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Reparations are payments, benefits, services or other forms of compensation provided to a remedy a past transgression. In specific, reparations for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. As it's a case involving racism and Social Justice, the arguments can get pretty bloody.
- 1 History
- 2 Proposals for Reparations
- 3 Will it work?
- 4 Responsibility
- 5 Who is Entitled
- 6 Footnotes
Slavery in Africa
Slavery has a long history in Africa (and the world). Skipping over the irrelevant stuff, by the time of the rise of the European powers, Africa had long been a source of slaves for the Islamic world. If the Sahara is a sea, Timbuktu was the largest port. Typically, slavery was part of the criminal justice system; in a poor society punishment was often of the form of repayment of damages, and if damages could not be repaid the person would be forced to work off the debt. Prisons cost money and mutilations reduce worker productivity, but slaves can make you rich, so, money.
When Portuguese traders first arrived in Africa, one of the 'goods' purchased was slaves to be worked to death producing sugar, tobacco, mining, or whatever else the Portuguese (and soon, Spanish) had in store. This had a number of effects on Africa. The first was that selling to the Portuguese (and later, other Europeans) was far more lucrative than the Arab slave trade, crippling the trade routes from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Ottoman Empire. The second effect was that it was so much more lucrative that the local courts were pretty much looking for people to be sold off. Soon more and more things became 'crimes', wars were started explicitly to capture people for slaves, and African civilization stagnated until a few centuries later they were too weak to avoid being imperialized. This has absolutely no parallel in the modern world, none whatsoever, nooope.
Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
In general, there was a "triangle trade". Slaves from Africa went to the Americas, raw goods from the Americas to the European powers, and finished goods went from Europe to Africa. While few if any ships would ever directly travel in this triangle, that's how the goods tended to flow.
The boats themselves were designed for maximizing profit, with little if any consideration for the slaves on board beyond "maximize value of sale". You'd be surprised what a human can live through; slaves were packed into the cargo hold and chained down, with all the hygiene that implies. Of course, many did not not survive; a quarter to a third of people died on the voyage there.
The travel to the 13 colonies was about 3 months, while to Brazil it was about 2 weeks. The result was that it was far more expensive to purchase a slave in the British Colonies than South America. Of the 10-12 million slaves brought to the Americas, 3-4 million went to Brazil alone. As a result, most slaves in the US did not directly come from Africa, but from plantations in the Carribean.
Slavery in the US
Slavery had a number of forms in the US. In the beginning, there were Indentured Servants; people who couldn't afford the price of a boat trip and so were sponsored by wealthy land-owners in exchange for several years of hard labor. For women, it was understood (by the sponsors) that this included sex slavery; those that objected could seek remedy in the local courts... made up of other wealthy land-owners. So, yeah, avoid the 17th century. It was not illegal for indentured servants to be armed, however, so there was only so much abuse that could occur. Another source were various criminals who would be sold to "work off their debts to society" (note that this is in a time when Debtors Prisons were still a thing).
When the other European powers finally got off their rumps and sailed across to the Americas, attempts were made to "civilize" the natives, and by "civilize" I mean "enslave"; note that this practice occasionally goes on today with Missionaries. This didn't work out too well for a variety of reasons:
- Natives didn't have resistance to European diseases, so often by the time you finally broke the poor guy into doing what you wanted he'd croak
- Natives that fled usually could blend back in with their old societies
- The local tribes could attack if there was too much abuse
So other sources were sought.
The first African slaves to arrive in what is now the US arrived in 1526, nearly a century before the first permanent British colony. The colony itself was a failure, the slaves revolted (making it the first successful slave revolt in the region) and joined the natives, and the surviving colonists fled back to Spain.
In 1619, Dutch pirates captured a Spanish ship; among the cargo was about 20 Africans. The pirates then sold the people to Jamestown; as the Spanish traditionally baptized slaves, and English law prevented baptized Christians from being enslaved... so they were sold as indentured servants for decades, because God loves technicalities, apparently. A couple years later, another group of Africans was sold to Jamestown. This one contained Anthony Johnson, who would eventually "earn" his freedom in 1635. In 1655, Anthony had a legal dispute with one of his own servants and claimed to own the servant for life. The courts ruled in Anthony's favor, and slavery became entrenched in the Colonies. Anthony's grandchildren would eventually be disenfranchised for being black, so there is a cruel irony in that.
Another case, in 1640, was that of John Punch. Punch attempted to run away from the life of indentured servitude but was caught, and was punished with permanent servitude, thus making him another contended for the coveted title of "first slave in the Colonies". Perhaps more notable is that one of his descendants was Barack Obama. On his white mother's side.
Regardless, eventually slavery grew in the Colonies. Women were imported as well and productive slaves were 'rewarded' with wives for the purpose of breeding more and 'better' slaves, and slavery in the Americas was one of the few instances were the slave population could sustain itself. By the time the US would ban the import of slaves in 1808, there was such a thriving slave-breeding 'industry' that the ban could be viewed almost more "protectionism" than "humanitarianism".
Skipping over a few things, the Civil War breaks out, the South loses, slaves are set free, and Reconstruction begins. For a short time it seems as if the former slaves might get a break and proposals like giving them land from expropriated secession supporters (many of them slave-owners) were seriously proposed for a while, but ultimately the Northern Republicans just gave up on the South and blacks with the Compromise of 1876. Slavery gives way to the sharecropping system, which was like slavery but somehow managed to be even worse. While the slaves were set free, for most African Americans, life still sucked.
Oh, and technically slavery was still legal as punishment for crimes. This meant that prisons could make a small profit by convincing the local authorities to round up 'troublemakers' and rent them out as labor, giving incentives for large numbers of rich and well-connected people to continue to overlook the failings of the justice system. Slavery was not over in the middle of the 19th century.
It was only 50 years ago that the US decided that yes, black people were humans too. But the long term effects of slavery and racism have hardly subsided. Being black in the US you...
- Have 5 years less life expectancy
- If also male, a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison
- Twice as likely to be a teenage mother
So while the institution of slavery ended, the long term effects are for whatever reason, still around.
Proposals for Reparations
40 Acres & Mule
Towards the end of the civil war, General Sherman's orders were to divide up about 400,000 acres of confiscated farmland into numerous plots of no more than 40 acres each so that thousands of freed refugees could build their lives. No mention of mules was made, but a number of pack animals were provided to a number of people.
Sherman's orders were revoked within a year by President Johnson, and the land returned to the original slaveowners. "40 Acres (and a mule)" became a symbol of broken promises and failed attempts at fixing the plight of African Americans in the US.
Reparations to Africa
Will it work?
Britain and other Colonial Powers
Slavery was legal under the British rule, so if the US is responsible for slavery, it stands to reason that Britain is liable for slavery that occurred while it ruled the region.
Post revolution, the slave owners were not the only ones to benefit from slavery; Europeans who bought goods at reduced prices also saw benefit. If the argument can be made that people buying conflict minerals and produce today from areas that are notorious for slave labor are contributing to the problem, then the same argument could be made of Europeans that bought cotton and other goods from the Americas.
Federal/State Government (taxpayers)
Slavery was legal and protected by the US government for many decades, so it's a fairly strong argument that the federal an state governments bear some responsibility for what happened.
The problem is that the US government endured huge costs in order to end the practice, and the states that used to have slavery were burnt to the ground in ending the practice. For the most part, any wealth that had been accumulated from the institution of slavery had been destroyed.
Descendants of Slaveowners
Generally, it's considered wrong to force someone to pay for their relatives' crimes. However, goods stolen by relatives may still be recovered. The problem is that while many of the slaveowners' ill-gotten gains have survived the years through trusts and investments (and thus their estates could theoretically be recovered), most have not. Many plantations were bankrupted by the Civil War, burnt to the ground, or just lost due to incompetence of their descendants. People today who have not seen a single cent of their Great Great Great Grandpa's fortune can hardly be asked to pay for something they had nothing to do with.
The other, darker reality is that more often than not, African Americans are in part descended from their ancestors' owners; it'd be kind of sadistic to require African Americans to compensate themselves. Further complicating the descent issue is that there also were African Americans who were slave owners.
It should be noted that the vast, vast majority of slaves were bought from African slave markets, so the case can be made that as African civilizations had been the ones selling people into slavery, African countries today are the ones in part responsible for the plight of their descendants.
Who is Entitled
What is an African American
Seems like a simple question, right? Well, not quite. There are far more varieties of "black" than just Americans descended from Africans brought over to the colonies as slaves. There's Afro-Caribbeans, such as those from Haiti, who tend to also be roughly in the same boat as most other African Americans when it comes to racism and poverty. However, it wasn't the US that (directly) caused their situation.
A number of Africans have since left the United States, some to Liberia (where they oppressed the natives in a grand circle of violence). Would the descendants of these people also be considered African Americans?
- Racial gap in life expectancies
- Note that black vs white life expectancies have a very large statistical oddity. A black baby born today has a lower chance of reaching age 70 than a white baby, but higher chance of reaching age 100. Not age 100 from age 70, but from birth.
- Health and Human Services
- Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830: Together with Absentee Ownership of Slaves in the United States in 1830 by Carter G. Woodson (2015) CreateSpace Independent. ISBN 1508771820. Originally published by Negro Universities Press in 1924.