Proposed reparations for slavery differ in principle and practice from Holocaust reparations
This year is marked by many as the 400th year of the introduction of slavery to the territory that is now part of the US. The first slaves, it is said, arrived in Jamestown in 1619. Some dispute this, saying that slaves came to other parts of the Americas earlier. Be that as it may, the sin of slavery is spurring talk of reparations for the slaves’ descendants.
The argument for reparations is flawed from beginning to end, on both the pragmatic and the moral plane. None of this means that it is any less imperative to address current social injustices, disparate incarceration and drug-use rates and unequal educational opportunities. Not only would reparations not address these issues; reparations would exacerbate them.
The argument for reparations, such as it is, runs like this: The racism that slavery represents has not been wiped from the face of the American earth. The continuing disadvantages that descendants of slaves face is deserving of monetary compensations from . . . whom? From the current oppressors? From the descendants of the slave owners? So begin the pragmatic difficulties in the idea of reparations.
Indeed, this is only the beginning. Let us say that those obligated to pay the reparations are the descendants of slave owners or slave dealers. There aren’t many. Most of the population in the US today are descendants of immigrants to the US since 1865, when the Civil War ended. Surely they bear no onus for American slavery. Or, let us say that those obligated to pay are the current oppressors. If the identification of every non-black person in the US as a racist oppressor is not sheer racism itself, the very idea of racism has no meaning.
Indeed, even these difficulties are only the beginning. Again, let us say that those obligated to pay the reparations are the descendants of the slave owners. Some of the slave dealers were black Africans. This is an established fact of history that many prefer to hide. Yes, black Africans rounded up black Africans to be sold as slaves. So now, in order to identify the descendants required to pay reparations, it will be necessary to distinguish among African Americans themselves — if it is justice that reparations are supposed to represent. These ugly, pragmatic implications of reparations stretch forth into the many inescapable moral dilemmas that any equitable distribution of the funds would face.
It may be objected: But if the idea of reparations is morally sound, shouldn’t the pragmatic issues be defined, faced and resolved, no matter how difficult that may be? No. Because these pragmatic issues themselves invariably entail discriminatory policies. Those who would be made to pay would not be those who descended from those who sinned the sin of slavery; or, those who would pay would be assumed to be oppressors themselves, strictly on the basis of their skin color.
But, let us put all this aside. Let us say that there are no pragmatic issues in reparations. Is the idea morally sound? It is not.
First, the recipients of reparations for slavery would not be the victims of slavery, but many generational degrees of separation from the victims.
Second, not all those who suffer disadvantages on the basis of race today are African Americans. They include members of other races. Now there’s an idea for social cohesion and repair! Award reparations to some but not to others.
Third, the idea that current social disadvantages stem strictly from historical wrongs is to achieve the opposite of the intent of reparations: a path to social or economic equality. To be sure, that path requires equality before the law. But then, that path can work over time only on the basis of personal discipline and achievement, both of which would be undercut by the reward of funds unlinked to any commitment to improve oneself. Reparations are not affirmative action, which is future-oriented; which fosters, say, admission to college or the receipt of government contracts. Reparations are, by definition, strictly a function of the past, not present or future achievement.
If it is to be argued that reparations are to be reserved only for those who do demonstrate a plan of personal improvement, well, again we fall into the morass of distinguishing between Americans themselves. The same invidious discrimination cannot be avoided if reparations given not to individuals but to government programs designed to help . . . whom? Again, only actual descendants of slaves? All African Americans, regardless of whether their ancestors were active in the slave trade? Only African Americans below a certain income level?
But wait, it may be objected: Did not the Jewish people validate, demand and receive reparations for the Holocaust? Indeed they did.
However, there are three main critical distinctions between Holocaust reparations and the idea of reparations for slavery.
First, the recipients of Holocaust reparations were the victims themselves, those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, not their descendants. For those Jews whom the Nazi forced into slave labor, the reparations were calculated on the basis of what that labor was worth. As to the reparations given to the State of Israel per se, Israel’s population was heavily weighted by victims of the Holocaust, and those reparations directly aided in Israel’s survival and thus in the victims’ survival.
Second, those who paid the reparations were the former Nazis themselves, via their elected represent- atives, such as the governments of Germany and of Austria.
Third, the reparations entailed no discrimination. Recipients were eligible strictly on the basis of their oppression by the Nazi government, not on the basis of their race or ancestry.
Also to be noted is that the return of valuable items of art or of other property to the descendants of victims of the Nazis are not reparations and have no parallel to the proposed reparations for slavery. The return of these items is simply that: the rectification of theft, under which descendants qualify in the same sense that all descendants of an estate qualify. The return of an item of art is not a reparation to a descendant of a person who suffered.
No doubt, in a scheme as large as Holocaust reparations, there were loopholes and abuses. But in the moral idea and, overwhelmingly, in the practical execution of Holocaust reparations, begun seven years after the war’s end, there is no valid comparison to the idea of reparations for slavery that ended some 170 years ago.
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