By Michael Knowles
House Democrats want taxpayers to fund reparations for the great-great-great-great grandchildren of black slaves. Former Democratic presidential candidate, Cory Booker, appeared as a witness during the first panel of a Juneteenth hearing on the proposal. “This is a very important hearing,” he declared. “It is historic. It is urgent.” At least seven other 2020 candidates have joined Booker in endorsing reparations for slavery, including Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Beto O’Rourke.
No country in history has ever paid reparations to the descendants of African slaves for their ancestors’ servitude. Less than 4% of Africans sold in the Atlantic slave trade ended up in the present-day United States. The plurality of captured Africans, a full 40%, wound up in Brazil. Yet neither Brazil nor any other country has ever attempted such a historic restitution.
Democrats pressing for reparations have yet to answer the central question: how would it work? History raises more questions than answers. On March 8 of either 1654 or 1655, the African indentured servant, John Casor, became the first person arbitrarily declared a slave for life in America. Casor claimed to have already served his indenture of “seaven or Eight years” [sic]. Nevertheless, a Virginia court ruled in favour of Casor’s master: a black Angolan named Anthony Johnson.
In a little-known historical irony, the first formally recognised American slave owner was black. How will the existence of black slave owners affect present-day African-Americans’ eligibility for reparations? Can Casor’s descendants sue Johnson’s descendants for restitution? What if someone somehow descended from both men? How about mixed race Americans more broadly? If one descends from both slaves and slave owners, will they pay or collect in a reparations regime? Perhaps the government will purchase 330 million DNA tests to match against a master database of history’s heroes and villains.
One way or another, the federal government will have to determine the relative historical culpability of its own slavers’ descendants. But who will make the Indian nations pay? Native Americans of the Five Civilized Tribes — the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole — owned black slaves at roughly the same rate as neighbouring whites, and they held their slaves in bondage longer.
While the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in rebel states as early as 1863, and the Thirteenth Amendment freed all American slaves in 1865, federal law didn’t apply to Indian nations. They held onto slavery until the US government forced them to free their black slaves in the Treaties of 1866. Will the federal government force the Cherokee Nation to pay reparations to the descendants of its own black slaves?
Beyond slavery, the advocates of reparations point to the historical struggles of black Americans after abolition as a justification for the redistributive program: Jim Crow, segregation, red-lining, lynchings. But while black Americans suffered oppression in a particularly widespread and sustained way, other demographic groups have also endured hardship. The largest mass lynching in American history claimed the lives of 11 Sicilian Americans in New Orleans. Mayor Joseph Shakespeare described Sicilians as “the most idle, vicious, and worthless people among us” and urged his constituents to “teach these people a lesson they will not forget.” Are the descendants of Sicilian immigrants entitled to any reparations for their ancestors’ suffering?
When determining the right price for reparations payouts, will the government take into account the various federal policies already enacted to combat the legacy of slavery, including half a century of affirmative action regulations and welfare programs? That would be a raw deal. As sociologists have observed for decades, welfare programs often wind up hurting the people they intend to help. Perhaps this new welfare program will include a provision of extra restitution for the victims of past welfare programs.
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