If the November elections put Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, we can expect John Conyers (D.MI) to introduce legislation that would set up a committee to decide who would qualify for reparations for slavery, whether they should be compensated in cash, land or some other payment, and how much each black person would receive. City councils in Chicago, Houston, Detroit, and several other cities have already called for Congress to hold hearings on reparations.
First off, let me say that I agree with reparations advocates that slavery was a horrible, despicable violation of basic human rights. I'd also agree that were it possible slave owners should make reparations to those whom they enslaved. The problem, of course, is both slaves as well as their owners are all dead. Thus, punishing perpetrators and compensating victims is out of the hands of the living. Reparations advocates, however, want today's blacks to be compensated for the suffering of our ancestors.
If we acknowledge that government has no resources of its very own, and that to give one American a dollar government must first confiscate it from some other American, we might ask what moral principle justifies forcing a white of today to pay a black of today for what a white of yesteryear did to a black of yesteryear? We might also recognize that a large percentage of today's Americans, be they of European, Asian, African or Latin ancestry, don't even go back three or four generations. Are they to be held accountable and taxed for slavery and why?
Then there's the fact that white slave owners aren't the only villains in the piece. In Africa, Moslems dominated the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. Africans also engaged in slave trade with Europeans. In fact, there was plantation slavery in some parts of Africa such as the Sudan, Zanzibar and Egypt. Thus, a natural question arises: Do reparations advocates hold those who sold blacks into slavery subject to reparations payments? After all slavery, of the scale seen in the western hemisphere, would have been all but impossible without the help of Africans and Arabs. Incidentally, President Clinton apologizing for slavery in Africa, of all places, is stupid - apologizing to descendants of slave traders for slavery in America.
Though it's not politically correct to say, today's blacks benefitted immensely from the horrors suffered by our ancestors. You say, "What do you mean, Williams? Would you run that by us?"
Most black Americans are in the solid middle class. In fact, if we totaled the income black Americans earned each year, and thought of ourselves as a separate nation, we'd be the 14th or 15th richest nation. Even the 34 percent of blacks considered to be poor are fairly well off by world standards. Had there not been slavery, and today's blacks were born in Africa instead of the U.S., we'd be living in the same poverty that today's Africans live in and under the same brutal regimes.
If reparations were to be made, then what? Would reparations payments accomplish what the six trillion dollars spent since 1965 on the War on Poverty didn't? Let's face the fact that there's not one thing anyone can do to change the past. There's a lot we can do about the future. Dwelling on the past comes at the expense of preparing for the future.
There's one condition where I might fall prey to the reparations temptation. The federal government owns up to 90 percent of the land in western states such as Alaska, Nevada, New Mexico and California. Turning that land over to blacks, and hence into private hands, might not be a bad idea.
Walter E. Williams
June 26, 2000
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