Article: Slavery Reparations

By Ronald C. Tobin

Slavery is a reprehensible practice that is likely as old as civilization itself, if not in fact older. For most of that time it has, in one form or another, been regarded as a legal form of property. In some cultures, one could even sell oneself into slavery. Selling ‘surplus’ children into slavery was a relatively common practice in ancient Europe. In Rome, one could be forced into slavery to pay off debt, and then be allowed to buy one’s way back out of it.

When it comes to the discussion of reparations, this comes out of a long running debate here in the United States. It seems there are some activists out there who want to see reparations be paid to the African American people to compensate them for the suffering of their ancestors under the yoke of slavery. Much to my regret, I find that there are some misguided, well-meaning anarchists who actually think that reparations for slavery are justified, and that big business and the State should cough up the money, without giving a second thought about where that money would be coming from.

Given the great evil that slavery represented in the United States, it is understandable that some would think it is desirable, even necessary, that their descendents be compensated for the suffering of their ancestors. How could any caring individual be against this?

Well, I DO care. And, I am AGAINST reparations of any sort for slavery. My reasons for opposing them are many, and I will now share my line of reasoning.

First of all, the slaves brought over to the Americas were captured and then sold to the Europeans by other African tribes. It may well be possible to identify these tribes, but then how do we hold the present members responsible for the actions of their ancestors? No doubt all of the money/trade goods involved have been spent or lost over the years. No one I have heard speak of reparations here in the United States has mentioned going after the African tribes, I wonder why? After all, they were the primary source of slaves for as long as the Transatlantic Slave Trade existed. Their responsibility is quite clear.

Secondly, one would have to determine which Africans presently in the United States had ancestors that were slaves. While certainly not a huge number, it is clear that those whose ancestors did not spend time under the lash cannot possibly be entitled to any sort of compensation as regards slavery.

Third, it is a fact that a small number of “free people of color” did themselves own slaves. These families would have to be included in the pool to PAY reparations, NOT receive any. This is also true as regards a few very prosperous Native American families.

Fourth, it will be quite the challenge to run through the various state and federal archives in an effort to find all the companies that had any dealings with slaves and slaveowners, in an effort to find out if these companies are still in business in some form or another. This is key. Most of the great plantation owners had their fortunes wiped out as a result of the Civil War. Many of those companies did not survive the war either, and many of those that did were wiped out in the Great Depression. So it starts to become clear: those who profited from chattel slavery in the United States are now all quite dead.

Finally, trying to identify all the families that had members that once owned slaves would prove to be an impossible task. A lot of those families no longer exist; others lost their entire fortunes as a result of the Civil War and Reconstruction. How could it possibly be fair to hold present-day family members financially liable for the actions of their ancestors? The answer: it is not.

The bottom line is that all the people who were truly entitled to reparations as regards having been slaves are now all dead. You cannot compensate people for damages that they did not suffer. The fact that you have long dead relatives that were slaves does not mean that you have the right to shakedown people alive today for extra money. You are not entitled to collect for damages sustained by distant ancestors. Yes, slavery WAS a terrible thing. To give out reparations NOW, however, would only serve to sour the state of affairs between the ‘races.’ Absolutely no good would come of it. That is how I see it.

To those of you who sincerely believe that providing reparations to present-day African Americans is the right thing to do: I welcome you to send me an article in rebuttal. As always, I am willing to listen.

Appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of THE THOUGHT.


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