Some Objectivity When It Comes to Slavery Reparations

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Promoted from the diaries by streiff. Promotion does not imply endorsement.
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Many on the Left and several now in Congress are putting forth the notion that the country owes the descendants of slaves- to them, every African-American reparations,- or some form of payment, for the sins of slavery in bygone days.  In some recent musings, the Leftists in Congress have suggested a committee to study the issue.   One would be wise to suggest some objective facts if this ever happens.

First, it must be noted that slavery was not an American or British colonial invention.  The Romans enslaved so many Eastern Europeans that the word “Slav” evolved from “slave.”  Contrary to culturally relative thought, the indigenous people of America before Columbus- the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas- all engaged in slavery of neighboring tribes and even used them for ritual sacrifice.  Well before any European set foot in Africa, tribes there engaged in slavery.  In fact, the European slave traders rarely penetrated beyond the coasts meaning that the slaves were gathered by other tribes, marched to the coast and then sold to the Europeans.  It was a lucrative business for African tribes.

It is estimated that of all the slaves exported out of Africa, a mere 5-6% ended up in colonial America.  Meanwhile, some 12-17 million Africans were exported out of Eastern Africa at the hands of Islamic slave traders.  When one factors in the more brutal enslavement of Africans at the hands of Muslims, only 3% of the slaves exported out of Africa ended up in America.  Hence, there is no statistical evidence that America owes anything to anyone.

Second, a short 89 years after the ratification of the Constitution, America abolished slavery with the 13th Amendment.  The importation of slaves was banned in 1808.  But, even before 1808 and well before the 13th Amendment, many states had already banned slavery.  In the South, greater than 80% of the white population did not own a slave.  Further, many of African-Americans in the country today are descended from African immigrants who arrived here long after slavery had been abolished.  They are not talking about reparations for slavery; they are talking about slavery, Jim Crow, alleged systemic racism and whatever else they can think of.

Third, not to minimize the brutality of slavery, in the vast number of cases it made no sense to abuse one’s slaves.  They were considered property and one would not destroy one’s slave any more than they would burn their crops.  A living slave was more valuable than a dead or sick slave.  Most slaves did not die at the hands of evil slave masters, but it is estimated that 33% of all slaves died on ships while in transit.  Although truly tragic, it is not genocidal.  Genocide requires the deliberate slaughter of a specific group of people.  If there was genocide, then there would be no profit.  Hence, it makes no sense to invoke the specter of genocide.

One must also dispose of the silly notion that the country became wealthy at the expense of slaves.  This is the underlying reasoning of the pro-reparation crowd.  Once again, facts get in the way of their emotional arguments.  The richest states in the country- Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania- had abolished slavery well before the Constitution itself was ratified.  At that time, Virginia was the most populous and richest state in the new union, but by the Civil War at least seven states- all without slavery- had surpassed Virginia in wealth.  Most analysis of the Union victory in the Civil War points to the wealth advantages of the Northern and Midwestern states that had banned slavery.  The South, by comparison was relatively impoverished.  The reason is simple: the planter class was dogged by indebtedness and shaky finance before the Civil War.

Some will argue that these Northern non-slave states became wealthy on the backs of slaves.  For example, it was Northern mills that made the Southern cotton into fabrics.  It was Northern merchants who shipped the cotton and other Southern goods to Europe.  It was the Northern banks that kept the Southern plantations and slave owners afloat.  The question, then, when it comes to reparations is how many degrees of separation are required?  Are we to make every owner of a cotton fabric liable for reparations?

And while the US bears no responsibility for inventing slavery, we do deserve credit for speeding its abolition.  In three generations, we managed to fight a Civil War and end the practice.  All previous civilizations considered slavery indispensable.  Spearheaded by evangelical Christians here and in Britain, the abolition of slavery created one of the greatest transformations in human history in a very short time period.  Less than 30 years after the Civil War, Brazil became the last South American country to ban slavery in 1888.  And if we are talking about reparations, consider this fact: in European countries that banned slavery, slave owners were compensated for their loss.  In the United States after the Civil War and the 13th Amendment, slave owners lost $3.5 billion in 1860 dollars, or the equivalent of $70 billion today.

Finally, the whole notion of reparations is based on a completely false premise.  It “rests on the notion of making up to the descendants of slaves for the incalculable damage done to their family status and welfare by the enslavement of generations of their ancestors.”  The proponents want society to repay the descendants of slaves based upon if they had never been kidnapped, shipped and become slaves in America.  Unfortunately to do so, that would require a huge devaluation of their wealth, living standards and economic and political opportunities.  And while we cannot ignore a history of slavery, injustice and racism, neither can we deny the fact that Americans of African descent enjoy greater wealth and living standards than they would enjoy in Africa as if they were never brought here.  One need look at the incredible gains made by blacks, relatively speaking and despite tremendous odds of discrimination, racism and Jim Crow laws, compared to their counterparts in Western Africa.

Further, compare the European colonization of Africa with American efforts.  Portugal, Britain, France, Holland and Germany all established brutal colonial rule.  Belgium, a tiny nation, was particularly brutal in their colonization efforts.  As for the United States, there was one venture- the establishment of a single colony- Liberia- designed as one where former slaves could return.  Very few availed themselves of this opportunity.  In fact, it was a black nationalist- Marcus Garvey- who understood that freed slaves were better off in America- Jim Crow, racism, discrimination, etc. and all- than they were in their native Africa.

All of this is not a justification of slavery or the treatment of blacks in its aftermath in this country.  However, it is not every black who was wronged and it is not every non-black who is guilty.  Reparations assume collective victimhood and collective guilt.  Neither is acceptable in a Constitutional republic.

Finally, reparations- when one gets down to it- is nothing but yet another “entitlement” whose cost is to be born by innocent people with absolutely no history of racism or enslavement given to people who have no history of a right to receive it.  It becomes a silly numbers game whose ultimate costs are mitigated by other factors.  Chief among them are the estimated 366,000 Union soldiers killed in the Civil War.  Perhaps it is they who are due reparations.