Reparations for historic injustice

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By Joseph Frigault

History is marked by large-scale injustice. In the United States alone, Native Americans were violently displaced, Africans were enslaved and their descendants subject to lynchings and Jim Crow laws, and Japanese Americans were interned during World War II, among other major wrongs.

Do past injustices ever have moral implications for currently living people? In particular, are living members of victimised groups ever owed anything because of these wrongs, or for their continued effects? That is, do they deserve some form of reparations?

This essay outlines some general arguments in support of the idea of reparations and responds to some common objections. This discussion focuses on reparations to African-Americans for slavery, but its insights should be applicable to many other historic injustices.

Most arguments for reparations are grounded in the principle of reparative justice, the idea that victims of wrongdoing or injustice are morally entitled to some form of repair. If I wrong you, say by stealing from or physically harming you, you are entitled to my making amends for this wrong, by acknowledging it, returning the stolen property, or paying damages. The underlying idea is that past wrongs must be made right.

Consider the brutal, centuries-long regime of slavery. Many have argued that a wrong as serious and long-lasting as this demands some form of response even generations later, especially insofar as its impact continues to be felt. But what kind of response? Reparations for slavery would likely involve a formal apology on behalf of the nation to the living descendants of enslaved people. They might also include an economic component, such as direct payments to those descendants, programs to increase educational opportunities, and federally-funded community investments to help overcome the lasting effects of slavery, among other proposals.

Many accept the basic principle of reparative justice but deny that it can be applied to historic injustices. Let’s consider some of the most common objections.

Many agree that the original victims of historic injustices like slavery were owed reparations, but argue that since they are all deceased, a moral claim to reparation can no longer be asserted: no living person is entitled to the reparations once due to their ancestors.

However, at least some kinds of moral entitlements can be handed across generations, as the case of inheritance makes clear. When people die, their rights to their property commonly pass to their heirs. Furthermore, something need not be in one’s possession in order to be one’s property: stolen property is still your property. Since enslaved persons had a right to be paid for their labour, that payment can be viewed as their property. So, the right to this withheld compensation might pass down to their descendants. Call this the inheritance argument.

Some might grant that immediate descendants of original victims may have inherited claims to reparation, but argue that these claims are now too old to be taken seriously.

But the fact that the original wrongs of slavery are historically distant does not mean that their effects are not still felt by many. Consider that in 2011 the wealth holdings of the median black household in the U.S. were roughly fifteen times lower than those of the median white household. The vast majority of social scientists see this racial wealth gap as inextricably bound up with generations of social and economic oppression, from slavery on through the post-civil war period and into the twentieth century.

To the extent that contemporary black Americans have themselves been made worse off by the historic wrongs in question, they may be entitled to demand reparations on that basis, independently of their having inherited any rights to do so. Call this the harm argument.

Some might agree with the above arguments, yet argue that reparations can only be properly demanded from those who are personally guilty of some clear wrongdoing: since the original perpetrators of slavery are long dead, there is ultimately no one alive who can be justly held accountable for repairing these moral wrongs.

Notice, however, that people and groups may come to bear reparative obligations without having personally done anything wrong. If I accidentally damage your property, I may owe you compensation, even if that damage was not due to any negligence on my part; my child or dog could damage your property, but I have to fix it; the government is obligated to compensate the wrongfully convicted, even if the judge and jury of their case have passed away, and so on.

Things are even clearer in cases of unjust enrichment, where someone benefits, perhaps unknowingly, from the wrongful actions of another: if you unknowingly receive stolen goods, you must return these items if you learn they were stolen, despite your innocence. In general, people who benefit from injustice are obligated to release those benefits, to compensate victims. This idea can be applied to the vast wealth amassed by slaveholders and passed down to many now living, often in the form of real estate and other financial assets like stocks, bonds and other investments. When assets like these are traceable to the original wrongs of slavery, descendents might be entitled to all or part of their value.  

Beyond this, however, we must also recall that the practice of slavery and related laws were enforced by the United States government for centuries. That same government still exists, and can arguably be called to account for its past misdeeds like any other wrongdoer, even if all the citizens and officials who once composed it are deceased.

There are, of course, other objections to the idea of reparations for historic injustice. There are practical concerns about determining exactly who owes what to whom, as well as political concerns about the risks of inflaming racial and ethnic tensions. Our discussion suggests, at least, that the moral question of reparations might not be as easily dismissed as many believe.

        Thoughts and views expressed in guest editorials do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Observer NewsCo, its management or staff.

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