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Apr. 24 2010 - 10:52 am | 921 views | 1 recommendation | 16 comments

Reparations for Slavery? The Bill Was Paid–in Blood

In yesterday’s Times, the estimable scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. had an odd op-ed article entitled “Ending the Slavery Blame Game. ” Whayt made it odd was its construction. At the heart of the piece was Gates’ very interesting summary of recent scholarship about the complicity of African tribes in capturing African people and selling them to European and American slave traders. Sandwiching this summary, however, was Gates’ bid for op-ed relevance, which was his assertion that this fuller understanding of a broader criminal enterprise would give President Obama “a unique opportunity to reshape the debate over one of the most contentious issues of America’s racial legacy: reparations, the idea that the descendants of American slaves should receive compensation for their ancestors’ unpaid labor and bondage.”

Is the idea of reparations still contentious? I guess it is–if somebody brings it up. But reparations seems to be an idea that had a heyday of argument a decade ago, and was then shelved in favor of ideas more vital. But even at the time of its greatest urgency, it seemed to be one of those self-evidently good ideas that became less good once you got into the practicalities. For one thing, there was the question of where the money should come from. No doubt some of the great slave trade fortunes of the 17th and 18th and 19th have been carefully cultivated and survive, but many have been used up, or, more significantly, destroyed during the Civil War. Moreover, it seems hardly equitable to charge the people whose ancestors arrived on these shores after the Civil War with the cost of paying for slavery. It’s very hard to think how my Malanowski forebears, for example, who arrived here in 1905, profited by the institution of slavery. On top of this is the fact that a great many people struggled against slavery and died fighting it. It may seem logical to argue that the descendants of slaves should be compensated by those who supported the institution, but if that is so, is it not just as logical to argue that the descendants of slaves and others should pay compensation to the descendants of the Union troops who died fighting for their liberation? I wonder how Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan would feel about that.

But what really rankles about the idea of reparations is that is turns slavery into a civil tort–an argument over back pay. Of course it was something much worse, something profoundly more evil, a society-wide, systematic criminal conspiracy. And in his second Inaugural, Abraham Lincoln specified precisely the price that terminating the conspiracy would exact. Speaking a little more than a month before Robert E. Lee’s confederate forces would surrender, LIncoln said “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Was all the wealth sunk? Well, Richmond was burned, and Atlanta was burned, and the Shenandoah Valley was torched, and the tremendous value embodied by two and a half million slaves was struck from the books. Was every drop of blood drawn by the lash paid for another drawn by the sword? At least 620,000 soldiers were killed during the Civil War; with the limitations on record-keeping, this figure could easily be as high as 700,000. That was out of a population of 30 million. This does not include the physically or psychologically wounded, or civilian deaths caused by combat, or civilian deaths caused by a lack of food or medicine. And it in no way includes the incredible economic devastation wreaked upon the south, destruction so complete that for a century the south was poorer and more backward than the rest of the country (and let’s face it, Mississippi and Alabama still are.) The destruction fell on north and south alike: sons of southern slaveholders and sons of northern slave ship owners both died, as did the sons of families north and south who did not engage in the slave trade but who acquiesced in its existence.

And of course, some of the last blood shed belonged to Lincoln, in a futile effort to achieve the long-lost war aims of the south. Lincoln saw that the evil was not civil but moral, that the evil perpetrated was Biblical in its proportions, and that the price that had to be paid was stupendous. Those who seek reparations should visit the Union cemetery at Gettysburg or Hollywood cemetery in Richmond or any of dozens of other graveyards: there is your treasure.


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  1. collapse expand

    I always said that before I’d consider reparations for slavery, we’d need to repay everything we’ve done to the natives…and are *still* doing to them.

    Then again, I said the same thing about Japanese internment reparations.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_American_internment#Reparations_and_redress

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    Elie Mystal recently wrote a great article that connected modern events to the Civil War. Your article goes a long way to illuminate 2 of the fundamental truths about our history that are usually tucked away in a corner. White people gave their lives to end slavery and are seldom praised for their sacrifice to liberate blacks. Confederates fought to defend the unthinkable: enslavement. The argument that confederates fought for independence is specious and cowardly.

  3. collapse expand

    “It may seem logical to argue that the descendants of slaves should be compensated by those who supported the institution, but if that is so, is it not just as logical to argue that the descendants of slaves and others should pay compensation to the descendants of the Union troops who died fighting for their liberation?”

    In short, no. The descendants of slaves should pay the descendants of those Union soldiers who fought against one of the most unjust institutional practices ever conceived? What? Read some personal testimonies. The Union soldiers were fighting because it was simply the right thing to do, and, in far larger numbers, for the reconciliation of their country.

    I hope that idea came into your head before you had your morning coffee–if not, that is truly scary. You make a couple of salient points throughout, but your tone is far too dismissive and self-congratulatory. Essentially, you’re just saying, “Stop whining.” I’m not sure that a helpful reaction to the problem you’re considering.

    • collapse expand

      Get over it is exactly what needs to happen. This is an over simplification too but I have been all over the world, and yes there were slaves all over the world (and there still are slaves, but they don’t really care at all about it, its just about keeping political power in the hands of some salesman) and it amazes me that this is the only country that still has this hang up, when, what will it take to move away from this thinking? If you were born here, your American. Period.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Would you mind elaborating? I have no idea what you’re talking about. And I don’t mean that to be a dick comment, I just don’t understand what point you’re trying to put forward.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          I am sensitive about some of this, because civil rights passages happened in my life. But when Obama was elected, it was on national news this 8 year old innocent girl, being taught by her teachers that just because she is black, she can still do and be anything, and that kicked me in the gut. I thought to myself, “what are doing to this poor kid”, they just keep it up the being held back paradigm, in my opinion there is a large number of black Americans that just don’t feel like they are Americans, I think they are harming themself with this thinking. It is all screwed up and we would all be better off if we were like all the other countries, even Cuba, where this is ancient history and has nothing to do with today. I am logged in for follow ups, what do you think?

          In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            Ah, I see what you’re saying now, thanks for clarifying.

            I agree with your argument wholeheartedly–sociology acknowledges a “culture of defeat,” or, more accurately, an oppositional culture that Black Americans have developed in response to decades of discrimination. Even if this culture is completely understandable when put in context, I do believe we need, in order to really end the scourge of socially-constructed racism, a disavowal of the kind of thinking you are criticizing.

            At the same time, as we discard that kind of thinking, we cannot escape from the fact that slavery and discrimination have left lasting effects on the Black community. Income gaps are closing, but Whites have seven to ten times as much net wealth as Blacks when you control for class, education, geography, etc. And that’s something that grows exponentially. For instance, if you are given a car as a teenager by your parents, your opportunities open up, rippling through your life’s path and into that of your children, who are then more likely to be given a car by you at the same point in their life.

            You see what I’m saying?

            P.S. The use by politicians of children to garner support is disgusting, e.g., the kid that Obama used a a political grief machine when he signed the health care bill. Unethical, if you ask me.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    I get you Richardberger, it isn’t going to be easy to change the paradigm, but if it still exists in 10-20 years, that would really be a huge failure, or else its by design. Thanks, and welcome to T/S, I love this place! :)

  5. collapse expand

    i agree! reparation in such an instance requires the whole of society to provide more than equality as the environment for the descendants of slavery since the group that suffered was denied opportunities long after the actual slavery. both amerindians and african americans deserve sponserships for establishing a business or endeavor to give them an edge that was often enjoyed by the descendants of enslavers. this is the “step” that was always overlooked by lawmakers. good exchange with ebizjoey!

    • collapse expand

      Exactly. And while it’s a tough argument to make, I think we have to look at two things:
      (1) Equality of outcome is not equality of opportunity–in America, we tend to conflate the two. Sure, everyone can become Bill Gates, but not everyone is afforded the same opportunities he was.

      (2) With economic policy tending to follow diminishing returns, imagine the returns we can receive by /correctly/ subsidizing the poor. To be clear, I don’t think we should just throw money at the problem. I think looking at the microfinance programs in Africa and India would give us a good starting point, though.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    Your argument begins to go south with the blinders you take on by failing to think before writing the line “It’s very hard to think how my Malanowski forebears, for example, who arrived here in 1905, profited by the institution of slavery.”

      • collapse expand

        Perspectives on Reparations

        I recently read your article, Reparations for Slavery-The Bill was Paid- in Blood. I found two points of contention. The first was with a question you raised, “ Is it not logical that the descendants of slaves should pay descendants of union soldiers?”
        The second point of contention was with your conclusion that, “Those who seek reparations should visit the Union Cemetery at Gettysburg or others like it as their treasure or reparation can be found there.”

        When approaching this subject one must first consider the millions of African American lives lost during the North Atlantic slave trade, in which this country so willingly participated. How great of a debt is owed by this country for those lives? And to say that Africa participated does not absolve this country of its responsibility. I think it is fair to say that this country’s participation in the barbaric institution of slavery eventually resulted in a war were the blood of her own children had to be spilled to correct the evil that she set in motion. I believe these were Lincolns sentiments based on the statements made during his 2nd Inaugural as presented in your article. Perhaps this government should pay everyone involved, which includes: the Africans she murdered and tortured, and the union soldiers that gave their lives to eradicate the evil that she created. Blame the wrongdoer, the creator of this murderous cycle; and not the pawns –slaves and soldiers

        So, “Should slave descendants pay union soldier descendants?” No.

        “Should those who seek reparations look to the graves of union soldiers?” No.

        The death of the union soldiers fulfilled the end of the murderous cycle of the 1st Slave Era; or they paid the debt for it, as Lincoln put forth in his second inaugural. It is the 2nd Slave Era that begs the question of reparations.

        The end of slavery was tantamount to cutting a wound in one head off a two-headed monster.
        One head represented physical slavery and the other twin head symbolizing socio-economic inequality. Gen. Sherman’s concept of 40 acres and a mule or some sort of economic repair measure would have severed the other head, creating a new and fair playing field for all races; but his was not to be for various reasons including the economic situation in the post civil war south.

        Instead, the wounded head healed and grew back to form the 2nd Slave Era, Jim Crow. This evil institution lasted 100 years until the advent of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. This is why there is socio-economic disparity between the races.

        So the question becomes, If this government created the social economic disparity that exists between races, should she not take some responsibility in healing it?

        From my perspective, the answer is yes.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        “This does not include the physically or psychologically wounded, or civilian deaths caused by combat, or civilian deaths caused by a lack of food or medicine. And it in no way includes the incredible economic devastation wreaked upon the south, destruction so complete that for a century the south was poorer and more backward than the rest of the country (and let’s face it, Mississippi and Alabama still are.)”

        You do realize that all of the tragedies suffered by troops during the Civil War were conditions that slaves lived under for 250 years, yes?
        You do realize that generations and generations of people were forced to work and accumulate NO wealth for two and a half centuries, yes?
        You do realize that millions of people died on their way to the United States on those slave ships, yes?
        How long would it take you to feel like less than human if you were being treated that way, raped at the whim of your master, denied nutritious food, bred like animals, sold away from your family like chattle and beaten for 250 years?
        Only to be released to later face Jim Crow segregation and a bloody fight for basic civil rights.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          i agree! reparation in such an instance requires the whole of society to provide more than equality as the environment for the descendants of slavery since the group that suffered was denied opportunities long after the actual slavery. both amerindians and african americans deserve sponserships for establishing a business or endeavor to give them an edge that was often enjoyed by the descendants of enslavers. this is the “step” that was always overlooked by lawmakers.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand

    Perspectives on Reparations- Part 2

    I thought it important to state that an economic ailment requires an economic solution.
    The solution to an economic ailment is not fully provided by a body count. Gen Sherman provided the other half of the solution via economic repair, as mentioned in Part 1, but it never reached fruition. As the ethical doctor provides complete treatments, so must this country.

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