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Reparations for slavery?

May 30, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
Should descendants of former slaves receive reparations for the wrongs suffered by their ancestors?

That idea is hardly new but the issue has been raised again in a piece in the Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates that can be found at Coates points out the obstacles that slavery and centuries of racism have put in the path of blacks who are trying to succeed in society. Essentially, their ancestors started several steps behind the starting line and haven't been able to keep up, thanks to Jim Crow laws and racist policies that made it harder for blacks to get jobs or purchase homes.

On the other hand, and with good reason, critics point out no one living today in the United States either perpetrated slavery or was legally enslaved. Racist laws are off the books and there are many federally-funded programs designed to encourage minorities to get job training or go to school or aid them in buying homes.

So whom should we send the reparations checks to? Individuals who can prove direct descent from a slave, perhaps? As far as I know, I could be the direct descendant of a slave, since my 23andme results show I have 0.4 percent West African ancestry that probably dates back to the 1700s. Most slaves in the United States were brought here from West Africa. But the other 99.6 percent of my genome is northern European. Giving someone like me reparations for slavery would be pretty ridiculous. So maybe only people who identify as black today and had ancestors who were slaves at the time of the Civil War ought to be eligible for reparations. Maybe that issue can be dodged altogether and the reparations should go to foundations that help all black Americans.

The looming question is who would have to pay and how large would the reparations be? I also think there are many in this state who would say that Native Americans have as great a claim or greater to reparations. There would probably be many other aggrieved groups that would also request reparations from the government if reparations were given to descendants of slaves.

How about you? Do you think this is an issue that ought to be given serious consideration?


Article Comments



Jun-02-14 5:51 PM

And Obama's white mother was descended from a black slave whose descendants married whites, something he probably didn't know until the genealogists went to work on his genealogy.


Jun-02-14 5:31 PM

And to dig even further into our difficult past:

Historians, including some African American historians, have recorded that the laws in slave states at the time required slave owners who freed their slaves to swear that the slaves were of good character and were capable of supporting themselves. A few free blacks even petitioned the courts to be allowed to become slaves because they were not capable of supporting themselves.

Conditions varied a lot for slaves. Some were on relatively good terms with the slave owner and worked side by side with them. Others were treated brutally and were separated from their families. The stories and relationships are every bit as complex and tangled as human beings themselves.


Jun-02-14 5:21 PM

Yes, George Washington and Patrick Henry owned slaves. So did Thomas Jefferson. I imagine they did abhor slavery on some level, even as they found it difficult to escape a system where it was legal and their livelihoods depended upon it. It doesn't make it right or less horrible for the slaves, but it does make it complex.

Other slave owners around 1830 were one Justus Angel and one Mistress Horry, both of South Carolina, both of whom were free blacks AND both of whom were slave owners who owned more than 10 slaves each. There were a fair number of blacks who owned slaves of their own. Again, our history is complex. Should the descendants of Angel and Horry also receive reparations?


Jun-02-14 3:02 PM

land, as usual, you are making sweeping generalizations. What about those people who have Type I diabetes, MS, cerebral palsy, Parkinson's, etc.? Should they be allowed to die because they can't afford the health care involved? And what difference does it make if someone is ruining their body with gay or straight "interactions"? Well, except your personal opinion on the morality of the situation? Why should I have to pay for some heterosexual idiot who doesn't wear a ******, contracts an STD, becomes pregnant and can't afford to care for the child, etc.? I shouldn't. I don't necessarily think the government "owes" me anything but our country was built by people trying to escape persecution for their beliefs. Why should you be allowed to persecute others for their beliefs? Are you better than our country's founders?


Jun-02-14 1:34 PM

You could apply the same arguments to Social Security, Medicare and to agriculture subsidies. I think all are of benefit to both the individuals involved and to society as a whole. Adequate health care is the same thing. Either way, society ends up paying in some fashion if people aren't healthy.


Jun-02-14 1:20 PM

That being said, I don't think this is something that should be pursued or indentured slaves that came over from Europe could earn their descendants some reparation as well. It is an atrocity to be sure but I don't think money could solve it and I don't see how anyone could determine who would fairly be deserving of the money. Slavery has taken place in every society from the dawn of time. It is wrong but the true reparation comes from eliminating it in a given civilization.


Jun-02-14 1:13 PM

Both of my sides of the family came directly from Norway in the last land rush.


Jun-02-14 12:25 PM

In some instances, I think citizens have a responsibility to the common good, which is health care for everyone, which they would also benefit from. We can certainly argue over whether Obamacare is the most cost effective or likely to insure quality in health care. I have my doubts that either will be true. However, the United States has been the only western industrialized country without some type of socialized medicine and a lot of people go bankrupt or die too young as a result. Emergency room visits are more costly than insurance.

Does "the common good" apply to reparations? Coates would probably argue that it does, as he thinks it is necessary for the country to acknowledge institutionalized racism and for there to be some sort of national spiritual revival. I doubt that will ever come to pass, but it's probably true that history should be taught more honestly than it is.


Jun-02-14 11:48 AM

Health care is not a right. In order to make this "right" happen, you have to violate the rights of others to get it.


Jun-02-14 11:47 AM

"I don't think it's really possible to hold people responsible for the good or the evil that they did, given that most of us are descended from both history's saints and sinners."

And this is why these things need to be handled during the lifetimes of the people who were actually involved. Otherwise you end up with situations like where the IRS was going after people for tax debts owed by their dead grandparents.


Jun-02-14 11:44 AM

I actually do think health care is a basic right, but that's not the same thing as reparations.

Society usually ends up paying one way or another if someone gets sick and doesn't have insurance.


Jun-02-14 10:58 AM

== Continued ==

Interestingly enough, the Scottish indentured servant was my father's ancestor and his employer, the New England landowner, was my mother's ancestor. Their descendants didn't meet until my parents met and married. But none of us are our ancestors, even though all of us inherit the circumstances that our ancestors gifted us with. I don't think it's really possible to hold people responsible for the good or the evil that they did, given that most of us are descended from both history's saints and sinners.


Jun-02-14 10:55 AM

Probably not and there's the problem.

History is littered with incidents of war and racism and incidents of terrible injustices and also negligence and damages caused by mismanagement and incompetence. Coates makes some valid points about income inequality for blacks. Native Americans could make the same point about their ancestors who were forced onto reservations or killed in battle or who caught diseases from Europeans. One of my many times great-grandfathers was a Scottish prisoner of war transported to America to work as an indentured servant after his side lost the battle to Cromwell's forces. He would probably have preferred to remain in Scotland. Some of my Irish ancestors probably had their own beefs against the English. How much in real money did those people and their descendants lose because they were exploited? But then again, I am also descended from the English, including the landowner who employed my Scottish ancestor who was an indentured servant.


Jun-02-14 9:48 AM

"any wrongs done by the government to Native Americans by the government -- i.e., loss of land or inadequate services."

Imagine the implications of THAT precedent! Does that mean every time bodies of government siphon off money from, say, the highway trust fund in order to build light rail trains, can those of us who paid into the highway trust fund with the thinking that the money would be used to maintain roads petition for reparations because of mismanagement of the trust fund that lead to inadequate repairs and maintenance of roads? I mean, I once got a flat tire as a result of a pothole that came about from said mismanagement...and what about that guy in Minneapolis who hit a similarly formed pothole and it caused his airbag to deplay and he suffered grevious eye injuries?


Jun-02-14 9:22 AM

The situation with Native Americans is different. The federal government has treaties with the individual tribes, who are considered sovereign nations. Things like the Indian Health Service are part of the treaties. Individual members of those tribes may be eligible for assistance based on personal need just like other citizens are. Reparations would probably be a separate matter with the Native Americans, based on any wrongs done by the government to Native Americans by the government -- i.e., loss of land or inadequate services.

The government would likely be responsible for reparations, so all of us would end up paying for it, regardless of whose family members owned slaves. I think many people would be surprised by what they find if they begin researching their family tree. If your family has been here long enough, you could find both slaves AND slave owners, even if you are white. The country has a very complex past.


Jun-02-14 8:59 AM

is okay because we are occupying land they once owned.


Jun-02-14 8:55 AM

Existence, sorry.


Jun-02-14 8:54 AM

Well, if reparations were to be made, we would have to start with every state that allowed slavery at any time from the founding of the United States. From that, all states that were not populated or in existance as states would be exempt. Further, those states that abolished slavery would have to have less money paid or a limit on how long they would have to pay reparations. I also think that those eligible for reparations would like to maybe take a look at the impact reparations have taken on the Native American community. It may not be as helpful as one would think. As far as that goes, one would have to be a certain amount of African in order to be eligible just as we do for the Native Americans. North Dakota would be one state that is exempt as we did not come into being until slavery was long abolished. Also, there are many people that came over in the last land rush that never had anything to do with slavery in the United States. Reparations to the Native American


Jun-02-14 8:51 AM

Did you know that, as part of the slave trade, certain groups in West Africa sold members of other groups in West Africa to the slave traders who then brought the slaves to the New World?

I assume that if a reparations program were to be pursued, that descendants of the West Africans who sold their neighbors would be made to pay reparations also.

Think about that for a moment.


Jun-02-14 7:34 AM

The "don't you dare" thing is a little over the top in a conversation among adults.

At least Andrea is attempting to be rational.


Jun-01-14 7:15 PM

Passion doesn't usually make for good law. You haven't addressed the points I raised.


Jun-01-14 5:58 PM

Don't you dare try to minimize or be cute about centuries of genocide.

The evil is absolutely revolting. It makes me sick to my stomach.


Jun-01-14 5:56 PM

Again, how do you possibly calculate damages, who will pay and who should benefit? What about the other groups who have also been wronged?


Jun-01-14 4:25 PM

Riggs v. Palmer (1889)

"There are fundamental maxims of the common law . . . No one shall be permitted to profit by his own fraud, or to take advantage of his own wrong, or to found any claim upon his own iniquity, or to acquire property by his own crime. These maxims are dictated by public policy, have their foundation in universal law administered in all civilized countries, and have nowhere been superseded by statutes."


Jun-01-14 12:03 PM

How many other peoples have been victimized throughout history? How many programs have already been instituted to help the aggrieved? How do you possibly calculate damages or who should should benefit given the complex history? Reparations isn't really a realistic possibility.


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