Embracing reparations debases blacks, raises troubling questions


Support for reparations recently voiced by three of the Democratic 2020 presidential candidates is yet another insult to black America that is clothed in the trappings of social justice. Because their declarations were strategically timed during the waning days of Black History Month, it is important to examine the issue of reparations fully through a clear lens of history.

The matter is not as simple as its advocates makes it appear.

{mosads}Reparations are offered to compensate the descendants of black slaves who suffered at the hands of their white oppressors, who were able to build wealth and derive privileges that were passed on to their progeny. Advocates argue that it is the legacy of slavery that explains the current wealth gap between blacks and whites in America, and assume that the suffering of those early generations somehow can be monetized in a yet-to-be-determined amount.

By this reasoning, for the sake of social justice, all whites in America today must be willing to contribute to such a compensation fund or be labeled as racist. In this calculation, all blacks living in America belong to the class of “aggrieved victims” and, therefore, qualify for reparations.

In truth, the lines of demarcation become blurred when deeper consideration is given to who qualifies as a villain (payer) or a victim (payee).  

According to research by historians Henry Louis Gates Jr. and R. Halliburton, Jr., since the founding of our nation, the ownership of black slaves was not the exclusive domain of whites. In fact, blacks bought and sold fellow blacks from 1654 until the beginning of the Civil War.

In 1830, about 13.7 percent of the black population (319,599) was free. Of these, 3,776 owned 12,907 of the total slave population of 2,009,043.

The first known person legally declared to be “in permanent bondage” involved a case brought to the courts in Virginia in 1654. Anthony Johnson, one of the country’s first black slave owners, had five indentured servants. One of them was a black man, John Casor, who had fulfilled his time of indenture and sought his freedom. Johnson and his wife sued in court and the judge ruled in their favor that Casor was in bondage for life. This was the first known legal sanction of slavery other than as a means of criminal punishment.

Though some blacks purchased other blacks for humanitarian purposes, including family members, many others enslaved fellow blacks for their own economic benefit. One insidious example was the action of members of the Free People of Color in New Orleans, slave owners who offered to fight against the Union Army. According to research by Noah Andre Trudeau and James G. Hollandsworth Jr., in May 1861, the governor organized the “Native Guards of Louisiana,” and these black slave owners took an oath to fight to defend the Confederacy. Eventually, their ranks swelled to 1,000.  Although they were given no fighting roles, this became the first Civil War unit to appoint black officers.

Blacks were not alone in the ownership of black slaves by people of color. Native Americans were complicit as well. According to historian Tiya Miles, in 1838 and 1839, members of the Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes owned approximately 3,500 black slaves. If a white trader sired a child by a Native American woman, their offspring was entitled to inherit the parents’ slaves, under white law and tribal law.

Troubling questions arise from these facts that the Democratic candidates, and all others who support reparations, should consider:

  • How do you choose who pays and who receives payment?
  • What about the descendants of the vast majority of whites who did not own slaves, and those who fought and died to end slavery?
  • Should the descendants of black owners be made to pay?
  • What is the fair share to be paid by the Native Americans who owned slaves?
  • How do we classify people of mixed parentage, blacks who came from other countries, or whites who immigrated to America after the turn of the century?

The entire issue of reparations debases the determination and achievement of blacks throughout history who managed to prosper in the midst of virulent racial hostility. Reparations assumes that the fate of black America can be determined by what white Americans do or fail to do. When blacks in America were in the grip of Jim Crow laws, had no political representation, and suffered gross income disparities compared to whites, we managed to maintain stable families, build hotels, create insurance companies, and own and operate our own businesses.

Those patronizing voices of whites who seek to save us from ourselves, and black “spokespersons” who embrace an agenda of racial grievance and an identity of victimization, should stand aside.

Robert L. Woodson, Sr. is the president and founder of the Woodson Center. Follow him on Twitter @BobWoodson.

Tags Free people of color race and society Reparations for slavery debate in the United States Slavery in the United States

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