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Slavery Reparations: A Dead Issue, and Well-Deserved

Professor Henry Gates admits the impossible complexity and moral fog of the once-championed progressive idea.

by
Clayton E. Cramer

Bio

May 11, 2010 - 12:00 am

When whites say that slavery reparations is a dead issue, that’s not news. When conservative blacks say it, it isn’t news. But when Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. says it, you can put a fork in it.

In a remarkably courageous New York Times opinion piece, Gates points out what historians have long known:

The historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred.

Prof. Gates points out that there is plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the Atlantic. West Africans bear significant moral responsibility since they participated and enjoyed the financial rewards that came from it, as some West African political leaders have actually admitted in recent years. (Gates gives some examples which you won’t find mentioned anywhere else in the mainstream media.)

Gates points out that while there might be a theoretical case for slavery reparations, the practical problems are enormous — a point I have made to fellow historians for many years. Who deserves reparations? Who should pay them? The U.S. government? Or should individual states where slaveholding was lawful be held responsible? The people of Alaska never held slaves, and some states spent heavily in blood and treasure to fight the Civil War on the Union side.

As much as both Lincoln and modern Confederacy apologists try to say otherwise, the Civil War was ultimately about the suppression of slavery. Should Massachusetts pay as much as Alabama? Should Britain pay reparations? Spain? West African nations? True, none of the current governments of West Africa existed when slavery was ongoing, but the populations of those nations certainly benefited in a material sense. (Then there is a strong case that many of these populations suffered in a cultural sense from becoming focused on wars to take slaves, but how do you quantify that in dollars?)

Who deserves those reparations? Let me throw out one maddeningly complex example: Charles Langston, grandfather of poet Langston Hughes, was the son of a Virginia planter and a slave woman. Charles and his brother were given their freedom, and sent off to college. Would Langston’s descendants have a claim for reparations? Or would you say that they benefited from the system of slavery?

There are a few black Americans whose ancestors were never held as slaves in this country. (One of them has a rather important job now — something involving government housing and ’round the clock protection.) Does President Obama deserve a reparations check?

There are blacks who are wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of nearly all white Americans. Does Bill Cosby deserve a check? Does Oprah Winfrey? These are people who, in spite of great injustice done to their ancestors, have enjoyed great financial success.

Individual reparations make less and less sense the further we get from the crime. It was good that our government made reparations for the Japanese-American internment to those who were injured while they were still alive. The damage done became less and less dramatic in each subsequent generation, and the same is true for black Americans.

I’m aware that some reparations advocates are hoping that instead of individual payments, reparations would be a generalized expansion of the welfare state that will benefit black Americans disproportionately because black Americans are disproportionately poor. But this loses all the moral force of reparations for wrongs done, since this will become a program that helps many poor people whose ancestors were neither black nor slave (and indeed, might have slaveholding ancestors), at the expense of many American taxpayers whose ancestors were black slaves. Where’s the justice in that?

It’s important that people understand slavery so that we don’t let anything this evil happen again. I teach Western civilization at the College of Western Idaho. This year I have been lecturing on the Age of Exploration, and consequently, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I am shocked at how many of my students managed to reach college with only a limited awareness of the slave trade. The looks on their faces as I explained loose pack vs. tight pack, and the conditions of slaves transported on the Middle Passage, told me that many of them had not a clue how bad it was.

And yet … they were even more surprised to find that more than a million Europeans were sold into Islamic slavery over roughly the same period, with Muslim slave-raiding operations into Ireland continuing as late as the 17th century. They were even more shocked to find out that Saudi Arabia did not formally abolish slavery until 1962 — and friends who spend time in that part of the world would emphasize the word “formally.”

There’s plenty of shame and horror to go around. Slavery has been the norm for most of human civilization, and while the horrors of the Middle Passage and the cane fields of the Western Hemisphere are remarkable, there is no shortage of horrors across the centuries. At a certain point we need to inform and educate, while recognizing that seeking reparations for crimes committed by persons now dead, against persons also now dead, will lead us to reparations claims against Italy for Caesar’s crimes in Gaul.

Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. His most recent book is My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill (2012). He is raising capital for a feature film about the Oberlin Rescue of 1858.
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