There has, of late, been considerable discussion about reparations for slavery in America. This is not new, of course. It had been an ongoing dialog point for some time among the more radical elements of African American society. Now though, it would seem, the conversation around reparations has landed firmly in the mainstream. So, I think that now is the time for me to express some thoughts on this topic that I have been contemplating for some time.
First, while I feel silly for having to state what is obvious to those who know me personally or who bother to read the sum of the text at this site, I feel I must preface what comes next with some assurance that I am hardly a mouth-piece for "The Man." Additionally, my goal is to provide context for my thoughts, not a thorough, detailed history of the eras covered. There are a multitude of excellent resources available to you if you desire more detail. What follows purports to be a well-reasoned argument against reparations for slavery from a purely intellectual vantage point. Feel free to judge and debate it on that point alone.
It goes without saying that slavery in America was a long and horrible event. It is also true that the slave trade on the front end of the supply chain "” that being Africa "” was invaluably assisted by some Africans against other Africans as individual retribution, tribal martial dominance, or for simply resources of commerce. The powerful Asante (Ashanti) waged conflict, at times, solely to increase the number of slaves to trade with the Europeans. Many West Africans tribes traded away others for weapons, spirits, goods, and their own promised safety. Still others possessed slaves themselves. As an aside, it is interesting to me that some white people almost smile when they bring up that last point, as if blacks didn't know that or as if it somehow inoculates America of her sins during this period.
- From PBS.org:
"It is important to distinguish between European slavery and African slavery. In most cases, slavery systems in Africa were more like indentured servitude in that the slaves retained some rights and children born to slaves were generally born free. The slaves could be released from servitude and join a family clan. In contrast, European slaves were chattel, or property, who were stripped of their rights. The cycle of slavery was perpetual; children of slaves would, by default, also be slaves."
Slavery in Colonial America
While Spanish explorers brought slaves to settlements in North America during the early 16th century (the first documented slave revolt occurred in 1526), the first Africans to the young English Colonies came ashore in 1619 (their status is still debated). The first documented sale of slaves in the colonies occurred 1621, but slavery in America ˜officially' began in 1641 in, surprisingly for many, Massachusetts. In that year the Bay State became the first colony to recognize slavery as a legal status for individuals in their Body of Liberties. Other colonies soon followed. In 1662 Virginia declared that the offspring of a mother held in bondage would likewise be considered so.
The slave population in America increased rapidly during the 1700s. By the middle of the 18th century nearly one in five residents of British North America were Africans; estimated at some 240,000 men, women, and children. The percentages for some individual states were stunning. In South Carolina, for instance, Africans made up 60% of the total population. In Virginia the percentage was 43%, while Maryland, a border state, was 30%.
After the Revolutionary War, the lust for labor in the agrarian south of the nation and the industrial north continued to expand exponentially. Shipbuilders, saw mills, and iron works in the north profited from leveraging slavery as did many in the south. The demand for labor on southern plantations was insatiable. Cultivating crops, both cash and food, was backbreaking in the brutal mix of southern heat and humidity. With the British removed from American politics there was nothing to impede the march towards the Slave Economy.
Cotton changed everything. As a cash crop, Cotton had no equal and the south had little serious competition in supplying the textile mills of Europe with ˜King Cotton.' But cultivating and harvesting cotton was labor-intensive. The need for slave labor continued to abound in the south, while it began waning in the north. Industrial advancements, northern abolitionists, and a growing sense of the injustice of slavery among regular citizens took hold in the the mid-nineteenth century north. Many have also written that northern politicians' growing concern for the expanding economic might of the south was another, less altruistic, reason for reevaluating the south's Peculiar Institution.
Disagreements between northern and southern politicians in Washington over slavery in the newly expanding west and abolitionist ˜meddling' in southern affairs continued to stoke the flames of passions on both sides of the issue. Beginning with the Missouri Compromise in 1820-21 and through to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, a divided Congress voted on, approved, and defeated an staggering array of bills regarding the question of slavery in America. In 1850 the Fugitive Slave Law was passed. The law sought to punish those assisting slaves seeking freedom, while further eroding the limited recourse of slaves themselves.
In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe's seminal anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was published. It was written as a direct and angry protest of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. The impact that Uncle Tom's Cabin had on the American public was so great that years after its publication President Lincoln, upon meeting Stowe, is reported to have said, "You're the little lady who started this great war?" It should also be stated that many other authors such as Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Solomon Northup, and Olaudah Equiano also greatly contributed to the growing public discourse on the injustice and horrors of slavery.
The series of events that occurred next is well known. Abraham Lincoln was elected as the 16th President of the U.S. and within weeks South Carolina voted to secede from the Union. The Civil War erupted. During a period of four years over 600,000 Americans died in brutal and bloody battles. The south claimed the war was about states rights. This argument is utter foolishness. We are not talking about the right of a state to establish its own central banking system or pave its roads. The war was about the rights of slave-holding states to keep slaves in the south and expand slavery westward in America. It was about slavery. Period. Claiming anything else is intellectually dishonest at best, and an unsubstantiated delusion at worst.
So, Why No Reparations?
Even with all of that aforementioned history to consider, why am I against the concept of reparations? I will explain in a moment. But before I launch into my reasoning I do have a few logistical questions of those who support reparations. Who would determine who gets money? Would every black-skinned person in America get money? How much ˜black' would you need in you to qualify for payment? What about African Americans whose ancestors came up from South America or the Caribbean in the intervening years since the Civil War? Hundreds of thousands "” if not millions "” of Africans were enslaved in Brazil, the Islands, and other parts of South America during the same period in which slavery in America prospered. What of the majority of southerners who did not own slaves? How about the families of the 300,000+ union troops that died during the Civil War, in part to end slavery? Do their descendents get a free pass on paying reparations? What of freedmen who owned slaves? What of mixed race citizens? Do they take money from their left pocket and place it in their right? Is the simple answer that everyone pays?
My position: reparations have, historically, been paid to those directly harmed by a policy, institution, or circumstance. Reparations have usually gone to living victims or their immediate surviving relatives. Slavery has been outlawed for some 140 years. It goes without saying that no African American alive today was ever held in slavery. To request, or demand, reparations now smacks of opportunism and dependency. It perpetuates the myth that African Americans are looking for a hand-out... an easy buck... the hook up... the hustle. And as someone who began life in circumstances hardly conducive to success and who worked hard to overcome the many obstacles in my way this seems to devalue that effort. And not just for me, but for other African Americans who overcame less than ideal starts in life as well.
Plus, the real villain in this tragedy is not slavery, per se. It is the institutional racism that made American slavery significantly different than most slavery systems in the world. America, the south specifically, turned slavery into a justifiable act based on the posited inferiority of the Negro. This institutional dehumanization and its densely lingering after-effects are what the conversation should be about. Racism remains the evil residue of the slave trade in America. It was why Negroes were hung like strange fruit from trees all over the south. Attempts to justify racism and racist policies using institutional constructs like science still exist in America.
If you agree with me that racism is the issue, then one could argue that the 13th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Right Act, Affirmative Action programs (even though white women have made the most progress under Affirmative Action, and age and gender disputes still rank higher than race in filings to the EEOC), and other race-aware laws and guidelines passed to overcome to effects of racism are in fact reparations for racism. You could argue that, and I think you'd be on fairly solid ground to do so.
What about the promise of 40 acres and a mule made by the government after the Civil War? The government made no such promise. General William Tecumseh Sherman's triumphant march through the south left tens-of-thousands of newly freed slaves following his troops. He felt responsible for these folks but simply could not support the mass of people emerging from the fields. His Special Field Order No. 15 established a plan granting each freed family forty acres of tillable land on islands and the coast of Georgia (approximately 30 miles of land). He also released some extra mules he had to the freedmen. The problem with this order is two-fold: First, Gen. Sherman was a theater commander. He was not the General in Chief, that was U.S. Grant. So many historians believe he greatly overextended his authority in issuing Special Field Order No. 15. Secondly, and most importantly, Congress and President Johnson countermanded the order almost immediately.
The Real Victim
It would seem to me that the truly injured party from slavery is more than simply the progeny of slaves. It is the land from which we came. Africa is a devastated continent. It is the only continent on Earth that has gotten poorer over the last 25 years. It is so for a variety of reasons. It has been estimated that from 10-20 million Africans were removed from Africa during the slave trade. Some estimates, made by West African historian Joseph Ki-Zerbo and from various French sources (including Frossart and Monen), put the number at a staggering 50-100 million. The later figure includes estimates of those killed during capture, died during movement to the west coast of Africa, or who died during the Middle Passage. To put this into perspective consider the following:
- "The population of Africa was practically stagnant between 1650 and 1900 (increasing from 100 to only 120 million), while that of Europe increased from 103 to 423 million, and that of Asia from 257 to 857 million during the same period. J.E. Inikori has argued that there would have been ˜112 million additional population in sub-Saharan Africa had there been no export slave trade.' Paul Tiyambe Zeleza shows that because of the slave trade, Africa's population declined or stagnated between 1750 and 1850. According to him, Africa's share of the world population declined from 13% in 1750 to 11% in 1800 and 8% in 1900."
- res·ti·tu·tion n
The act of making good or compensating for loss, damage, or injury; indemnification.
Making life better for the 700 million people on the African continent is a far nobler endeavor than passing out money, free tuition, health care or any of the other options I have heard bandied about with regards to reparations to African Americans for slavery. I think given the opportunities we have in America (and it certainly isn't perfect, or easy) our issues seem miniscule by comparison. I would rather press the case to help Africa, the Mother Land. People are suffering in Africa on an historical scale while we quibble for access to local construction contracts. This time around I would hope that African Americans aren't the ones responsible for supplanting the needs of Africa in favor of our own needs. That would be an ironic shame.