The Growing Controversy over Slavery Reparations

The hot-button issue of slavery reparations got a major boost April 13 when students at Georgetown University voted in favor of a special fee that would benefit the descendants of 272 African slaves once owned by the Catholic university, located in Washington, DC.

The vote fanned the flames of an escalating political debate over whether the U.S. government should pay monetary compensation for the past sins of slavery and racial discrimination.

The nonbinding student referendum, which must be approved by the school, called for a special fee of $27.20 per semester per student.

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The fee would raise more than $400,000 annually, with the money set aside to benefit the estimated 12,000 descendants of the slaves once owned by the Maryland province of the Jesuits. The Jesuits sold the slaves in 1838—for $108,000—to finance the struggling college that became Georgetown University.

Two years ago, the Georgetown administration promised to rename a school building after one of the sold slaves, Isaac Hawkins, and to establish the new Institute for the Study of Slavery.

The university acted in the wake of a campaign by black author and activist Ta-Nehisi Coates, son of the former Black Panther Paul Coates, to bring the once-fringe issue of slavery reparations to the national stage.

In an influential essay in The Atlantic, entitled “The Case for Reparations,” Coates argued passionately that financial payments to black Americans were a matter of restorative justice.

The legacy of slavery, he said, is that blacks continue to live in strictly segregated communities that severely limit their economic and educational advancement.

“From 1619 until at least the late 1960s, American institutions, businesses, associations, and governments—federal, state and local—repeatedly plundered black communities,” Coates wrote.  “Their methods included everything from land-theft, to red-lining, to disenfranchisement, to convict-lease labor, to lynching, to enslavement, to the vending of children.  So large was this plunder that America, as we know it today, is simply unimaginable without it.”

Coates was hesitant to put a price tag on this financial plundering, but others were not.

One writer at The Root calculates that Georgetown University owes the descendants of its 272 slaves roughly $50 billion—or 33 times its entire endowment of $1.5 billion.

Another researcher at the University of Connecticut analyzed wages paid in the antebellum South and concluded that U.S. slave labor over 89 years (from 1776 to 1865) was worth between $5.9 and $14.2 trillion in today’s money.

Economist Robert Browne claims the figure is $4.7 trillion—or $147,000 to every black American.

As might be expected, more left-wing Democratic presidential candidates support the idea of reparations—including Senators Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts—yet the U.S. public does not.

According to a 2019 YouGov poll, only 20 percent of all voters polled believe that black Americans should receive cash payments from the U.S. government for the past sins of slavery—with 58 percent of blacks supporting the idea and only 13 percent of whites.

Even some Democratic politicians are skeptical.  The socialist candidate Bernie Sanders has stated that he believes reparations would be “very divisive.”

“I think that right now our job is to address the crises facing the American people in our communities,” Sanders told an interviewer in March.  “And I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check.”

Other Democrats worry that the surest way to reelect Donald Trump in 2020 is to insist that white Americans, few of whose ancestors owned slaves (it’s estimated that only 6 percent of whites in the South owned slaves) or who came to America long after slavery was outlawed, be forced to pay for crimes of which they or their ancestors were not responsible.

In addition, some black critics of reparations insist that, while slavery itself was a moral abomination, the U.S. black population overall benefits from living in the U.S. despite past and current discrimination.

The success of many blacks in all walks of life, from Oprah Winfrey and Jay-Z to Barack Obama, attests to this.

While a substantial wage and education gap persists between white and black Americans, overall, U.S. blacks generally enjoy a standard of living far above that of African nations today.

According to the American Community Survey, in 2015 the income per capita in the U.S. was $34,399 for Asians, $32,910 for whites, $20,277 for blacks and $16,580 for Latinos.

This puts U.S. blacks far behind such rich countries as Norway ($81,000) and Japan ($39,000) but roughly equal to Greece ($20,408) and Portugal ($23,186), and far ahead of all African nations,  including Nigeria ($2,049), Kenya ($1,857), Senegal ($1,471), Tanzania ($1,134) and Liberia ($780), founded by freed U.S. slaves.

Despite this, many still insist that reparations for the past sins of slavery and other forms of racial discrimination are appropriate.

They point out that the concept of restitution has deep roots in both the Bible and in the common law.

In the Mosaic Law, a man who inflicts injury must pay monetary compensation for the wrong done—for example, if you steal something you must give it back or pay four times its value (Exodus 22:1).

This is why, in Luke’s Gospel, the tax collector Zacchaeus tells Jesus “if I have overcharged people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much! (19:1-10).”

Catholic writers such as Matthew J. Cressler draw from this the notion that white Americans must contribute to reparation payments because they benefited somehow from past racism against African Americans—even if they only came to the U.S. in recent decades.

“White Catholics count ourselves among the greatest beneficiaries of the American dream and thus dare not think, let alone speak aloud, the fact that our Dream was built on profits plundered from Black women, men, and children,” he writes in Slate.

What were these profits?  And how did U.S. Catholics, in particular, plunder them?

Cressler argues that Catholic immigrants in America, despite facing their own discrimination and attacks from groups like the Ku Klux Klan, benefited disproportionately from government programs such as the G.I. Bill after World War II.

While white Catholic veterans received tuition assistance, he says, “only a fifth of the black veterans who applied for education benefits actually received any.”

This is one of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s major points: “America was built on the preferential treatment of white people—395 years of it.”

In addition, Catholics in the 1970s, in cities such as Boston, resisted government attempts at forced school desegregation through busing.

“White Catholics share responsibility for making reparations for racial injustice because we share in its history,” Cressler concludes.  “We invested in it and profited from it.  We continue to invest in it and profit from it.”

The problem is, most Americans simply don’t believe this is true—i.e., that they “invest” in racial injustice and personally profit from it.

Instead, the overwhelming majority believe they have not profited from slavery or racism—and see no reason why they should pay trillions of dollars for wrongs done by people who died 150 years ago.

What’s more, some argue that it was white Americans following a Republican president who freed African slaves during the Civil War—and those slaves were owned almost entirely by members of the Democratic Party.

Does this mean that Democrats today should pay restitution to the descendants of the 350,000 Union soldiers from the North who died fighting the Civil War?

Should those descendants add up how much money those 350,000 slain soldiers would have earned over their lifetimes, calculate what that sum would be worth in today’s dollars, with interest, and then present the current Democratic Party with the bill?

Put another way:  do individuals who did not participate in a crime owe restitution?

The lack of legal and moral clarity is probably why reparations have been relatively rare in international law and have almost always concerned damages inflicted by war.

After World War I, the Allies extracted financial reparations from the Axis Powers by putting much of the blame for the war on the living civilian populations for cooperating in the war effort.

Yet the financial burdens of those reparations were so severe they led to deep resentment by the civilian population, the rise of the Nazi Party, and another, even more horrific, world war.

As a result, after World War II the Allies decided to seek minimal financial reparations from Germany, Italy, and Japan, mostly in the form of confiscated intellectual property and forced labor.  Instead, the Allies rebuilt the countries and turned former enemies into friends.

And that, in the end, is probably the strongest argument that reparations will end up doing more harm than good:  they will only further divide the country into warring victim classes fighting over federal payouts.

After all, virtually all ethnic groups have grievances. Few suffered like African slaves, to be sure, but many have legitimate claims if you go far enough into the past.  During World War II, the U.S. government turned away thousands of Jewish refugees as potential spies who later died in concentration camps.

Forcing new immigrants from Vietnam and Honduras to fund reparation payments to immigrants from the distant past, or to the descendants of African slaves, will not lead to the “reconciliation” that is the stated purpose behind restitution.

Instead, it will lead to even more of the racial animosity that Ta-Nehisi Coates rightly deplores.

And few believe that this will benefit anyone.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)


  • Robert J. Hutchinson

    Robert J. Hutchinson writes frequently on the intersection of politics and faith. He is the author, most recently, of What Really Happened at the Lincoln Assassination (Regnery, 2020).

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