Slavery makes a weak case for California's modern-day reparations

Slavery makes a weak case for California's modern-day reparations
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California has taken a historic step by forming a task force to consider reparations for Black residents and now faces a daunting task: defining a plausible strategy for implementing reparations. The architects of this effort — which was signed into law last year by Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin Newsom'Aggressive individual' arrested after interaction with Newsom California grid operator calls on residents to conserve electricity amid heat wave California hydroelectric plant expected to shut down for the first time in 50 years MORE (D) as part of a bill to investigate the comprehensive effects of slavery on Black Americans in California — seem more interested in establishing the moral credibility of reparations before effecting a well thought out strategy for resource allocation.

The task force members are in charge of recommending reparations proposals that would include almost everything from land to scholarships to direct cash payments. But they have committed a series of categorical mistakes by making invidious comparisons to reparations made to Japanese who were interred during World War II, Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and Americans who suffered from illnesses as a result of 9/11. Reparations were made to individuals in these groups on the premise that provable damages were established. The living victims of the internment, the Holocaust and 9/11 were beneficiaries of restorative justice — that is, they proved loss of property, direct appropriation of private property and objects, or illnesses that could be, without doubt, traceable to the 2001 terrorist attacks. In these cases, the U.S. — and, in the case of Holocaust victims, Germany — simply adduced the living victims and their provable claims of loss and suffering as grounds for reparative justice.

Pragmatically speaking, no such indisputable correlation between slavery and any negative experience of Black Americans today — none of whom were ever slaves — can be made. The deductive causal link between slavery, income disparity, poverty rates, police brutality involving Blacks, high incidences of Black incarceration, and college attrition among Blacks has not been established to secure a proper legal and ethical principle for reparation. Attribution of many of the maladies that Black Americans face today to slavery is speculative, conjectural and, at times, mawkishly sentimental.


But let us grant that meaningful tests are no longer required to secure principles that undergird massive policies, including those aimed at reparations. Assuming that the task force will use as a procedural metric the popular mantra “Just do it” — a common utterance among advocates for reparations that is meant to bypass any monocausal connection between slavery and Black suffering today — how exactly would reparations happen in a manner that is efficient and fair? How could we justly reward actual victims living today who were directly harmed by slavery? If cash payments are made, whose taxes would be used to finance them — would we tax Blacks, too? 

This makes little sense from the standpoint of procedural justice that is premised on the idea that a white oppressive institution willfully inflicted damages on a race of people. But if only the taxes of white people will factor into the payment algorithm, then this seems grossly unfair. How do we determine that white Americans being made to pay into the pool actually are harming Black people? If the premise is that their ancestors inflicted the harm, then there are two issues at stake. How do we begin a process of investigating the individual lives of whites whose ancestors owned slaves, and further, even if that endeavor could materialize, the moral question remains: What do the actions of a person’s ancestors have to do with that individual white person who most likely has never caused direct harm to a Black person?

On the question of scholarships, what criteria for material deprivation ought we to examine before dispensing free education? Is one a victim of poverty because of the direct procreative choices one’s parents made? Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent data available (from 2010), 73 percent of Black American children are born out of wedlock; that directly correlates to systemic intra-racial poverty. Are the procreative choices people make the financial responsibility of society or, in this case, somehow influenced by the phenomenon of slavery? I think not. Prior to 1960, out-of-wedlock births for Blacks Americans hovered around 22 percent.

On the question of redlining and other forms of discrimination that individual Blacks have faced in housing, education and health care, these are not grounds for reparations. Since the 1964 Civil Rights Act established equality for Blacks before the law, rectifying such incidents belongs in the courts of law. Any person whose rights are violated in this country, depending on the scope, nature and type of damage, can seek legal redress as an individual. Any attempt to argue that any of the above encroachments against rights caused irreparable damage to a race of people is hyperbolic and infinitely subjective.

The empirical claim that enslaved Africans built the United States is putatively false. It was the industrialized North, and not the backward, agrarian South, that built the wealth and prosperity of this country. Economists such as Thomas Sowell and the late Walter E. Williams repeatedly have shown that slavery was never a driving force of the American economy, nor was it ever necessary for American dominance. Any sensible economist will acknowledge that the United States was a relatively late-arriver, as far as the world cotton market was concerned, and that U.S. cotton played almost zero role in contributing to the Industrial Revolution.  


It is a horrible thing to admit that, in the end, Black slaves and the economic institutions in which they were ensconced were merely fiscal and social ballasts as far as American prosperity and economic dominance were concerned.

Today, Blacks are enormous contributors to the great civilization that is the United States. They are the legatees of an emancipatory system that originated in the West. Rather than seek treble damages in the form of reparations for what their ancestors suffered, they instead can pay homage and tribute to their ancestors by continuing to suffuse our republic with an original assemblage of who they are. 

In so doing, their agency is used to right the wrongs of a country born with a terrible birth defect. They assert their inviolable dignity and moral worth, commit themselves to excellence in all spheres of life, and surpass the contingencies and stifled dreams of their ancestors.

Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago specializing in ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy and American politics. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming book, “What Do White Americans Owe Black People: Racial Justice in the Age of Post-Oppression.” Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.