Political theater raises an unwanted question
By WALTER WILLIAMS
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Last month, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed Senate Resolution 26, “Apologizing for the enslavement and racial segregation of African-Americans.” The resolution ends with: “Disclaimer. — Nothing in this resolution (a) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or (b) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.” That means Congress apologizes but is not going to pay reparations, as least for now.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have expressed concerns about the disclaimer, thinking it’s an attempt to stave off reparations claims from the descendants of slaves. Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said her organization is studying the language of the resolution, and Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss, said “putting in a disclaimer takes away from the meaning of an apology. A number of us are prepared to vote against it in its present form. There are several members of the Progressive Caucus who feel the same way.”
It goes without saying that slavery was a gross violation of human rights. Justice would demand that all the perpetrators — that includes slave owners and African and Arab slave sellers — make compensatory reparation payments to victims. Since slaves, slave owners and slave sellers are no longer with us, such compensation is beyond our reach and a matter to be settled in the world beyond.
Absent from the reparations debate is: Who pays? Don’t say the government, because the government doesn’t have any money that it doesn’t first take from some American. So which Americans owe black people what? Reparations advocates don’t want that question asked, but let’s you and I.
Are the millions of Europeans, Asians and Latin Americans who immigrated to the United States in the 20th century responsible for slavery, and should they be forced to cough up reparations money? What about descendants of Northern whites who fought and died in the name of freeing slaves? Should they cough up reparations money for black Americans? What about non-slave-owning Southern whites — the majority of whites in the region — should they be made to pay reparations? And would President Barack Obama, whose father is Kenyan and mother white, be eligible for a reparations payment?
On black people’s side of the ledger, thorny issues also arise. Some blacks purchased other blacks as a means to free family members. But other blacks owned slaves for the same reason whites owned slaves — to work farms or plantations. Are descendants of these blacks eligible and deserving of reparations? There is no way Europeans could have captured millions of Africans. They had African and Arab help. Should Congress haul representatives of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Muslim states before them and demand they compensate American blacks because of their ancestors’ involvement in capturing and selling slaves?
Reparations advocates make the foolish unchallenged pronouncement that the United States became rich on the backs of free, black labor. That’s utter nonsense. Slavery has never had a very good record of producing wealth. Think about it. Slavery was all over the South. Buying into the reparations nonsense, you’d have to conclude that the antebellum South was rich and the slave-starved North was poor. The truth of the matter is just the opposite. In fact, the poorest states and regions of our country were places where slavery flourished: Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, while the richest states and regions were those where slavery was absent: Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts.
The Senate apology is nothing more than political theater, but it could be a slick way to get the camel’s nose into the tent for future reparations. If the senators are motivated by white guilt, I have the cure. About 15 years ago I wrote a “Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon Granted to All Persons of European Descent.” It is available at www.gmu.edu/departments/economics/wew/gift.html
© 2009 The Columbia Daily Tribune.