Monday, August 18, 2014

Article lays out argument for slave reparations

The notion of reparations for African-Americans in compensation for the sins of slavery is an argument I never found persuasive. So far as I have been able to trace my family history, none of my ancestors owned slaves. My ancestors were poor farmers whose lives were probably little better than the lives of slaves on some plantations. My great-great-grandfather, who was killed 150 years ago at the Third Battle of Winchester, did not own slaves, nor even land. He was a tenant farmer with an illiterate wife. Should his descendants be taxed for reparations at the same rate as the descendants of plantation squires who owned scores of slaves?

And who would receive reparations? Some African-Americans are recent immigrants or the children of recent immigrants (e.g., President Obama) with no ancestry of the deprivations of slavery. Should they get paid, too? And what of African-Americans of mixed races? Some people estimate that large percentages of today's African-Americans have mixed ancestry, either from consensual relations or from rape. Where would these Americans fit in the reparations formula? The 1860 census reveals that some free African-Americans of that year were themselves slave owners. Would their descendants pay reparations or receive reparations?

With this background of skepticism, I read the June cover story in The Atlantic magazine: "The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I came away from the almost book-length article with a new respect for the reparations argument. Coates argues that reparations are justified not only by the injustice of slavery but also by post-Civil War oppression, physical, statutory and financial. The stories he tells of unethical real estate developers legally stealing homes from black buyers are appalling, especially considering these practices lasted into the late 1960s. The argument for compensation for these wrongs committed against still-living victims strikes me as far more persuasive than reparations for slavery.

Coates' arguments still fall short on the practical side. He avoids any discussion of the logistics of reparations, but those logistics will have to be addressed. This article by David Frum addresses the practical barriers to any reparations legislation. I recommend reading Coates' argument (and it is more of an argument than a disinterested, objective analysis), followed by Frum's practical reasons why Coates' dream is unachievable. In its current issue, The Atlantic has published a number of well-considered responses to Coates' argument. The magazine should be applauded for leading this national debate.

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