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Your View: If we start paying reparations for slavery, where does it end?

Paying reparations for slavery has been discussed recently at both the state and federal levels. For example, bills have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate that would create a commission to consider reparations for slavery. Should reparations be paid for slavery?

Those enslaved in the U.S. were purchased in Africa from African slave traders, and were forced to suffer the horrific Middle Passage, the survivors often arriving first in the Caribbean before being taken to America. Here, they were treated as property and forced to work for generations (1619-1865) without compensation. The benefit of their labor went directly to enslavers, and indirectly to many non-enslavers.

George Nation III (Contributed photo)
George Nation III

Does the government, because it supported and enforced enslavement, owe lost wages as well as damages (for pain, suffering and other noneconomic harm), to the descendants of those who were enslaved? Have those not descended from enslaved people or enslavers received indirect benefits from slavery that constitute their debt for slavery?

One concern with paying reparations is that payment will be made by people who never owned slaves and received by people who were never enslaved. All of the enslavers and all of the enslaved are dead. Does this mean that reparations are an unfair burden to the payers and a windfall to the recipients?

Three questions are relevant. First, does America owe a debt for slavery? If yes, is this a debt we should attempt to repay? And finally, if so, how should this debt be repaid?

The third question is complicated. Should direct or indirect payment be made? How much should be paid? Should there be income/wealth limits for recipients? How should we account for payments already made (the cost of the Civil War and various government programs designed to help formerly enslaved people and their descendants)? Should we attempt to value the asset of U.S. citizenship received by the descendants of slaves? Should all African Americans be eligible or only descendants of slaves?

The second question focuses on whether paying reparations, if a debt is owed, will move us forward or backward. Treating people differently on the basis of race is what got us into this problem, and reparations will continue that pernicious practice.

The focus here is on the first question. Does the debt incurred due to slavery survive today? Do today’s citizens owe a debt for something that ended more than 150 years ago? Is the racial wealth gap a legacy of slavery, and if so, is it sufficient to support reparations?

Do white people today still benefit from slavery? Slavery benefitted enslavers, but it and the racial discrimination that followed harmed the American economy by taking productive African American workers out of the market, and especially harmed the South by discouraging investment in industry and transportation. Following the Civil War, there was no “U.S. Cotton” on par with, for example, U.S. Steel or Standard Oil. The ill-gotten gains of the enslavers were largely consumed by worthless Confederate war bonds and the loss of enslaved labor. After the war, the U.S. cotton industry was devastated. It seems unlikely that the wealth created by slavery found its way to current generations.

Should reparations be paid, not because ancestors were enslaved, but for post-slavery racial discrimination that metastasized from the cancer of slavery? Many other Americans have also been subject to government-supported discrimination. For example, Native Americans, women, certain religious groups and certain races/ethnicities. Would it be wrong to exclude these groups from any attempt to redress past discriminatory practices?

It wasn’t only Black people who were enslaved in America. A significant number of Native Americans and some white people were also enslaved. However, the largest number of enslaved persons were Black. While most Americans, even at slavery’s peak, did not own slaves, virtually everyone was aware of slavery and the lies told regarding Black people and Native Americans to justify slavery.

Does the close nexus between slavery and racial discrimination such as Jim Crow, redlinin, and the denial of various government benefits explain today’s unequal wealth distribution and incarceration rates? Are descendants of enslaved people still denied an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream, or does equal opportunity exist today?

Have we denied equal opportunity to others as well? All women, for much of history were treated as property, first of their fathers then their husbands with no legal identity or rights of their own. The lies regarding women were also ubiquitous.

Since no one alive today was ever enslaved and because many Americans have suffered discrimination, I advocate for using available public funds to help all in need regardless of race or identity.

George A. Nation III is a professor of law and business at Lehigh University. The views presented are the author’s and do not represent those of Lehigh University’s College of Business.

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