Reparations for Slavery: Who Pays? - Island of Sanity

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Tolerance & Bigotry

Reparations for Slavery: Who Pays?

There has been much discussion in recent months about the idea of reparations for slavery: that there should be some sort of cash payment to African-Americans to compensate them for the disadvantages that they suffer because of the legacy of slavery.

A frequent objection made to such proposals is that they tend to assume that all white Americans would have to contribute to such reparations, and that this would be unfair. There is, in my opinion, some validity to this objection. After all, not all white people held slaves or supported slavery. Some reply that this is irrelevant, because all white people benefitted from slavery, directly or indirectly. Even if they didn't hold slaves themselves, they used products that were produced by slave labor. But surely this rebuttal is far too simplisitic. What about the white people who ran the Underground Railroad, smuggling escaped slaves to freedom? When they were caught, they had to pay huge fines -- more money that most people had in those days, so often they would lose their homes, their farms or businesses, everything -- and on top of that they might spend years in prison. Would it really be just to make their grandchildren pay for the crimes of the people who stole from their grandparents? Or what about those who served in the Union army, fighting to end slavery? We could debate what the "real motives" of the politicians were, but millions of Northerners went to war because they believed in a great crusade to free the slaves. Is it right to punish his grandchildren for the "crime" of having a grandfather who gave his life to end slavery

But there is a simple solution to this problem: Take the reparations, not from all whites, but rather from the descendants of those who were most responsible for slavery, the leaders who worked and fought to defend slavery right up to the end. People like John Calhoun and Henry Clay, who wrote the Fugitive Slave Act. People like James Buchanan, the president before Abraham Lincoln, who championed a "compromise" on slavery -- no white person should be forced to give up his slaves, and in exchange no white person would be forced to own a slave. Stephen Douglas, the pro-slavery candidate who ran against Abraham Lincoln. George McClellan, who ran against Lincoln when he was up for re-election in the middle of the Civil War, on a platform of ending the war and letting the South keep its slaves. All the politicians in the South who enacted "Jim Crow" laws to keep treating black people as second-class citizens even if they were technically free.

Almost all of the people I've named above were members of a single organization that continues to exist to this day. Henry Clay was a Whig. The Whigs are long gone. All the rest were members of the Democratic Party.

Thus, in simple fairness, I think that any reparations for slavery should be paid by the moral and intellectual inheritors of the people who defended it. The money should come from the coffers of the Democratic National Committee.

© 2002 by Jay Johansen


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