Just as I do not advocate for slavery, a lack of Justice, I do not advocate reparations for enslaved people or their modern descendants. I have written a two-part longer article on American Slavery and its Repercussions: Comparing Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, and James Baldwin.
The first issue is that slavery existed in the U.S. This was a problem from our founding and continues to be a point of conflict even today. Few people advocated for manumission in the time of the signing of the US Constitution, but there were some such as Benjamin Lay, John Lay, and others, including the Manumission Society. Most abolitionists believed in the democratic process of slowly transitioning people out of slavery and into their natural state of freedom and liberty. Unfortunately, it took a war, money, and time to finally end slavery in the U.S. Even then, chattel slavery continued among some of the Native American reservations after the Civil War.
The second issue is that politicians rarely kept their promises. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman was famous for wanting to give freed slaves “Forty acres and a mule“. This rarely occurred. In order for reparations to work, they would have had to come right after slavery ended.
As many philosophers, political scientists, and economists have pointed out, the math to provide reparations is nearly impossible at this point. Many different estimates exist. Some have estimated as low as $6.4 trillion, or up to $14 trillion USD. Let’s examine how the math for reparations would work out today.
- Person A was a slave and freed with the promise of 40 acres and a mule. The state gave no reparation. Person A, along with Person B who is also a freed slave, have 3 children- Persons C, D, and E.
- Persons C, D, and E were not slaves but receive the will of Person A and B, equaling 80 acres and 2 mules. Splitting this equally between them, someone is already out of a mule, and the acreage is around 26 or 27 acres per person. These children of Persons A and B do not get their parents’ will of 80 acres and 2 mules.
- Person C marries Person F whose parents were also freed slaves given the same ungranted promises. Person F is also a sibling of 2 others, meaning that with Person C, they each are told they are owed around 26 or 27 acres and maybe a mule each if they were lucky. They have 3 children, Persons G, H, and I. These children are given a will of their parents, but it is not kept. It is of around 54 acres and maybe 2 mules. But, we are not sure who got the mules from before. Persons G, H, and I also never get the original will or any subsequent offers of reparation. 3 people splitting the 54 acres is 18 acres each.
- Person G marries Person J and they were both never slaves, but they have similar circumstances in that their families never received reparations, and they were each a member of families with 2 other siblings that were supposed to split the reparations. This, excluding the mule, is 6 acres per child, making 12 total acres between Person G and Person J to be split between their offspring. If they had 3 children, the math continues to deteriorate the amount due to the following offspring. Eventually, it leads to nearly nothing per person.
- As time passes further, and more mixing of races continues, along with more legitimate and illegitimate children are born, there are fewer and fewer claims to reparations to be made, as simple mathematical application shows.
- Additionally, if the U.S. government were to make these past-due reparations, it would happen with tax money. Well, not everyone in this country had slaves or benefited from it. Not everyone’s family was here, not even every black person in the U.S. has slave ancestors. So, paying any reparations today would punish everyone, even those that never had slaves or benefited. The craziest part is that the state would force people who are of slave ancestry to pay for wrongs they surely did not commit, just to turn around and pay themselves again via taxation.
- In today’s world, how much would the grandparents and each of their children and grandchildren, etc. get? If by now, the amount due per person is so minuscule, and if only the grandparents get reparations, is there Justice? Or will all of those with slave ancestors need a payment? If so, for how long does that need to go? Are we to punish everyone for the sins of their ancestors? That opens an entirely new discussion.
Overall, in order to pay reparations, the state would need an equivalent amount in today’s money, a list of benefactors and list of people to pay for it.
This is simply impossible to determine. How would they pay someone of mixed races, who has ancestors that both owned slaves and were slaves? Would they payment be a lump sum, or sent in installments? What if DNA charts show that some children were born out of wedlock? Who will provide payment from a will for that child and their descendants? Many other questions regarding verification and exact payment would be necessary in order to find out the true modern amount. How will that impact the value of the USD? The notion brings up many difficult economic questions as well.
The questions continue, and for everyone involved, it is quite troublesome. It would be even worse if this came into fruition today. All we know is that slavery was, indeed, wrong. It is disgustingly inhumane and we should learn from that harsh lesson of the past.
Unfortunately, though, if reparations occurred, it should have been immediately after ending slavery within the U.S. Any other plan simply is not feasible.
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