen’s argument lies in his assertion that we must recognize the that blacks have suffered state sponsored structural racial inequities over centuries, and that such inequities have caused an imbalance in wealth. Allen concludes that the African American community has a ‘just claim to compensation for that part of the wealth of the US that was derived from violating human rights, citizenship and property rights of the black people’. Allen broadens his argument, calling into question the concept of ‘capitalist political economy’, the exclusion of workers from the gains, and the role of the state, and seeks a ‘general redistribution’ of wealth to those nations that were exploited by the West.
Arguments Against Reparations
A panel from The Economist argues against the idea of reparations. The Economist argues that the statute of limitations has run out on the demand for reparations for African Americans. The Economist calculates that for every dollar owned to a slave, the present value would be between $6250 and $400,000. According to the Economist, such astronomical amounts figures appear unrealistic and are best avoided from the realm of discussion under the statute of limitations. On the legal angle, the Economist points out that ‘the legal idea of a crime against humanity was defined decades after it was abolished,’ and therefore the application of reparations would require the law to be applied retroactively. The Economist dismisses current efforts to legally target business firms that existed during the years of the slave trade and allegedly profited from the same. The Economist argues that it would be difficult to clearly assign causality and culpability to business firms for wrongs done against African Americans in the past. The Economist points out that such lawsuits would obfuscate the main requirement of America coming terms with its past. The Economist highlights the national mood, pointing out that a majority of whites remain inimical to the idea of even apologizing to the blacks for historical wrongs. The Economist points out that blacks are divided over the modus operandi for the award of reparations. While some blacks prefer to sue business firms, many feel that the government must pay. The idea of whether reparations should consist of funds alone or should also include an apology is open to debate. The Economist feels that efforts at raising the issue of reparations miss the point that America has moved on; white America is currently committed towards a just and multiracial society. In such a situation, raising the divisive issue of reparations would be counter-productive.
The arguments for and against reparations are compelling. While Allen’s contention of historical wrongs having been inflicted on the African Americans is irrefutable, the Economist’s argument that the idea of reparations is counterproductive, divisive and non-implementable makes sense too.
The argument for reparations bears historical support; survivors of the holocaust, Native Americans, Japanese Americans, aborigines of Alaska and Canada have all received compensation for wrongs committed. Compensation is accepted as a just award for those who have suffered wrongs.
However, the idea for reparations for African Americans becomes weak when the timeline is considered. No other group of people of such large magnitude has received reparations after four centuries. The principle of the statute of limitations, as argued by the Economist, makes sense in this regard.
Allen’s argument suffers from the fallacy of extent of coverage. If past wrongs need to be assuaged, then Allen does not go far enough. Allen only argues for the African continent whose resources were taken away by the west. Once the issue of historical reparations is given sanction, it would be open season for every nation to level charges on others. China would file suit against the west for losses suffered in the Opium Wars. India would seek damages incurred due to British imperialism. If all people were to be paid for wrongs, it would involve a massive redistribution of global wealth – an impractical idea that, besides being mired in opposition and controversy, would enhance the divisions existing in the world.
Allen avers that blacks lost out on economic opportunities due to extant laws and attitudes. Allen’s argument fails to take into account the trait of risk aversion amongst blacks. While blacks may well have been denied economic opportunities, their inherent risk aversion contributed to their relative lack of social mobility. This risk aversion, while steeped in cultural and historical factors, holds blacks back from social mobility even to this day.
Both Allen and the Economist quote the inflation-adjusted figure of $6250 to $400,000 as the amount due per dollar owed to erstwhile black slaves. However, this figure is debatable. Tim Worstall argues that the discount rate applicable to the days of slavery should properly reflect the financial rates of the seventeenth century and not of the twenty-first century. Worstall puts down the discount rate as one percent. He also argues that the lifespan during the days of slavery need to be taken into account, as opposed to current lifespans. Going by these parameters, Worstall concludes that the net amount payable to blacks would be only $1.75 Trillion, which is a mere 2% of the current national economy. It could be argued that the American nation pays more than this amount towards the goal of equal opportunity to blacks.
The arguments put forward by the Economist, while being valid, are not comprehensive. Alfred Brophy, quoting David Horowitz, fills in the blanks left in the Economist’s arguments. The Economist fails to mention that there is no clear group of people that can be deemed responsible for the crime of slavery. No group has exclusively benefited from slavery. The claim of reparations is based on race, and not on injury. The idea of reparations turns African Americans into victims- a status from which they must rise. Reparations do not take into account the debt blacks owe to America in upward mobility and emancipation.
W.James Antle best summarizes the complexities involved in implementation of reparations as pointed out by the Economist. Antle points out that it would be impossible to determine who would be paid and how much would the payment be. Antle points out that in the interregnum after the immigration of African Americans, many other groups of people have immigrated to the United States. Such groups of people, like Indians and Vietnamese, played no part in the dark days of slavery. Making such groups pay for America’s past would be inappropriate. It would also be difficult to determine applicability of reparations for people of mixed race. The inherent problems in detecting heredity might set off speculative and illegal practices in DNA testing and genealogy. Further, changing economic realities would deem it illogical for money to be paid to rich blacks from poor whites for wrong committed by whites onto blacks centuries ago.
The case study provided valuable insight into the contentious issue of reparations, and gave a glimpse into the troubled past of America.
There is no argument over the fact that African Americans have suffered during the days of slavery and post emancipation. However, the solution is not to revert to divisive ideas of reparations, which would be complicated and impractical to implement. Rather, the dialogue must be directed to cleanse America of the demons of the past so that it moves forward as a just and multiracial society. At the same time, current efforts at providing equal opportunity to blacks in the fields of education and jobs must continue.
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