Reparations: Accounting Nightmare, Social Disaster

From time to time, we hear proposals for reparations for America's past wrongs.  American Thinker has recently highlighted this theme here, here, and here.  The idea is primarily to extract some unspecified amount of money from living white citizens to pay living black citizens to atone for our national sins of slavery, Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan, and various forms of racial oppression and discrimination.  Is this a good idea?  A bad idea?  A feasible idea?  An absurd idea?

From practical and moral perspectives, the application of such a program of reparations would be not only unworkable, but an administrative and social nightmare.  First, it would be impossible to accomplish.  Second, it would be deeply divisive and destructive to all Americans – black, white, mixed-race, other ethnic minorities, or any combination of races.

Let's assume for a moment that the idea is legislated, ratified, enacted, whatever.  How would we implement and enforce it?  Before anything else can happen, we have to seek answers to the following questions:

  • Who would receive payments?
  • Who would pay?
  • How would funds be collected and distributed?
  • Who would control and administer the funds collected?
  • Who would make the decisions about who pays into the fund and who receives payment from the fund?
  • What would happen to Americans now living in racial harmony?

Most importantly, how could we deal with the divisions and acrimony such a plan would create?  These are not trivial questions.  They go to the heart of what it is to be an American today of any color, ethnicity, or race.  (Leave aside for now the ultimate question of why this should happen.)  For starters, let's consider all of the players:

  1. Slaves:
    1. Former slaves.
    2. Descendants of slaves.
  1. Slave owners:
    1. Plantations.
    2. Households (including many in northern states).
  1. Inhabitants of slave states:
    1. Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
    2. Confederate civilians during the Civil War.
    3. Southern abolitionists.
  1. Inhabitants of Free States:
    1. Union soldiers during the Civil War.
    2. Union civilians during the Civil War.
    3. Union abolitionists.
    4. Union supporters of slavery.
  1. Americans with no direct connection to the institution of slavery.
    1. Settlers living in Western territories prior to statehood.
    2. Immigrants arriving after slavery was abolished.
    3. Americans of mixed race and their children.
    4. Americans who continue to believe in or practice racial discrimination.
    5. Americans now living in racial harmony.

An Administrative and Accounting Nightmare

Immediately following the Civil War era, the administrative nightmare becomes obvious.  If we extend this list into the post-Civil War era of Carpetbaggers, Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, and Civil Rights battles in Congress beginning immediately after the war, what do we end up with?  Clearly, categories 1 through 4 above (except for 1b, descendants of slaves) are no longer living.  This leaves us with category 5.  Let's simplify the scheme by creating a category that captures all potential payers and receivers: living descendants of all of the above.  Let's examine these questions, apply them broadly to our list, and give serious thought to this proposal.

Who Would Receive Payments?

Obviously, the most worthy of reparations are the black slaves themselves.  (For simplicity, we will set aside the question of slaves of other races for now.)  Since the last of the slaves freed by President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the victory of the Union over the Confederacy have been dead for almost half a century, this is a moot point.  The most credible reports say the last black American slaves died in 1969 and 1972 at the ages of 110 and 116, respectively.

This leaves us with the descendants of slaves.  But identifying these people could take years or decades to verify the tens of millions of possible claimants.  Those demanding reparations would have to locate and study census records, family genealogies, oral histories, academic works, newspaper archives, church rosters, even legal and corporate databases.  Even with the scope and speed of internet search engines, the task would be monumental.  A new industry of researchers, advocates, and litigators would emerge, generating enormous fees, costs, and expenses.

The problem of determining legitimate claims is further aggravated when we try to sort out the "degree of blackness."  Do we pay reparations to mixed-race people with legitimate claims to slave ancestry?  If so, what percent of "racial purity" allows a claimant to a share of the reparations?  ("Racial purity" is an ugly phrase in its own right.  It was used by proponents of eugenics like Margaret Sanger and is still used by some in the abortion industry to justify their evil trade.)  Would a person with one black parent and one white parent be required to pay into the fund as well as receive payment from it?  In other words, this system would lead to the absurd position that a half-white, half-black person would be required to pay himself reparations!

Who Would Pay?

On the flip-side, which Americans would be judged guilty and forced to pay into the "Reparation Fund"?  Who would make these judgments?  This nation fought its second deadliest war (second to World War II) in part to end slavery, including hundreds of thousands who fought and died to defeat the slave states.  Would descendants of Union soldiers be required to pay the same amount as those of Confederate soldiers?  Or should their service in the cause of emancipation be taken into account for their descendants concerning payments for the wrongs of others?  What about Northern slave owners and supporters of slavery?

Would we grant exemptions for descendants of abolitionists, whether they were from Southern or Northern states?  What about Americans who had no connection to slavery at all?  Do we charge descendants of settlers living in western territories prior to statehood or immigrants who arrived after emancipation?  Or the tens of thousands of couples who have intermarried with people of different races or adopted black children?  Or their mixed-race children?

Who Would Collect, Control, and Administer the Funds Collected?

The most likely answer would be to create a federal commission to establish the rules and procedures.  This would create a massive and budget-hungry bureaucracy.  It would need an army of accountants, attorneys, claims examiners, clerks, and support staff.  Would the commission have the power to levy reparation funds similar to IRS powers of taxation?  Or would they opt to create a new division within IRS to take over the collections?  The paperwork would be unimaginably complex.  The litigation would be eternal.

Who Would Make Decisions about Who Pays into or Receives Payment from the Fund?

The reparations fund would require highly skilled executives and managers experienced in making difficult decisions.  Should the commission be appointed or elected?  Should it be representative of the whole population or racially weighted toward the "victims"?  Even with the most principled leadership, the whole process would inevitably – and quickly – become mired in turf-building, political infighting, and racial acrimony.  And we have not yet even addressed the question of how much the payments should be.  Would payments be uniform?  Set on a sliding scale based on the alleged degree of racial culpability?  Paid in lump sums?  Paid out over time?  What about appeals?  Would we get the courts involved?  We would pile nightmare upon judicial nightmare.

What Would Happen to Americans Now Living in Racial Harmony?

If you think "identity politics" is ugly now, just wait until the scramble for claims payments based on racial identity is institutionalized in a federal bureaucracy – not to mention the justifiable resistance from a large percentage of the population.  Many good citizens with no racial animosity whatsoever would be forced into conflict with friends, co-workers, and even family members of other races.  And this does not even factor in other minorities who may be encouraged to demand their own competing reparations for past wrongs, thus expanding the circles of racial and ethnic hostility.  This lunacy would only further divide us and set us against each other.  Fault lines in our already racially fractured society would widen even further and grow into major societal earthquakes.

Who Are the Real Creators of Racial Oppression and Conflict?

How do we deal with that segment of contemporary society who have constructed and perpetuated the present-day form of slavery?  Who are these people?  What are the institutions they have created over the past century and a half to prolong racism and discrimination – e.g., Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan?  Who built and continues to enforce the modern "plantation economy" that keeps millions of our black citizens trapped in a system of welfare dependence and hopelessness?  We can give them a name: the Democratic Party and their corrupt regime of modern liberalism.

Finally, who has created, legalized, defended, and funded the atrocity of the abortion industry that has targeted minority – especially black – neighborhoods since Margaret Sanger opened her first birth control clinic in Harlem in 1918?  That would be the same industry (hidden behind the euphemism of "pro-choice") that has resulted in the deliberate extermination of almost 18 million black children (31% of the 58.6 million abortions since 1973 and 40% in 2013 alone).  By one estimate, the black population has been reduced by more than 25% since the infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.  This is the system that has largely achieved Sanger's vision of eliminating the "human weeds" from our nation – again brought to you by the preachers of compassion known as the Democratic Party.

If Not Reparations, Then What?

Where does this leave us?  Clearly, the concept of racial reparations would be economically impossible, socially destructive, and deadly for race relations in our country.  The only way forward is to look back.  Look back to our greatest spiritual and religious leaders who have taught us the only way forward – love of neighbor, compassion for the poor, the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount.  Share our time, talent, and treasure with our fellow men and women regardless of race, color, or creed.  Develop in our lives those qualities that unite rather than divide.  Remember the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King: "I have a dream that [our] children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

If an enforceable policy of racial reparations were ever to take hold in America, the consequences would be catastrophic to all Americans.  In addition to the horrors cataloged above, it would encourage the worst elements of our society – namely, the race-baiters, the grievance industry, and the hustlers of racial hatred toward white citizens.  Be afraid of reparations.  Be very afraid.

Hugh Reynolds recently retired from 32 years in federal service.  He spent his entire government career in the "fraud, waste, and abuse" business, including 18 years auditing that beleaguered enterprise known as the U.S. Postal Service, which survives without a dime of the taxpayer's money.  He is a lifelong student of public policy and considers himself an "American Thinker."