Two days ago was “Juneteenth”, or June nineteenth, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Confederate states in 1865. America has a long history of buying and selling human beings. Thus, the DNC has rolled out slavery reparations as a serious campaign issue. It’s undoubtedly going to be discussed in the primary debates. Indeed, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders have both already discussed their respiration plans in the hypothetical. An article for the New York Times examines the history of reparations in America and points out how, although rare, they are not completely unheard of.
Reparations in History
The primary thesis of the article is that since these other groups (Native Americans, Interned Japanese-Americans, victims of government-sanctioned forced sterilization, and victims of police violence) receive reparations. Therefore, so should African-Americans, for slavery. The article also importantly acknowledges that the way these reparations panned out was not ideal. Some of the people who were promised financial compensation for subjugation never their received money. In other cases, they didn’t have complete control over it.
That is immoral on two levels. The first being that people promised a certain amount of money, barring any extraordinary circumstances, should usually receive it. Secondly, the people who these repetitions were going to actually deserved them. Within the 50 years, their government ripped their rights and lives away. The government apologized for its wrongdoing in the form of cash. Everyone that the American government paid reparations to was alive when paid. “Deserving” in this sense does not mean it’s appropriate to discount the pain of those who suffered under the institution of slavery. If people directly impacted by American slavery still walked the earth, by the cases of reparations we’ve already seen in America, they would be completely deserving. But today, no people stolen, abused, or killed in the American slave trade still exist with beating hearts above the ground.
Population Size Matters
This, among other things, is what differentiates slavery reparations from things like Native sterilization reparations or Japanese internment reparations. The government paid reparations to small and well-accounted for populations Very unlike the African-American population in America today. Aside from the immorality of awarding people monetary compensation for something that never tormented them, the impracticality of slavery reparations, even just a few decades after the end of American slavery, would’ve been a hindrance all on its own.
All these events that have warranted reparations in America’s history occurred in relatively small populations. At least relatively small compared to the 3.9 million slaves in America in 1860 alone. 3,400 native women were sterilized in the 1970s, the only decade where this was a government sanctioned occurrence. The government placed 120,000 American citizens in concentration camps during the Second World War. Solely based on Japanese ethnicity. These events combined produced far, far fewer victims. Not only that, but the victims were tracked, recorded, and identified in a system which made it easier to award reparations to the right people. Rather than handing out cash to any and all Japanese-Americans who may have been unaffected by internment, the government was able to identify those who were directly impacted by the abuse.
Where Does The Money Come From?
But even then, it ignores the wider conversation of how exactly the government would handle slavery reparations. Where would this reparation money come from? The general American tax budget? Well, then where would the money be cut from? Further, how much would these respirations be organized and laugh out? Most strikingly, how much is 400 years of oppression, subjugation, and slavery worth to someone who never endured it? These are the questions inherent in just the discussion of reparations.
However, outside of that discussion, there are questions about whether or not reparations are moral or even effective in the first place. Why should the government of today pay for the wrongs of the government 200 years ago? The government which allowed the enslavement of human beings under its rule is different from the one considering reparations today. Importantly, the tax dollars that would pay of reparations are coming from people who never participated in such a broken institution. Why do they need to pay into a system that would benefit people who were never victims?
Reparations Will Not Cure Racism
Also, presumably the reason why reparations would be given in the first place, aside from an apology, is because black people are somehow in need of this repayment. These arise from the misconception that slavery caused racism. But this isn’t at all the case. Slavery was (is) a global phenomenon, and occurred both in and between races. Racism occurred as a result of enlightenment and pre-enlightenment pseudoscience used to try to justify slavery. The justification was obviously wrong– morally and scientifically– but it’s also the root cause of most modern racial prejudice. So reparations for slavery would not be a causal remedy for current racial hatred and disparity.
At the end of the day, reparations for American slavery is not a just or practical solution or apology for our nation’s current and past transgressions. It’s also vastly unlike any of the other scenarios in which the American government has paid reparations previously. All of those, the native sterilization, police brutality, and Japanese internment, all had circumstances completely unlike those of slavery. Fewer people were involved and they were documented. More importantly, the government paid them reparations while they were still alive. There are better solutions to every problem that slavery reparations claim to solve, and an unjust redistribution of tax dollars is not one of them.
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