The price to pay for slavery


In a further sign of the Democratic Party’s drift to the left, two presidential contenders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, have now expressed support for a policy that until now remained a taboo among mainstream politicians: reparations for slavery. This is a policy that even the socialist Bernie Sanders rejected before as “too divisive” and unlikely to pass through Congress.

Make no mistake: slavery was – and sadly still is – a horrid crime. The slave trade was an unquestionable historical evil, whether the trans-Atlantic one or the trans-Saharan and trans-Indian ones going into the Muslim Middle East – and for that matter every other instance and there have been great many, because it is an ancient institution, present in most cultures and civilisations throughout the ages. But it had ended in the United States more than 150 years, or six or seven generations, ago. How can you even compensate the great-great-great-great-grandchildren of slaves? Or for that matter why should you?

I find the view that present generations should be held legally or even morally liable for the actions of their distant ancestors to be quite repugnant. We can be sad about history – and God knows, there is plenty there to be sad about – but we are in no way responsible for it, which is why I think public apologies for historical wrongs are no more than cheap and disingenuous stunts, never mind actual compensatory schemes like the proposed slavery reparations.

Black people had suffered immensely during the slavery era and afterwards, as a result of institutionalised as well as tacit racism and discrimination. But before you start writing cheques, you need to think through a number of different important considerations (quite apart of the nuts and bolts like how do you finance such a huge scheme):

  • If the descendants of the slaves than why not the descendants of other victims of historical injustice and crimes? What about the Native Americans? The Chinese coolies? The indentured Irish? Where do you draw the line?
  •  Of course not all black Americans today are descendants of slaves. Some are descendants of free blacks (some of whom happened to be slave owners too) or subsequent migrants from Africa and the Caribbean (who might have also been descendants of slaves, but not American slaves). Never mind the question of admixture of other blood over the past 150 years. So who gets the reparations – what percentage of slave ancestry is enough to qualify you for the payment – one half? 1/16th? 1/1024th?
  • And if you qualify, is everyone paid the same or an sliding scale depending on the amount of the slave blood? What if you are half-black and half-white – do the oppressed and the oppressive heritages you share cancel each other out, or do you still get some reduced payout?
  • What is the base line that the disadvantage to be compensated for is measured against – White America? Or the pre-slavery state? Because however tragic and terrible the circumstances that brought so many Africans to America and kept them there in bondage, virtually all of the descendants of slaves alive today in the United States are far better off than the descendants of those who were left in Africa (a point made, among others, by the then Africa bureau chief of “The Washington Post”, Keith B Richburg in his 1997 book “Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa”).
  • Speaking of Africa – would it only be the United States providing the reparations, seeing that the slave trade was conducted with the active participation of Africans themselves who enslaved and sold their neighbours to European traders in coastal market towns? The Europeans to be sure provided the demand, but the eager African merchants guaranteed an unending supply of the human chattel.
  • Is the basic premise behind the reparations – that the relative disadvantage of African-Americans today is wholly the legacy of slavery (and post-slavery racism and discrimination) – actually correct? Because statistics tell a more ambiguous tale of post-Civil War nuclear African-American families making steady economic advancements through hard work and entrepreneurship (without denying the low starting point or the relative rates of poverty) before things going haywire in the 1960s with the advent of “the war on poverty”, the breakdown of black family, and the continuing malaise that has made the rate of improvement much slower over the past half a century (see Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s pioneering work in the 1960s, followed by many others onward).
  • Will Ice Cube and Dr Dre be entitled to the same amount of reparations as an average resident of Compton?  Should they? Or should reparations be means tested, since there is no apparent lingering economic disadvantage that the black upper middle class could be compensated for?
  • If the aim of reparation ultimately is to permanently improve the economic standing of African-Americans, how will money change the self-defeating attitudes that directly lead to poverty in the first place, such as the belief that education is a “white thing” and therefore studious black children and young people are sell-outs to their communities?

In 1944, the Soviets first stole my ancestral country (the Wilno/Vilnius district; part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth since 1386, given to the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic) and then they stole my great-grandfather’s estates, which were presumably turned into collective farms after being thoroughly plundered and pillaged by the Red Army and the Party officials. Could I get some reparations too, seeing that all my life I have laboured under the very obvious disadvantage of not being a count? (for my many detractors, the “o” is not silent in this one.)

The problem with history is that everyone’s ancestors at some stage in recent or less recent history have been victims of something or other, which has possibly led to some lasting, negative, inter-generational consequences. Or possibly not. Or possibly maybe, because everything under the sun has multiple and complex causes.  Maybe we should study history, but then just leave it alone.