Slavery Reparations: A Dead Issue, and Well-Deserved

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?