It’s hard to imagine a more ill-conceived idea than forcing one race of people to pay reparations to another race for acts occurring more than 150 years ago. Yet after decades of languishing on the margins in this country, the touchy issue of forcing whites to pay blacks reparations for slavery has taken center stage. Early this month, about 15 Democratic presidential hopefuls spoke at Manhattan’s Sheraton Times Square Hotel as part of the annual conference of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Coaxed by Sharpton and a partisan audience, the candidates happily obliged, oblivious to the high likelihood that a reparations program, far from repairing anything, would be a divisive, nonstop shakedown. Black “civil rights” demagogues such as Sharpton, most of all, would reap the benefits.
For decades, prominent black civil rights leaders and elected officials in this country have advocated the creation of a massive federal program to force whites, whether individually or through institutions, to compensate blacks for the slavery experienced by many of their ancestors. They are fully aware that the 13th amendment of the Constitution abolished slavery almost immediately following the Civil War and that white slave owners and traders involved in this enterprise are long deceased. But they are not impressed by these inconvenient facts. To skirt around such considerations, they typically resort to two arguments. First, they say, slavery, though outlawed long ago, has left an indelible imprint on blacks that keeps them down to this very day. Removing this metaphysical stain requires that whites pay up. Second, whites today, especially those with serious money, reap unearned privileges due to the vestiges of slavery. Such claims are misleading and dangerous. Yet many blacks and a growing number of whites accept them at face value. Even the enlarged welfare state and anti-white affirmative action “diversity” quotas instituted over the last half-century do not impress such activists. They want a formal, full-scale reparations program.
It was the 60s when the reparations movement took off in earnest. And its prime mover was Martin Luther King Jr. That might come as a shock to many people, including conservatives, who desperately want to believe that King sought a “color-blind” America. In fact, he believed that whites, as atonement for their collective injustices against blacks, have a moral duty to provide special compensation to blacks. King explicitly expressed this position in his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait:
Among the many vital jobs to be done, the nation must not only radically readjust its attitude toward the Negro in the compelling present, but incorporate in its planning some compensatory consideration for the handicaps he has inherited from the past. It is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years. How then can he be absorbed into the mainstream of American life if we do not do something special for him now, in order to balance the equation and equip him to compete on a just and equal basis?
This, of course, has been the very rationale for establishing affirmative action quotas (“diversity”), an expanded welfare state and a rigged legal system that favors “people of color.” Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968, which triggered riots in dozens of U.S. cities, put these redistributive measures on the fast track.
Calls for reparations would happen soon enough. James Forman, a prominent black civil rights figure, initiated a campaign in 1969 to demand reparations from whites to blacks, beginning with a down payment of $500 million. His preferred tactic was to walk into a predominantly white church during services, commandeer the pulpit, and deliver a manifesto. In 1972, a Yale law professor, Boris Bittker, came out with a book, The Case for Black Reparations, recommending vast increases in public spending as a means of making amends to blacks (he got his wish). Randall Robinson, founder and head of a nonprofit, TransAfrica, authored a book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, that made the bestseller list in 2000. That year, the Reparations Assessment Group, a project initiated by black lawyer Johnnie Cochran (of O.J. Simpson fame), announced plans to file lawsuits to recover the costs of uncompensated slave labor. One estimate, cited in Harper’s magazine, estimated the tab of this venture at $97 trillion. In 2002, a group of black plaintiffs, led by lawyer Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, filed a federal class-action federal lawsuit demanding a combined $1.4 trillion from several corporations with alleged ties to the 19th-century slave trade. In rapid succession, several similar actions followed; they were folded into the original suit. The expanded complaint deservedly was tossed out by a district court in 2004 and 2005, a circuit court in 2006 and the Supreme Court in 2007. The movement would go into high gear several years later with the cover story in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” The black author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, argued such a program would drive a “national awakening that would lead to a spiritual renewal.” Naturally, he’s become a big hit on the campus lecture circuit.
Blacks in Congress have taken note of these developments. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., starting in 1989 and continuing like clockwork thereafter, introduced legislation (H.R. 40) to create a commission to study the long-run impact of slavery and recommend appropriate remedies. Any number of city councils, including those in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, endorsed the bill. To the very end, Conyers, who stepped down in December 2017, was open about his motives. “I’m not giving up,” he stated at a press conference earlier that year. “Slavery is blemish on this nation’s history, and until it’s formally addressed, our country’s story will remain marked by this blight.” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex., has taken the lead in the wake of his retirement. As she puts it, H.R. 40 would “make recommendations concerning any form of apology and compensation to begin the long-delayed process of atonement for slavery.”
The most influential catalyst for reparations, however, may be the ubiquitous Al Sharpton (in photo, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren). Now 64, the New York City-based minister, civil rights activist, politician and media star, starting about 20 years ago, went respectable. He mastered the art of cultivating ties to the highest levels of politics, business, labor and philanthropy. As my recent book Sharpton: A Demagogue’s Rise, explains, Sharpton’s community organizing over the decades often has constituted incitements to riot (which on occasion resulted in actual riots with lethal consequences). Despite that, he has become a Democratic kingmaker, the man to see for the party’s white political aspirants seeking the black vote.
Back during 2003-04, Sharpton himself ran for president. While he had no realistic chance of winning the Democratic nomination, the experience won him credibility as a legitimate voice for progressive causes, especially those related to civil rights. On the eve of his declaration of that candidacy, he published a book, Al on America, which functioned as an autobiography and a campaign tract. Reverend Al put reparations on the table:
Let’s start with reparations. Let’s start with the fact that there is a debt owed. Then we can negotiate how we can repair it. What’s fair? We can start with creating an even playing field. But we can’t even get there until we recognize that there is a problem. We cannot bring up the discussion of how we will repair this, or what brings up to par, because America still will not recognize officially or even unofficially that the dead are owed…America must admit its sins in Africa and its sins against people of African descent. It’s the first step toward healing.
Sharpton would second this thought at the Democratic National Convention of 2004. Since then, he’s become more powerful than ever. Democratic political candidates, especially for the highest office in the land, know better than to ignore him or publicly disagree with him on racial issues. He used his clout while emceeing this year’s annual National Action Network convention, held during April 3-6 at the Sheraton Times Square Hotel in midtown Manhattan. As part of the proceedings, the attending candidates, with coaxing from the Rev and the overwhelmingly black audience, explained their positions on the Conyers/Lee reparations bill. Needless to say, they were for it.
Candidates “of color” didn’t need coaxing. For them, reparations are a no-brainer. They stand to benefit politically and economically, while lecturing America on the need for “healing.” Former San Antonio Mayor and Obama-era Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro asked, “If under our Constitution we compensate people if we take their property, why wouldn’t we compensate people who were considered property and sanctioned by the state?” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., stated, “When I am elected president, I will sign that bill.” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., already had made clear his support weeks earlier. “Do I support legislation that is race-conscious about balancing the economic scales?” he rhetorically asked CNN’s Jake Tapper in March. “Not only do I support it, but I have legislation that actually does it,” referring to H.R. 40. Wealthy philanthropist Andrew Yang, who is ethnically Chinese, called reparations a “logical step.”
White candidates proved every bit as willing to hop on the bandwagon. “If the House and Senate pass that bill,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., “of course I would sign it. I would say this – there needs to be a study.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., echoing a statement she made to the New York Times in February, reiterated her support. “So I believe it’s time to start the national full-blown conversation about reparations in this country,” she declared before the NAN audience. “And that means I support the bill in the House to appoint a congressional panel of experts, people who are studying this and talk about different ways we may be able to do it and make a report back to Congress, so that we can as a nation do what’s right and begin to heal.”
There’s more. The radicalized Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., also waved the reparations flag. “I firmly support Congresswoman Jackson Lee’s bill to create a commission to study reparations,” she told the crowd. “As president, I would advocate Congress to pass that bill, and I would sign that bill into law. This the first step that 100 years of slavery and institutional racism have caused mass inequity and harm to black people and has held back black people for generations from achieving their full potential.” Former Rep. Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, D-Tex., had this to say: “Until all Americans understand that civil rights also involve the injustices that have been visited on people, we will never get the change that we need to live up to the promise of their country. So absolutely I would sign that into law.”
Distant longshot white candidates also joined in. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg didn’t directly address reparations, but implied support. “There is a direct connection between exclusion in the past and exclusion in the present,” he said. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper termed slavery “the nagging unrelenting shame of America,” adding, “We must own our past, and acknowledge the shame, the sin, the prejudice, and the ongoing consequences of enslaving an entire race of people.” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, didn’t announce her support, but then again, she didn’t have to; she already had signed on as a co-sponsor of the Conyers-Lee legislation. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., also declined to discuss the issue, but had proven her worth by telling MSNBC’s Chuck Todd in March that a reparations debate is worth having. Popular author and self-proclaimed “visionary” Marianne Williamson didn’t show up for the conference, but she was there in spirit. Williamson already had called for the setting aside of $200 billion to $500 billion as reparations over 20 years, with an “esteemed council of African-American leaders” deciding who receives how much. Al Sharpton, call your office.
If any of these candidates had any common sense, courage, and respect for rule of law, they would grasp the abject dreadfulness of the idea of racially-based monetary compensation. In hopes that one day they develop such qualities, this article will summarize the main arguments against reparations, drawing to an extent from a National Legal and Policy Center monograph, The Case Against Slave Reparations, first published in 2004 and updated in 2008. The report remains every bit as relevant today as it was then.
The actual victims of slavery, along with their immediate families, have been deceased for many years. This fact alone ought to discredit any case for reparations. The only people who should be considered for monetary compensation for slavery in this country are those who personally experienced it. And all of them have been dead for decades. To treat living blacks as eligible for cash payments merely on account of their race, and living whites as responsible for their upkeep merely because of their race, is to negate every decent principle of rule of law. The idea that if something happens to specific members of a race at a given point in time, it must be treated as though it happened to all members of that race in perpetuity, is raw tribalism masquerading as social justice. It combines the worst of intragroup loyalty with the worst of human avarice. And it is based on a definition of harm that is subjective to the point of incoherence. Every person in America, regardless of race, can be said to have been “harmed” indirectly by slavery. Indeed, given that slavery has been around for millennia throughout the world, it follows from this distorted logic that all human beings who have ever lived have been adversely by slavery and thus deserve reparations. Everyone would pay and collect at the same time!
Individuals cannot be held responsible for acts they did not commit. It is utterly contrary to a free society to hold people responsible for criminal or civil violations that they did not commit. Yet the racial reparations principle rests precisely on this edifice. The idea that Jeffrey Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffett or Mark Zuckerberg owe their wealth to the value of unpaid black labor, passed through generations, is an invitation to legalized extortion. Such people and the companies they manage became prosperous through ambition, creativity, perseverance, intelligence, street smarts, and, yes, occasional luck. These are not crimes. And such people should watch their backs. For it is their assets, most of all, that are in the sights of reparations shakedown artists.
Many of the slaves during our colonial and early republic years were white. Reparations advocates typically go apoplectic when reminded of this. But it is a matter of historical record that whites routinely were transported to the American colonies from Great Britain, whether as kidnap victims, criminal convicts (usually for petty offenses) or spoils of war, for the purpose of providing slave labor. Even the northern colonies were not immune to this practice. White slaves often were classified as “indentured servants” rather than “slaves,” but in practice it was distinction without a difference. Virginia Tech historian A. Roger Ekirch, in his 1990 book Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts into the Colonies, 1718-1775, concluded that ‘convicts,’ once having arrived in America, “…encountered widespread exploitation. Tobacco planters…felt few qualms about putting freeborn Englishmen to hard labor or, if need be, shackling them in chains. Neither the status of convicts as servants nor their living conditions were altogether different from those of slaves, and opportunities for achieving a settled social life were arguably worse.” Historian and popular author John van der Zee, in his 1985 book Bound Over: Indentured Servitude and American Conscience, likewise noted that white “indentured servants” were slaves all but in name:
(T)he status of these people [indentured servants] was essentially the same as that of slaves. They, the work they did, and the clothes on their backs belonged entirely to their masters. They could be hired out, sold or auctioned, even if this meant separating them from their families. They could be beaten, whipped, or branded. If they ran away, they could be punished by an extension, often a multiplication, of their term of servitude; in some colonies, runaways were hanged, a process too wasteful to apply to slaves, who retained, after all, the value of capital.
One might think that advocates of reparations, if only for the sake of consistency, would take notice of such evidence and call for reparations for all descendants of slaves, regardless of race. The reason why they don’t is obvious. They see blacks, and only blacks, as eligible for collecting reparations. And they see whites, and only whites, as responsible for paying them. This campaign has nothing to do with justice. It is about advancing collective racial will through the use of moral shame and legal revisionism.
The vast majority of African-born slaves transported to the Western Hemisphere were destined for locations outside the U.S. The late British historian, Hugh Thomas, in his magisterial book of two decades ago, The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870, concluded that of the approximately 11 million African black slaves were delivered to ports in the Western Hemisphere during 1492 to 1870 for work on plantations, in mines or in private residences, only a small portion – somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 – were destined for the American colonies, a figure supported by other sources as well. The overwhelming majority were brought to South America (especially Brazil, which for most of that time was a Portuguese colony), the Caribbean, and to a lesser extent, Mexico and Central America. Moreover, the Western Hemispheric figure in turn was but a small portion of the worldwide total of 50 million or more during this period. Muslim Arabs were especially involved in this grim business. University of Kansas historian Lynn Nelson notes: “It has been estimated that 25% of the slaves taken out of Africa ended up in Muslim lands. Even more important, this centuries-old trade had rooted the institution in the African economy and had established the general pattern of that trade.”
Black Africans themselves profited from the slave trade. It is a fact that tribal leaders in Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa routinely collaborated with white slavers for personal and collective gain. Indeed, African monarchs often personally brought black slaves to white slave traders for eventual sale to Americans, Europeans, Arabs and other Africans. Trinity College (in Hartford) historian Zayde Antrim explains how slavery in Africa predated the arrival of outsiders:
Not only was slavery an established institution in West Africa before European traders arrived, but Africans were also involved in a trans-Saharan trade in slaves along these routes. African rulers and merchants were thus able to tap into preexisting methods and networks of enslavement to supply European demand for slaves. Enslavement was most often a byproduct of local warfare, kidnapping, or the manipulation of religious and judicial institutions. Military, political, and religious authority within West Africa determined who controlled access to the Atlantic slave trade. And some African elites, such as those in the Dahomey and Ashanti empires, took advantage of this control and used it to their profit by enslaving and selling other Africans to European traders.
The idea advanced by reparations advocates that slave traders from Europe and America, without any knowledge on the part of tribal authorities, routinely kidnapped African blacks in the continental interior and brought them to the West is emotionally satisfying, but it is fiction on the level of Alex Haley’s Roots. African slaves, with few exceptions, already were owned by other Africans upon their sale to white slave traffickers; that’s precisely how they were made available for sale along coastline ports. As the late University of Chicago historian Richard Hellie concluded, “(W)hite slave traders almost never entered the interior in pursuit of prey but rather purchased their cargo from Africans at the ocean front; coastal Africans would not allow Europeans either into or through their own countries.”
An accurate assessment of liability would be impossible to derive. Determining which whites owe how much to whom would require poring through genealogical records of every living adult white American, not mention every major corporation, union, philanthropy, sports team, religious body and institution of higher learning, to determine if that person or institution has historical “ties” to slavery. The possibilities for complications are manifold. For example, some of a white person’s ancestors might have owned slaves, but others might have not. Even assuming accurate and comprehensive records are available, it would take years to separate putatively liable parties from the rest. Consider as well that a great many, if not most American whites by now are partially or fully descended from people who were not even in this country when slavery ended. Consider further that many Americans are part-white and part-nonwhite. As part-whites, would they they get their debt prorated? Put another way, as part-nonwhites, how much would they collect? And would they include wealthy multiracial public figures such as Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, Vin Diesel, Mariah Carey and Maya Rudolph?
Monetizing the value of slave labor would be almost impossible to research accurately. It would be phenomenally expensive and time-consuming. And it would require tenuous, if not reckless assumptions about how many slaves of each race did what tasks for whom and for how long. And whatever the final dollar figure, it would invite widespread dissatisfaction and lawsuits that could tie up the courts for years and even decades. Lawyers would have a field day. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his call for reparations in The Atlantic five years ago, after accepting Boris Bittker’s estimate of appropriate compensation of $34 billion a year, recommended adding that sum to the cost of a reparations program for “a decade or two.” But in truth, any final number might as well be plucked out of a hat given the massive guesswork in the methodology. Worse yet, the people selected to oversee this politically-charged project would be drawn from the ranks of people with a stake in establishing a reparations program. These commissioners and their hired flaks would have every incentive to inflate the value of slave labor, even though it consisted of menial tasks that in today’s mobile labor market would command the minimum wage or something barely above that.
White-majority nations were at the forefront of abolishing slavery while black-majority nations resisted abolition. For all that whites have been vilified for their role in slavery, it is undeniable that during the 19th-century they took the lead in abolishing that peculiar institution. Great Britain and America’s abolition of the slave trade, each occurring in 1807, proved a major impetus toward abolition throughout the West (actually France had abolished slavery in 1794 – arguably the one positive achievement of the French Revolution). British Parliament followed up by outlawing slavery in its Caribbean colonies in 1834. The U.S., immediately following the Civil War, enacted and ratified the 13th amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery. The nations of Latin America would outlaw slavery by century’s end, too. They included Mexico (1829), Colombia (1851), Spanish-run Cuba (1886) and Brazil (1888). By the early 20th century, officially-sanctioned slavery was no more in Europe or the Western hemisphere.
That outcome, unfortunately, would come with far greater difficulty in sub-Saharan Africa. Not only did African tribal leaders fail to end slavery in their respective societies, but did so by defying outside pressure from the West. The King of Bonny, whose realm encompassed the Nigerian delta, openly resisted Britain’s Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. “We think this trade must go on,” he declared. “That is the verdict of our oracle and the priests. They say that your country, however great, can never stop a trade ordained by God himself.” In the 1840s, King Gezo of Dahomey stated that he would do anything the British wanted him to do, save for one thing: give up the slave trade. “The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people,” he said. “It is the source and glory of their wealth…the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery.” The subjects of such monarchs also were opposed to ending slavery. Indeed, when Great Britain dismantled its slave ports along the west coast of Africa, blacks rioted to protest this action. Slavery continues to this day on the African continent, most egregiously, in Mauritania and Sudan. That slavery in such nations may be illegal (the British, for example, outlawed slavery in its Sudan colony in 1898) apparently has not made a deep impression upon many current inhabitants.
These are only some of the factors that undermine the case for slavery reparations here in America. One could add to this list the fact that many of the ancestors of today’s American blacks did not even arrive in this country until well into the 20th century. One also could cite the centuries-long kidnapping and enslavement by Muslim pirates of the Barbary coast in northern Africa of an estimated 1.3 million European and American whites, an atrocity ended by military action (by President Jefferson, among others) in the early 19th century; applying the logic of reparations advocates, today’s descendants of those victims ought to have standing to sue the governments of such Mediterranean African countries as Libya and Algeria. And the notion that American prosperity is based on slavery has no empirical basis. If this nation’s economy really was “built on slavery,” then why was the lowland South, where slavery proliferated most of all, far less economically developed than the North on the eve of the Civil War? And why did living standards improve in the South as well as in the North after the war?
The potentially most lethal aspect of the reparations campaign may be the strong possibility of a “slippery slope” in which an initial set-aside payment for blacks would be followed by demands for more compensation later on. As National Legal and Policy Center has noted, this is exactly what happened following the initial settlement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture by lawyers for black farmers who had alleged, and often fraudulently, that they were victims of discrimination in USDA farm credit programs. Not only was there an additional shakedown on behalf of blacks, but there were also separate lawsuits filed on behalf of Hispanic, Native American and female farmers (and subsequent settlements) claiming to be cheated by the Agriculture Department. Being a member of a minority group could be very profitable in the reparations racket. Representatives of Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, gays and other minority groups would likely generate their own lists of unredressed grievances requiring massive compensation.
Put simply, there is no case whatsoever for forcing whites, whether as heads of businesses or households, to compensate blacks for slavery. Such a program would amount to legalized extortion on a scale of hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars. As a nation, we would be a house divided, arguably more so even than in 1860. Advocates of reparations habitually insist that reparations are needed to “heal” America’s historical wounds. All evidence indicates that to the contrary, it would create wounds, all of them needless. And the prime beneficiaries would be the very organizations now demanding such payments. National Action Network surely would play a central role in this.
That brings us full circle to Al Sharpton and the annual NAN jubilee of a few weeks ago. The Democratic Party candidates for president were there out of fear of being tagged as “racist” or apathetic to black conditions had they not shown up. By their very presence, they had painted themselves into a corner requiring their support for reparations or some proxy for them. The white candidates in particular who expressed support for reparations – the stalking-horse for which is the proposed Conyers-Lee legislation – are captives to a political version of the Stockholm syndrome. Their captors, including Al Sharpton, now control the party agenda. The larger issue is whether they will control the country as well – and whether there are people out there with the will to stop them.