Thursday, August 21, 2008

Slave Reparations?

I've heard some people talk about this like it's a good idea, so I'm curious.

I'm pretty solidly against the idea personally, but I'd like to hear from some smart people who are for it so that I can understand where they are coming from.

Slavery was a terrible thing, but almost all of our ancestors lived pretty terrible lives by modern standards. TheCSO has been known to point out that his people were so poor that mine owners hired them to work in the mines instead of slaves because slaves were too expensive to risk doing such dangerous work. (As someone who has some familiarity with modern workers compensation law, it amazes me that it used to be that a generous employer was one who paid you for the day that you maimed yourself in an accident, given that you hadn't worked the full day.)

I'm not saying that this was worse that slavery, I bet both ways of life were awful and I certainly don't know enough to rank them even if I wanted to. But it seems weird that we would draw an awfulness line that would make some ancestors lots sufficiently awful to rate reparations and some not.

Plus the economic impact on people today. I can't imagine the reparations would be good for the economy and I can't imagine how the calculations of what decades of suffering are worth will go. How much is sufficient if it was your whole family? How much if you're related to only one slave? If your ancestor figured out a way to buy his or her freedom, do you no longer get a check?

Plus the moral question. Will throwing money at the issue heal society's wounds?(The answer "No, but it's the best we can do," is, of course, not unreasonable. WASPy girl that I am, throwing money at the problem is often my solution for things, I will be the first to confess.) But is "the best we can do" good enough to merit all of the problems the mere act of giving reparations may cause?

Anyway, explanations and arguments are welcome. I'm just trying to understand the ideas.



Anonymous said...

I am neither very learned nor energetic about reparations, but everything I've heard about it from advocates who had done their homework is that reparations would NOT be given to individuals or families, but to institutions that are focused on meeting the needs of AAs economically, educationally, and medically.

Robin Edgar said...

"WASPy girl that I am"

Well to be precise CC you are actually a WASU*U girl. ;-)

Speaking of unfortunate acronyms. . . I am not sure that it is such a good idea to identify African Americans with the acronym AA given the much better known meaning of that particular acronym.

Joe The Math Guy said...

Regarding CC's third paragraph (first big paragraph), why is this not an argument for granting reparations to CSO too? Since his forebears lived in conditions even worse than slaves?

Of course, some slaves, (a few) lived relatively well, at least judged by physical comforts. Many others lived in horrific conditions. Some were treated with less decency than you or I would extend to a rabid dog. As I see it, the issue hinges on a lot more than simply how well or how poorly the slaves were treated.

Claire said...

the documentary "traces of the trade" addresses reparations, and the arguments for and against, pretty well. a family descended from a big time slave trader journeys around the world to see the places that their ancestors took slaves from and to. most of the people who went eventually decided they were for reparations

PG said...

Er, unless CSO's ancestors had no personal freedoms and could be freely raped and assaulted by their employers, I really recommend against his attempting to compare them to slaves. At least in a typical American value system, what was bad about slavery was not the material deprivation or even physical danger, but the dehumanizing fact of being owned. (A more socialist value system that puts a lower priority on personal freedom and a higher priority on physical well-being might see slavery as less of an evil than the aspects of the Industrial Revolution against which Marx railed.)

African Americans should not take reparations -- if they do, they'll never hear the end of it from white folks.

Seriously, a cash payment "to make up for slavery," either to individual black people or to black-focused institutions, is not a good idea. It pretends that we somehow can pull out from our history events that took place over 100 years ago and can make good on them. It's not at all comparable to the cash payments made to the Japanese victims of WWII internment, which went to the living survivors of those camps who had been directly deprived of their liberty and property.

The time for slavery reparations was the Reconstruction's false promise of 40 acres and a mule. Having failed to give freed slaves such access to the tools of wealth in an agrarian society, we just have to live with the fact that the U.S. screwed over slaves and their descendants for a long time.

I'd rather maintain a commitment to seeking equality for the races in how they are treated under the law and in their access to opportunities to better themselves. It reminds me of a deal I offered to strike on affirmative action in the wake of O'Connor's claim that it would not be necessary in 25 years: commit to that timeframe with a Constitutional amendment, but have that amendment also include a repudiation of Rodriguez v. San Antonio School District, as well as a general commitment to pouring extraordinary funds into the prenatal care, early childhood education, health care, elementary and secondary, college prep, college access and support for African Americans.

Chalicechick said...

Well, I don't know, PG, but I suspect that if you were a mine worker and your boss wanted to rape or assault you, the consequences for doing so would be pretty minimal.

That said, I was looking to avoid the awfulness comparisons and accept that most people's ancestors had it pretty terribly and that drawing a line between "terrible enough to deserve reparations" and "not" would be damn near impossible.


PG said...

I suspect that if you were a mine worker and your boss wanted to rape or assault you, the consequences for doing so would be pretty minimal.

No, they wouldn't, because the rule of law was established in the U.S. quite a long time ago, and the mine manager could not rape and assault people with impunity unless they were his property. Workers were not his property unless they held the legal status of slaves. A worker who was beaten up by the mine manager could bring assault charges against that manager. The worker also had the option to leave; he was not required to stay at that job. A slave had no legal rights whatsoever, including, per Dred Scot, even the right to file a lawsuit. Being property is just a dehumanization on a different scale from living in poverty and working in mortally unsafe conditions. There is, for one thing, the distinction of having a choice in the matter.