The Reparations Fallacy

1619 Project author demands America pay up.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) said during a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives last week that “Black Lives Matter is a mandate from the people. It’s time. Pay us what you owe us.” Pressley is a demagogue. We are not living in a mob-run democracy of the “people.” We live in a constitutional republic. Americans don't owe Pressley (speaking for "us") anything except her salary - even that's a stretch given her performance.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the leader of the New York Times’ historically flawed 1619 Project on black slavery as the central theme of America’s identity, at least tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to present persuasive arguments and selective bits of history in support of her call for reparations. She wrote an extensive cover story for the June 28th edition of The New York Times Magazine, entitled “What is Owed.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones demands recompense in the form of an unspecified amount of reparations for the “centuries of meticulously orchestrated inequities” that she says still persist. She claims that these inequities give white Americans a “centuries-long economic head start that most effectively maintains racial caste today.” Hannah-Jones further argues that “the lack of wealth has been a defining feature of black life since the end of slavery,” which has been caused by “400 years of racialized plundering.” She plays down the significance of legal progress on civil rights during the last 70 years, beginning with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision and including legislation prohibiting discrimination in housing, employment and voting rights.

Hannah-Jones espouses the theory that America’s history, economics and legal foundation are inextricably entwined with slavery, which, in the words of her 1619 Project, is “in our DNA.”  The advocates of this theory ignore the wider historical context of slavery in Africa and look at slavery as only a white European colonialist economic instrument to exploit blacks. The U.S. Constitution’s purpose, they argue, was to preserve the institution of slavery for the benefit of white Americans. This narrative is wrong in several critical respects.

First, as economist and author Thomas Sowell has pointed out about the West’s unique role in ending far-reaching slavery, “The widespread revulsion which this hideous institution inspires today was largely confined to Western civilization a century ago, and a century before that was largely confined to a portion of British society.  No one seems interested in the epic story of how this curse that covered the globe and endured for thousands of years was finally gotten rid of.  It was gotten rid of by the West-- not only in Western societies but in other societies conquered, controlled, or pressured by the West. The resistance put up by Africans, Asians, and Arabs was monumental in defense of slavery, and lasted for more than a century. Only the overwhelming military power of the West enabled it to prevail on this issue, and only the moral outrage of Western peoples kept their governments' feet to the fire politically to maintain the pressure against slavery around the world.”

The U.S. Constitution was indeed an imperfect compromise. Without compromise between the slave-owning Southern states and the states where the abolition of slavery was already underway, however, there would not have been any national union with teeth at all. The Southern states would have then formed their own country with slavery persisting there for a far longer time. The Constitution contained a critical clause that placed a firm prohibition on any further importation of slaves starting on January 1, 1808. Congress passed legislation in the meantime regulating the trade in slaves by U.S. ships in the open ocean waters.

In December 1806, President Thomas Jefferson’s annual message to Congress included the following passage: “I congratulate you, fellow-citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country have long been eager to proscribe.”

Yes, Jefferson owned slaves. However, in addition to the forward-looking ideal of universal inalienable rights he wrote into the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson signed a statute passed by Congress prohibiting the importation of slaves which went into effect in 1808. The United States was beginning the journey towards eradicating slavery altogether in the country, which took a civil war costing hundreds of thousands of lives to finally accomplish.

To put things into some historical perspective, which Hannah-Jones and her like-minded reparations supporters have failed to do, approximately 11 million Africans were seized in total during four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, out of which about 450,000, or about 4% of the total, were brought to the United States. And this did not come about as a result of white slave traders just forcibly seizing black Africans from their homes. "It was the Africans themselves who were enslaving their fellow Africans, sending them to the coast to be shipped outside," said researcher Akosua Perbi of the University of Ghana as quoted in a 1995 article posted on CNN’s website.

During the period following the end of slavery in America, as Hannah-Jones correctly points out, the freed slaves and their African-American descendants suffered in numerous ways from the ravages of racial discrimination and economic deprivation. But she is wrong to lump all “white” people together as the collective villain or to ignore deep-seated discrimination that also existed against non-blacks based on ethnicity or religion. Indeed, immigrants arriving from Western and Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s, who were Caucasian, experienced discrimination and were scorned as inferior beings. Irish immigrants looking for work were confronted with “No Irish Need Apply” employment ads. Non-Jewish hotels used signs and ads to announce “No Dogs. No Jews. No Consumptives.” Discrimination at universities was common. An 1878 article in the Yale News, for example, referred to Jews as “human vermin” and “vultures.” Anti-Semitism, including within the Black Lives movement, remains a significant problem.

This is not to minimize the uniqueness of the black experience collectively throughout this nation’s history. Affirmative action has already provided some redress - special advantages for blacks and other favored minorities. However, it is fundamentally unjust to hold all whites today collectively responsible for the sins of prior generations, including whites whose own ancestors came to this country years after slavery ended and engaged in no acts of discrimination against blacks themselves. It's a fundamental principle under the rule of law that each individual is responsible for his or her own transgressions, not the transgressions of others with whom the individual has had no involvement.

As Kevin D. Williamson argued in an article in the National Review making the case against reparations, “A racial disadvantage is only one of many kinds of disadvantages that can be inherited — why should it be the one around which we organize ourselves?” He added, “Even if we accept the facts of aggregate advantage and disadvantage with their roots in historical injustice, the aggregate cannot be converted into the collective inasmuch as neither advantage nor disadvantage is universal on either side nor linked to a straightforward chain of causality.”

Hannah-Jones illustrated the force of Williamson’s argument by claiming counterfactually that no problems that blacks are facing today are in any way of their own making. “To summarize,” she wrote,” none of the actions we are told black people must take if they want to ‘lift themselves’ out of poverty and gain financial stability…can mitigate 400 years of racialized plundering.”

Back in the mid 1980’s, “representatives of 100 black organizations met in Nashville to discuss the increase in teen-age pregnancy, high unemployment, widespread illiteracy and the rising rate of violent crime,” the New York Times reported back then. “The participants were especially concerned with whether racism was the cause of some of the problems confronting poor blacks, whether government aid programs had exacerbated the situation by reducing incentives to work and to keep families intact, and whether blacks themselves had to bear some of the blame. After the meeting, John E. Jacob, executive director of the National Urban League, said, 'In concentrating on the wrongs of discrimination and poverty, we may have neglected the fact that there is a lot we can do about our own problems ourselves.’''

Government assistance for the disadvantaged and pro-growth economic programs that invest additional monies in education, housing and black-owned businesses can help those who also try to help themselves. Shortly before the coronavirus pandemic hit our country, African-American unemployment had hit a record low - 6.8 percent, the lowest level recorded since the government began its tracking in January 1972. Getting back to that level or even lower will be far more more meaningful in the long term than reparations handouts.

Finally, Hannah-Jones does not mention in her article the price tag she has in mind for what she considers to be adequate reparations. The one example she provided of how “remarkably generous” this country can be was the annual allocation of money to help support Holocaust survivors living in America, which this year is $5 million. Surely, Hannah-Jones and other reparations supporters have something much larger in mind. According to one analysis, the “amount due” for reparations could be as high as $16 trillion, which would mean $1 million per African-American household. An analysis by William A. Darity Jr., an economist at Duke University cited by Hannah-Jones as the source for some of her information, came up with the figure of $2.6 trillion or about $80,000 a person. Rich and poor alike would receive the reparations under Hannah-Jones’ suggested approach as long as the person “has documentation that he or she identified as a black person for at least 10 years before the beginning of any reparations process and can trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery.” In other words, a destitute white taxpayer living in poverty would have to pay for reparations going to a billionaire such as Oprah Winfrey, who reportedly has ancestors who were enslaved many generations ago.

Reparations based on some notion of collective white guilt are inherently divisive, unfair and unjust.

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Photo credit: Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo at Wikimedia Commons