Reparations or Liberty?
Among many telltale signs of the tectonic fissures dividing the nation, perhaps the most telling is the near universal call by prominent Democrats and others for reparations. This refers to a compensatory payment made to the descendants of African slaves brought to America through the Atlantic Slave Trade. It is unworkable, but it speaks loudly of the state of our politics and culture.
Proponents of reparations argue passionately of the stain of slavery, the long, dark shadow cast by this cruel institution across the American soul. This great evil, the original sin of slavery, has cursed the nation at its inception, at the founding, and in our founding documents. The country is thus irredeemably marred and defective, and the blot of that dark inheritance is fixed in our moral DNA. This insidious legacy lives on in America, in the systemic racism that pervades the nation, and the disparate outcomes of blacks and whites in all sectors of society today.
But there are counter-arguments. We begin with the obvious: slavery ended in America 150 years ago by something known as the Civil War; roughly 750,000 soldiers died in that cataclysm, a great and bloody cleansing of the nation over that mortal sin. Furthermore, no one alive today in America is a slave or slaveholder, and sons and daughters are not responsible for the sins of their parents, let alone of distant ancestors from more than a century ago.
Many of the Founders and newly formed states deeply opposed slavery. But some southern states demanded that the slave trade be protected. To obtain broad support to ratify the Constitution, the framers made concessions to pro-slavery factions. Had they attempted to eliminate slavery at the time, a political impossibility, there would have been no nation or Constitution. The Founders were painfully aware that the existence of slavery clashed with the belief that "all men are created equal," and they also understood that they could not resolve the terrible inconsistency at the time. But they had planted the seeds for ending slavery in the founding documents and the principles of the American Revolution; they established states and a central government robust enough to ultimately eradicate the institution in a later generation.
There are other complexities. American blacks earn 20–50 times more than compatriots in Africa (David Horowitz). Blacks in America taken as a whole would represent the fifteenth richest nation in the world. The lives of American blacks today is incomparably better than it would have been had they remained in Africa.
There were also 3,000 "free black" slaveholders who owned some 20,000 slaves. American Indians were also slaveholders and held them well after the end of the Civil War. Most Americans, even in the antebellum South, did not own slaves (only one in five did). There were also white slaves in America. Black Africans and Arab Muslims were also responsible for enslaving the ancestors of black Americans.
Most Americans today, including blacks who came later, have no relationship with slavery (in America), as they or their ancestors came after the Civil War (with the two great waves of immigration in 1880 and 1970). It would be improper to link them to slavery in this country.
There is also no evidence that individuals living today are disadvantaged by a slave system that ended 150 years ago. There are many successful blacks in America today (including black millionaires, a black billionaire, and a black president, among many black success stories), even as there are many whites who are struggling. The black middle class is prosperous and growing.
Furthermore, poverty, unemployment, and incarceration rates for blacks were shrinking in the decades preceding the expansion of the liberal welfare state in the '60s, in some cases bettering their white counterparts (Thomas Sowell). Blacks were coming out of poverty and entering the middles class despite actual institutionalized racism at the time. Most black children then were raised in two-parent families.
That earlier progress halted and retreated dramatically after the onset of the federal welfare system and its associated social and cultural pathologies. These policies and behavioral factors explain racial disparities today far more than "systemic racism" or the "legacy of slavery."
Many Americans are mixed-race, with complex ancestries that would be challenging to sort out for reparations claims. Interpreting practices of centuries ago through a modern, 21st-century perspective is also problematic.
The Civil Rights Act and Great Society Programs that began in 1965 already represent trillions of dollars in wealth transfers to blacks through welfare payments, subsidies, and preferential treatment based on race (affirmative action).
Slavery, furthermore, was not unique to the United States. Bondage in North America was a small percentage of slavery in the Americas. Brazil, for example, had 4 million African slaves compared with 400,000 in America. Cuba had 800,000 (Henry Louis Gates). In total, about 12 million African slaves were brought to the Americas, through the Atlantic Slave Trade, 95% of which went to South and Central America and the Caribbean, while only 5% went to America.
Then there was the Muslim slave trade, which had existed since the 8th century, when it began enslaving Africans. It persists to this day. It enslaved as many as 17 million people from the coast of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and North Africa. Muslim slave-traders between 1500 and 1900 transported approximately 5 million African slaves. Arab Muslims also enslaved more than 1 million Europeans (whites or "Slavs," hence the word "slave") between the 16th and 19th centuries, more than double the number of black Africans brought to America.
Western (white Christian) nations ended slavery, a universal phenomenon that dates back more than 5,000 years to ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and beyond. Britain and the U.S. outlawed the slave trade in 1807. Britain abolished slavery in all its territories in 1833. France ended slavery in its colonies in 1848, Portugal in 1858, Holland in 1861. The U.S. ended slavery with the 13th Amendment in 1865. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, the last nation in the New World, thus ending the Atlantic Slave Trade.
But slavery persisted in other parts of the world, particularly the Muslim world. Indeed, only a handful of Muslim nations have officially ended slavery, and then not until the late 20th century.
Further, there are some 40 million slaves worldwide today (antislavery.org) including nearly 10 million in Africa (Chad, Mauritania, Nigeria, Sudan, Congo, Eritrea, Burundi, and others), many of them black Christians enslaved by Muslims. There are millions of slaves in the Middle East and Asia (Arantxa Underwood). Yet those clamoring for reparations, so concerned with American slavery that ended 150 years ago, have little to say about slavery today.
No, reparations are not likely to bind the nation's racial wounds. Rather, the endeavor will rip them apart — but perhaps that is the point. Peddling "race" has been a major growth industry in America, and many who traffic in "racism" have benefited from it. But they have also done great damage to American blacks, race relations, and the nation as a whole.
Apart from its divisive nature, impracticality, and cost, perhaps the greatest indictment of the reparations push is that it continues to treat blacks as victims unable to advance without government assistance, a disabling ideology that is destructive of blacks. Reparations serves to further infantilize blacks and will perpetuate the same damaging incentives and moral chaos created by the "Great Society." It will increase dependency, steal ambition, and build resentment; it will expand the black underclass; it will ensure that the pattern of family breakdown, illegitimacy, educational failure, criminality, incarceration, and economic and social dysfunction that plagues many blacks continues.
It would better serve blacks to appreciate their good fortune to live in America; to participate in the American enterprise, as many already do; and to embrace the blessings of liberty and opportunity that this nation uniquely provides. It would benefit blacks to realize that the nation that ended the slave system more than a century ago has also helped them achieve the highest standard of living of blacks anywhere in the world. Blacks would profit by championing the American project, despite its history and flaws, while rejecting the toxic gruel of the Democratic Party, the intersectional Marxist Left, and the various race hucksters who emphasize victimhood, a debilitating message that will only hinder them in their lives, diminish their prospects, and make it impossible to engage in the American story.
It is far better to regard blacks, and all Americans, not as members of a racial group or as victims, but as individuals, endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights among which include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to judge them not based on skin color, but on character, talent, and achievement. Therein lies salvation for blacks, whites, and the entire nation. This is the American creed that will set us all free.
Dr. Moss is a practicing ear, nose, and throat surgeon; author; and columnist, residing in Jasper, Ind. He has written A Surgeon's Odyssey and Matilda's Triumph, available on Amazon.com. Find more of his essays at richardmossmd.com. Visit Richard Moss, M.D. on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.