Sunday, March 2, 2008

Apologize for Slavery? Huh?

RICHMOND, Va. - Meeting on the grounds of the former Confederate Capitol, the Virginia General Assembly voted unanimously Saturday to express “profound regret” for the state’s role in slavery.

Sponsors of the resolution say they know of no other state that has apologized for slavery, although Missouri lawmakers are considering such a measure. The resolution does not carry the weight of law but sends an important symbolic message, supporters said.

“This session will be remembered for a lot of things, but 20 years hence I suspect one of those things will be the fact that we came together and passed this resolution,” said Delegate A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat who sponsored it in the House of Delegates.

The resolution passed the House 96-0 and cleared the 40-member Senate on a unanimous voice vote. It does not require Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s approval.

The measure also expressed regret for “the exploitation of Native Americans.”

The resolution was introduced as Virginia begins its celebration of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, where the first Africans arrived in 1619. Richmond, home to a popular boulevard lined with statues of Confederate heroes, later became another point of arrival for Africans and a slave-trade hub.

‘Insidious institutions and practices’
The resolution says government-sanctioned slavery “ranks as the most horrendous of all depredations of human rights and violations of our founding ideals in our nation’s history, and the abolition of slavery was followed by systematic discrimination, enforced segregation, and other insidious institutions and practices toward Americans of African descent that were rooted in racism, racial bias, and racial misunderstanding.”

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The Case Against Reparations

David Horowitz’s widely debated “10 reasons why reparations for blacks is a bad idea for blacks--and racist, too.” is an interesting line of thinking. The most persuasive points include:

  • No one racial group is responsible for the crime of slavery. Slavery predated the arrival of white Europeans in Africa; blacks in Africa and even in the U.S. participated in the slave trade.
  • Only a tiny minority of antebellum white Americans--about 5 percent of Southern whites--ever owned slaves.
  • Most Americans today arrived in the U.S. after 1860 or are descended from immigrants who arrived after 1860, and so have no connection, direct or indirect, to slavery.
  • Reparations paid to other oppressed groups are not valid precedents for making reparations for slavery, because in those cases the survivors or their immediate families were still living, or there were treaties involved.
  • Not all black American descendants of slaves suffer from slavery’s consequences; most are now solidly middle income or higher.
  • Reparations is another case of blaming whites for the problems afflicting the black community, which fuels a “victim” mentality.
  • Reparations to black Americans already have been paid through trillions of dollars spent on social welfare and racial preference programs.

At the same time, there are flaws and gaps. First, if reparations for slavery are owed by anyone, they are owed by governments and not individuals or businesses, since slavery was legal at the time. The number of whites who actually owned slaves is irrelevant.

Second, reparations from governments probably were legally owed and due when slavery ended in 1865. Had racism not prevented justice from being done, real victims could have been named, and “forty acres and a mule” or some other measure of restitution would have been awarded.

Third, the moral weight of the case for reparations stands regardless of the race or color of its perpetrators and victims. We talk in shorthand about “what America owes blacks” because virtually all slaves in America were black and nearly all slaveowners were white. Saying the award cannot be fairly divided is not the same as saying an award isn’t merited.

Fourth, to claim reparations would fuel the victim mentality is cheap rhetoric that overlooks how favoritism is widespread in American society. We don’t think twice before extending a helping hand to people in our social networks. The impact of such special treatment on the psyche of its beneficiaries isn’t different just because the beneficiary is black.

Finally, the notion that reparations already have been paid to African-Americans is insulting to the large majority of African-Americans who rely on welfare programs no more than white Americans do, or not at all. They suffered from the legacy of slavery and still face discrimination today. They have not been paid.

No Reparations

Reparations are not the solution. Saying today’s white Americans owe a specific monetary debt to today’s black Americans ignores the heterogeneity of class and race that existed during slavery and today. Who is entitled and who should pay are, in principle, unsolvable puzzles because of the passage of time and countless individual choices made by whites and blacks since the end of slavery.

Suing governments rather than individuals solves some parts of the problem but not others. Governments do not create wealth, they redistribute it. Asking today’s taxpayers to pay for government acts that occurred more than 150 years ago just puts the pea under a different shell. What is immoral for individuals to do is also immoral for governments to do.

The U.S. government has been trying to make amends for slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional discrimination for 40 years, since passage of civil rights legislation and the Great Society programs. Horowitz is right to say the trillions in taxpayer dollars spent trying to help the disadvantaged--black as well as white--climb the ladder of social and economic success is exculpatory.

Demand for an Apology

The first point made was that most knowledgeable advocates of reparations do not believe legal action, even against governments, will be successful. The goal is to get white Americans to admit reparations for slavery were owed in 1865, and perhaps again in 1965 for Jim Crow laws in the South and other forms of institutional discrimination in the North.

I believe it is skepticism similar to my own that leads many whites to view demands for an apology for slavery as merely a tactic used by black advocates who really seek a taxpayer-financed settlement of racial grievances. Apologizing amounts to little more than appeasement, we believe, and it would legitimize more militant demands for cash reparations.

Sure, some blacks use it as a platform from which to blame whites for their problems, and some whites find in it new evidence that blacks seek entitlement rather than equality and opportunity. But with effective public education and less-heated rhetoric from both sides, most people would understand the real goal is a better understanding of history and a new step toward improving race relations.

Financial reparations for slavery is neither good law nor good public policy, and a formal apology for slavery will not satisfy the most vocal advocates of reparations. Nor would everything done by governments or corporations out of guilt or shame help advance race relations.

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