Reparations Might Do Some Good


Mr. Barkan is a professor of history and the author of The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices. He is a writer for the History News Service.

A group of African-Americans is demanding in federal court in New York that the United States acknowledge its culpability in the practice of slavery. The class-action suit filed last month against three American corporations that benefited from slavery faces major obstacles, not least of which is the lack of legal precedent or clear historical analogy. Although the litigation arouses great fear among critics, past cases of reparations elsewhere indicate that the slavery lawsuit could become an invaluable tool for bridging the racial divide in America.

It's doubtful the suit will successfully raid the coffers of Aetna, FleetBoston Financial Corp. or CSX Corp., the three firms accused of profiting from an institution that has been abolished since 1865. Some people object to the court filing because none of the potential beneficiaries of any reparations that might be gained from a successful suit is a direct victim. To counter the criticism, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers has promised that no individual descendants of slaves will benefit from a financial settlement.

"This is not about individuals receiving checks in their mailbox," said attorney Roger Wareham, explaining that any damages awarded from the suit will be used to create a social fund to improve health, education and housing for African-Americans.

But this is a weak argument because it is a well-established convention that descendants of victims are entitled to damages. Nobody would deny a wrongful death suit because the victim is deceased. Shouldn't descendants of slaves also be viewed as victims?

But what if the plaintiffs do get to share the wealth? Does that diminish the suit's viability? Why should African-Americans be forced to explain, in apologetic tones, that the reparations would be for the larger social good as opposed to individual benefit? Because that's the legacy of slavery: the foundation of a vast racial chasm and simmering animosity between blacks and whites. If this suit is about anything, it should seek finally and firmly to acknowledge and quantify the long-term suffering caused to African-Americans by the abhorrent practice of slavery.

True, two of the most famous historical cases of reparations --Japanese-Americans placed in internment camps during World War II and slave laborers used by German corporations during the same period -- compensated only surviving victims. Yet descendants of survivors did receive compensation for lost property. Neither group needed to legitimize their claims by denying themselves personal benefit.

Which of these cases is analogous to that of African-Americans? Probably neither. The precedents provide only general principles, and the differences are too significant to allow a simple comparison. Slavery was not limited to several years, nor have the economic losses of African-Americans ever been determined in any formal way. The legacy of slavery is racism, Jim Crow segregation, and the current racial divide. While a communal benefit may be the most moral solution to a slavery settlement, let's not forget that the suffering was and is personal.

If the class-action suit proceeds far enough through the legal system, and perhaps even reaches the stage of exploring remedies, public discussion is likely to provide momentum for a congressional hearing. An"Eminent Persons" committee might even be appointed to study the question of reparations.

Here's the question that should be on the congressional inquisitors' lips: How much worse off are descendants of slaves because of lingering racism? That issue would be immensely controversial, the answers more so. But this is the normal course of political debate, and we shouldn't shy away from it because it's uncomfortable. Despite widely differing public viewpoints, such a discussion may encourage policy makers (and ultimately, the public) to agree on a number that will at last acknowledge the extent of the national debt for African-Americans' suffering.

No doubt, critics on both sides will be unsatisfied with any quantification of the damages. Yet an agreement that would allocate funds for housing subsidies, health care and education opportunities might be formulated in the language of reparation and apology and thus ease the contentiousness associated with affirmative action.

Perhaps more important, the reckoning and the possible partial reparation could facilitate a healing process between the races, which can only start after a sincere acknowledgement of guilt.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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DP Hays - 2/22/2004

His choice however carried the message of emancipation to states like Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. That ultimately is forgotten. Just freeing the slaves was a terrible bloodletting, paid in the lives of real people like my grandfather. Dying wasn't his choice, and what ultimately brought him to his fate was set in motion a little over 350 years before his birth when someone thought it would be a good idea to buy slaves and bring them to the New World. He lived with that from the time he was born in Canada, until he moved to this country and became an American and marched off to war, whether he knew it or not. He was a victim of those circumstance. However, that which was noble and right was done and injustice was paid for. The most inhuman of human crimes, stripping another human of their diginity was paid with the highest level of human sacrifice, the choice of chancing one's life, fortune and future. The most I could ever ask for is the chance to visit his grave and lay a few flowers next to a headstone nobody remembers. He died alone, he rests near people he doesn't know and he suffered horribly. Sound familiar?
Let me give you another story, from the other side of my family. They're Filipino and lived under total Spanish subjugation for almost 400 years. During WWII they spent three years under Japanese control, a time of starvation, domination, summary executions and rape. Before the final American liberation, they had the final indignity of being machine gunned down as they fled from their destroyed homes in Manila as they tried to survive in the middle of a war zone. My family finally had enough and after the war took what they had, which wasn't much and made good in a little over 15 years in the US. They didn't have a choice in what happened but they didn't ask for anything. They simply got on with their lives and were happy that someone came twice to help them because they chose to do so. Ironically, both times, right after the Spanish American War and during WWII it was the same side of the family that saw it's favored sons die horribly in another war to restore the basic rights of humanity to the oppressed in the Civil War, that came to the aid of the Filipinos.
Both sides of my family have paid for good and bad human choices and those decisions in which they had no say at all. Never has there been an attempt to put a dollar figure on any of it, but there is no way any amount of money or any sort of apology could change or even right what happened. You see, history doesn't make the sort of distinction you are talking about, it simply deals out the fate each of our ancestors lived and died with and they never asked to be reimbursed because life was brutally unfair. They lived to see to it that their descendants would live to have a better life and in the case of my ancestors, that others would have the same opportunities their own children would have.
I come from a long line of soldiers. I am one myself. I've been to Arlington, among other military cemeteries where self-sacrifice put men and boys in the ground for all time. That it was their choice matters little, they paid the price for someone else's wrong and they paid dearly. Union soldiers of the Civil War are no different then their modern day counterparts. The difference lies in the fact no one seems to think they believed just as strongly, suffered just as much and did just as much right as those that followed them. That is because Americans have forgotten them. They have forgotten the sacrifice attached to the end of slavery in the US. If that weren't the case, reparations wouldn't be an issue, it would be acknowledged that the debt has been paid.
Choice I was once told is a mere afterthought of history, as it is in this case. Choice may have carried my grandfather off to the battle field directly, but the forces that brought him to that choice were far beyond his powers. That choice also puts him on a lower level of suffering too seems to cheapen his two weeks of suffering. Let me remind you how his hand was in the parlance of the day "shattered," in other words mangled and almost completely blown off by an artillery round that also split his leg open from knee to hip. This was all in an age before we knew anything about the nature of bacterial infection and in which amputation of his hand was the only viable surgical solution. To think he could have possibly envisioned this as an option for his life growing up in Canada in his youth is absurd at best. The fact he "chose" this fate for himself makes none of this any more palatable or acceptable. In fact it makes what happened to him all the more tragic: naively believing he was chosing the right thing to do ultimately committed hims to a fate he could not and did not anticipate with unintended consequences for those around him. Yet without him and thousands more like him, reparations would not even be a subject for discussion here.

Heather Pamplin - 2/10/2004

Well put, honey! I never told you how proud I was of this response. You are and always will be brilliant in my eyes.

Heather Pamplin - 2/10/2004

Here, Here!

Heather Pamplin - 2/10/2004

Maybe you both should read Jacob Goldfinger's comments on this article. You might learn something.

Heather Pamplin - 2/10/2004

I appreciate your comment. My only thought is that your great-great-great-great grandfather made a choice. Slaves obviously DID NOT make the choice to become slaves. They were not offered any choices. They were treated worse than animals. I think this is an EXTREMELY important distinction.

J. Caramello - 10/13/2003

I will support reparations for slaves when I get my first reparations check for the mistreatment, deliberate starvation and wholesale murders of my Irish Roman Catholic ancestors first at the hands the the British and then at the hands of the American Know Nothing Party known for their brave burning of convents and terrorizing nuns. These ancestors did not own or profit from slaves or were they even in this country during slavery. Sorry, I don't feel the guilt. I guess that is because I am not a raving northern California socialist. Oh well, we all have our faults.

dan - 2/25/2003

I've had this argument many times over the last year, and one point is always missed by the people against reparations:

No one is being singled out for payment. The proposal has never been to single out white people and only take money from them to give to black people... It is to take from the nation that benefitted from slavery and give to the people who have been subject to its legacy, even today. There is no need to prove slavery credentials because even someone off the boat today from Nigeria is subject to the same legacy as a survivor of slavery: prejudice, lack of opportunity, and discrimination.

Slavery was a national shame (even though legal),a nd until we deal with its aftermath, we will never be beyond its legacy.

But the real benefit would be a national dialog. The nay-sayers, however, refuse to dialog, and continually hide in their warrens denying slavery ever happened or that black people have a problem. They would rather believe that blacks are inferior, since that makes them, by comparison (and without effort) superior.

Kyle J. Hanson - 2/3/2003


Found this on the internet tonight as I was searching. I was up to Bemidji this past weekend to visit some friends/family. I got to go to a Beaver hockey game and the visit sure brought back a lot of memories. I was looking on the website tonight and thought of you. I did a search and found this article. Just wondering where you are these days and how you're doing. Hope to hear from you.

Kyle J. Hanson (class of '99)

DP Hays - 9/27/2002

My great-great-great-great grandfather died as a Union soldier in the Civil War. He wasn't spared a quick death but rather lingered on after shrapnel had ripped open his right leg and forced the amputation of his right hand. He came to this country in order to enjoy the American dream, but it came to naught on 15 April 1865, the day his body finally succumbed to a pain I can't even begin to imagine. He was a man who believed in leaving his home to free others and continued to display this selflessness when he decided to continue on instead of being allowed to return home. Who knows what his life might have been like had he lived and the same for many others, not to mention what they would think today, their sacrifice forgotten because one it occured long ago and it is politically convenient. His family never received a thank you, nor was his body returned. He is as much a part of my history as the forebearers of those descended from slaves are to them. My family lost a husband, a father, and the only real link to who his family was before him, a fact which his descendants still grapple with today. Sacrifice has a face and freedom has a price and let it only be paid once.

Phill Jones - 8/16/2002

If there is "simmering hostility" between the races now then reparations to the descendants of slaves will more than likely bring it to a fever pitch. Reparations is the ultimate con game and guilt trip. It reminds me how the Jews (en masse) were blamed for Christ's crucifiction. It will only satisfy those Black racists who can now claim that no matter what "whitey' does or says, they (whites)are responsible for our misery. Of course why stop with milking the USA, why not go back to the source of their slavery-Africa.

Heather P. - 4/26/2002

I'm really not sure from where your initial comment derives, however, I agree that your example would be relevant; if I actually believed your interpretation. I'd love to know the name of the poet and read exactly what he said. You seem to read into things ("I wonder what happened to the idea of judging someone by their character not skin color?"), so I don't know that I trust your translation. Nobody praises slavery. There are many ways to our country without going through 400 years of bondage. Do you really believe there's a black person out there who's happy his ancestors were stolen, sold, chained, drowned, beaten, raped? My point to Bud is that his point about the article (remember, that's what we're discussing) is bullsh**. I don't agree, and I think I made that clear.

Julian Pamplin - 4/26/2002

My pulse races in anticipation. My fingers strike the keys with the tempo of a coaxial M-240 machine gun. The target of my rant: Bud Wood. Of the many points I wish to rebut, I first choose to handle, with precision, your notion that as an African American I am somehow better off because of slavery. The hardest part of this first task is to explain away with logic a point that contains none. You sir, are as better off because of the deeds of slaves as I am. Do not again make the mistake of basking in the glory of this nation, without facing the reality that Africans and African Americans had as much to do with building this country as any other group of people. How dare you suggest that Black people are mere spectators or plain stowaways aboard this great vessel. The citizens of this country were fed and clothed by the labor of slaves for over 200 years. Instead of focusing on the indecency of enslavement as a means to accomplish what righteous people would do themselves or pay honest wages to have done, you choose to fast forward to present day America, using the ends to justify certain means, without a substantial grasp of what said means were.

Would you rather live in the United States or Germany? How about England, Ireland, or France? You pit this country against any other in the world and most Americans would choose the United States. Why then does "Go back to Africa" leave out the fact that Africa isn't the only country in worse shape than this one? Short answer; the question is racist rhetoric used solely to confuse the issue that enslavement was fundamentally wrong, in any language and in any court.

Your ancestor, William Wallace, who fought in the Union army against the rebellious southern confederacy, indeed deserves acknowledgement and you should be proud. With all due respect, Mr. Wallace was afforded certain luxuries that make his and your situations quite different. You see, Wallace was most likely a volunteer. Before 1861 and after 1865 Wallace and the majority of Union and Confederate soldiers for that matter were white men. Black people have no such luxuries. They didn't volunteer to put themselves in harms way, and after the war was over their lives were still very hard lived. Race has nothing to do with separating William Wallace from slaves or their descendants. Wallace and the other Union soldiers should feel a sense of honor to fight for such a just cause, not expect reparations for their military, and dare I say moral obligations. Should the soldiers of the allied nations against Nazi Germany be considered alongside those who suffered in concentration camps? You see, addressing such limited arguments leads to my explaining obvious points.

I would rather lend my talents and education to a more valid composition. I believe the worst of us is what makes race relations such an awkward and enduring predicament; therefore I find myself responding to yours. For a minute, allow for the notion that nobody is blaming you. Allow for the suggestion that you have a very limited view of what life was like for anyone of any race in America during the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries. Understand that you cannot begin to know what life is like for an African American, who on so many occasions during their scholastic endeavors, must explore the many ugly faces of racism and slavery, only to have those without a clue exclaim "Get over it!"

I am not angered by your words; I am saddened. In 2002, in the United States of America, with the enormous resources of the information superhighway, there are still so many who share such inconsiderate views as you do. The key, I guess, is not education. The key is somewhere in the heart. For anyone to ignore easily available facts so as to maintain their feeling of superiority and innocence convinces me that instead of a disease of the heart, the culprit lies precisely where your heart should be.

Pierre Troublion - 4/26/2002

I wonder what happened to the idea of judging someone by their character not skin color ?

Well, as long as that principle is in suspension, I recall (I think it was on NPR a few years ago) hearing an African-American writer who had visited Africa praise slavery (in effect) for having rescued him from the horror that his very distant cousins now suffer in Africa today. Maybe someone else out there can cite the exact individual concerned, but if we are going to argue by anecdote and ad-hominem here, that example would seem relevant to the discussion.

Heather P. - 4/26/2002

Who are you to speak for the "survivors" of slavery in America? To generalize that their lives are better here than in Africa is exactly the mentality that widens the racial divide.

Imagine, if you will, your grandmother was stripped from her homeland in Russia and dragged to Britain to work as a slave in a brothel, and this happened to thousands of Russian women over several years. Time goes by, you are born, you grow up. Now, there is a movement in Britain to find reparations for those young women from Russia. What would be your solution? Maybe you should pipe up and tell them it's been a long time since all of that, your better off in Britain anyway! Don't worry about it, Tony! In this scenario, at least your opinion of your family and how they were treated matters. As far as slaves go, you aren't one, you weren't one, your ancestors weren't slaves, so don't speak for any of those groups. Stick to what you know, which doesn't seem to be much. I'm so ashamed of what you wrote, I'm sorry we share the same skin color. To say: the fact that black people "get" to be American seems like compensation in and of itself IS ABSURD! Have you heard of Harlem? How about Watts? Lucky black people, right? Wow - why didn't I think of that!

The biggest problem I have with what you wrote is that I can tell you don't consider yourself racist. Well YOU ARE! Please, if you care, go share your views with some of your black friends (if you have any) and see what they have to say. Really listen to them. Get outside yourself and remember that it doesn't matter if you agree or disagree, because what they feel is the most important fact. Then maybe you can see this situation through the eyes of the most important players in this entire debate.

Eileen Walsh - 4/24/2002

Tristan Traviolia wrote:

"Homer Plessy in Plessy v Louisiana, and later Plessy v Ferguson, was fighting segregation laws on public transportation because he did not want to sit with "colored" folk."

Just an important clarification: Plessy had no trouble being near colored people; he went to a lot of trouble to convince porters and lawyers that he was one. He was trying to make a case, literally, and succeeded in doing that. His goal was to challenge the public transportation segregation laws, and thereby challenge legal segregation in the U.S. completely. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually heard his case but in 1896 decided, in a landmark decision that lasted until the 1964, to uphold public segregation as long as facilities were "separate but equal"--a stipulation that turned out to be unenforced and probably unenforceable.

Bud Wood - 4/24/2002

The various peoples, the majority from Africa, who were transported to the colonies and later to the new USA as slaves, mostly by European slave traders, were indeed subject to horrible and inhuman treatments. No question.
However, for the suvivors, their present lives have become much better than those people left in Africa now enjoy. It is doubtful that any significant number of present day African-Americans would chose to immigrate to Africa. When considered in this context, the compensation for slavery and later, of racism, in the USA seems to be its own compensation. One might even guess that the future is even brighter for all Americans.
Of course, some will say, "maybe it's O.K., now, but that's not the point; what we went through was hell". Yes, but so was what a lot of our ancestors went through in the civil war to finally eradicate slavery; many, many died. So, maybe I should get some reparations for my ancestor, William Wallace, who fought on the Union side thoughout the entire war. - - Or is it just easier to "write the check" on a basis of race?

Bud Wood

Tristan Traviolia - 4/24/2002

Homer Plessy in Plessy v Louisiana, and later Plessy v Ferguson, was fighting segregation laws on public transportation because he did not want to sit with "colored" folk. Plessy was only one eighth African American and seven eighths Anglo-American. How would we define "African American" for reparation purposes? How would descendants of slaves feel about descendants of slave owners receiving reparations for slavery? If the definitions are not precise enough this could easily happen. What if a descendant of a slave owner married a descendant of a slave in the intervening one hundred fifty years? If the definitions are that precise will "legitimate" recipients find themselves excluded? Believing we can compensate for the horrible and irreversible inhumanity of slavery in the Western Hemisphere is classic hubris.

Jacob Goldfinger - 4/24/2002

Those behind the reparations movement have made it clear that they do not seek payments to individual descendants of slaves, for a variety of reasons. Descendants may be difficult to identify and many have achieved financial success. Furthermore, blacks whose families arrived in the United States after slavery ended, or who are not direct descendants of slaves, certainly suffered from slavery and Jim Crow.

Furthermore, payments to descendants might suggest that the United States has settled its obligations. The goal of the reparations movement has always been to illustrate how the legacy of slavery manifests itself in CONTEMPORARY conditions, and to use the legal system to remedy those conditions. It is never too late to right a wrong.

Pierre Troublion - 4/23/2002

It seems to me that racism has done enough damage to America already, without more of our wealth needing to be transferred to the pockets of greedy lawyers. Let Wareham et. al. declare that they are handling this issue pro-bono, and then maybe we can consider the relative merits of lawsuits as a means of coping with problems our ancestors have bequeathed to us.

P.S. Congratulations to Chris Messner for broadening his horizons beyond the Gulf of Aqaba

Chris Messner - 4/23/2002

In an age where we now are reading of minority groups wanting to establish segregrated events, and a historically african-american college's student body stages protests when the administration considers opening up the enrollment, the talk of reparations is only going to increase social problems. Slavery was wrong, and still is worng, even though it is practiced in the world today. But how do we go back and define reparations? Is it to be paid by the companies who, in some historical legacy, benefitted from it? If so, do the losses that company now incurs mean nothing, if they cut jobs to compensate? Does the government pay, then share out the burden across the taxpayers, taxpayers who may have had no ancestors in country at the time slavery existed, or it is even paid by taxes of the descendants of slaves themselves? I had a relative who died in the war that ended slavery, fighting for the Union cause, does that make me exempt? What about the Arab countries who brokered the slaves to the traders in Africa, do we sue them? Or the African cultures and nations, whose ancestors traded tribal captives to the Arabs for sale as slaves?

Feeling the guilt of slavery is not wrong, and apologizing for slavery is not wrong. But reparations to descendants of slaves, 140 years and 100's of thousands of lives later on all sides, is wrong, and will only increase resentment and bigotry.

Chris Messner