26 July 2006

On Reparations

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

The movement for reparations for slavery has failed so far. It has led to an unsuccessful lawsuit against such corporations as JP Morgan, RJ Reynolds Tobacco, Union Pacific, and Aetna Insurance. The initial suit, filed in 2002, was for $1.4 trillion. Since 1989, Representative John Conyers (D-MI) has tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill that establishes a commission to study reparation proposals. More ominously, however, some cities (for example, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit) require firms contracting with the city to disclose whether they or their predecessor profited from slavery. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see this as a first step toward reparations.

Reparations are owed to persons who were enslaved. Unfortunately they are dead. However, slavery didn’t harm the slaves’ descendants. A practice harms an individual if it makes him worse off than he otherwise would be. For example, the progressive-tax system harms a high-income taxpayer since he would pay less were it not in place. Thus, we can judge that a practice harmed a person only if we can compare how well he does with and without the practice. However, this can’t be done in the context of slavery since the descendants wouldn’t have existed but for slavery. This is because a person’s parents are an essential feature of him and slavery affected who parented with whom. That is, had slavery not occurred, the reproductive patterns would have been very different and current descendants would never have been born. Since descendants wouldn’t have been better off had they never been born, slavery didn’t harm them.

In contrast, some other cases of justified reparations are a good idea since they are given to actual victims. Consider, for example, the $20,000 paid to each Japanese-American interned by the U.S. and the $5.2 billion fund to compensate persons who were forced to work in Germany during WWII. As a side note, Michael Levin points out that were the approximately 40 million American blacks to be given the same $20,000, the cost would be $800 billion plus administrative costs, roughly the amount that the U.S. government spent in 2005 on social security and medicare.

Some proponents of reparations argue that it is owed for things other than slavery, such as discrimination or Jim Crow laws. The problem with this claim is that the amount of compensation is mere guesswork. The white-black differences don’t provide a useful guideline since there are a number of other factors that explain at least some of the differences. For example, blacks engage in a number of behaviors that put them behind the eight ball such as having children out of wedlock (over two-thirds of black children born in 2003 were born out of wedlock, 76% in Louisiana), criminality (blacks were more than half of the murderers and robbers in 2002), and poor performance in school (the black dropout rate is 11% versus 7% for whites and 4% for Asians). These behaviors are the sort of things that persons are responsible for doing and that can’t be placed on the doorstep of slave-owners and Jim Crow laws. In addition, as previously noted in this column, some of the differences might be due to genetics. If this is correct, then the black-white difference will not be a useful measure of the effects of past injustice.

Other proponents argue that reparations are owed because U.S. citizens received vast benefits from slavery. This is a mistake since an individual doesn’t owe reparations for merely having benefited from injustice unless he was in some way responsible for it. For example, if a tennis player (e.g., Steffi Graf) wins more tournaments and earns more money as a result of a crazed fan stabbing her rival, she doesn’t owe her rival money, even though she benefited from the stabbing. What’s true of an individual is also true of U.S. citizens in general.

What is particularly disconcerting about the claim to reparations is that blacks are richer and freer in the U.S. than anywhere else. Nor are U.S. taxpayers stingy with regard to the poor black community. As Levin points out in Why Race Matters, given the overrepresentation of blacks among welfare recipients and the progressive nature of state and federal income taxes, an enormous amount of money is transferred from non-black taxpayers to American blacks every year. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the taxpayers gave an amount equal to a Marshall Plan to blacks every three years and this doesn’t take into account the valuable benefits of preferential treatment in education and hiring.

Reparations are owed, but unfortunately, the persons owed them are dead. It is a sad fact of the world that some injustices can’t be repaired.

The Constructivist

I've stopped contributing to our "Taking Sides" column, as preparations for my Fulbright year have been intense this month. For the next year, I'll be teaching and writing in Japan, so will only respond informally on this blog to The Objectivist's columns when he hasn't been able to line up guest columnists.

In terms of reparations, I agree that the standard versions of corrective or restorative justice that underlie most successful reparations claims (such as to survivors of Nazi forced labor/death camps or American internment camps) make the case for reparations to African Americans for slavery and de jure segregation difficult to sustain. These standard versions require there to be clear ways of identifying surviving victims and calculating what is owed to them, along with clear lines of state and/or corporate responsibility. Generally, even claims that meet these criteria are denied or delayed until most survivors have perished of other causes; payouts, when low, seem to insult the magnitude of the pain and suffering of the victims, yet when they are high, they invite charges of corruption in administration. Consider the controversies over Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust, which may be interpreted to provide warrant for reparations being owed by IBM, and Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry, which is a vigorous condemnation of lawyers and organizations that have profited by prosecuting reparations claims for Jewish victims.

Still, there are points in The Objectivist's argument that bear contesting. Whereas Michael Levin's Why Race Matters argues that welfare state benefits to African Americans are as good as reparations, not only is this a form of distributive rather than restorative justice, but as Ira Katznelson documents in When Affirmative Action Was White, Southern national and state legislators colluded in excluding African Americans from much of the New Deal and limiting their benefits when exclusion proved impossible. Indeed, as George Lipsitz shows in The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, even as the system of de jure segregation was being dismantled during and after the World War II years, practices such as red-lining ensured that the suburbs would be overwhelmingly white. Much of the wealth gap between African Americans and white Americans documented in such studies as Melvin Oliver's and Thomas Shapiro's Black Wealth/White Wealth, Dalton Conley's Being Black, Living in the Red, and Michael Brown et al.'s Whitewashing Race can be attributed to the disparity in home ownership rates post-WWII as white veterans and workers were offered easy credit and new housing in the suburbs that were not made available to African Americans. There are plenty of surviving victims of these social policies who could make strong cases against banks and local, state, and federal governments. State and corporate malfeasance and negligence could provide grounds for some kind of benefits to Africans Americans as a class for the cumulative effect of these relatively recent discriminations. If the government can calculate what is owed to the families of the victims of 9/11, it can certainly undertake a Truth and Reconciliation-style inquiry into the fiscal impact of systematic racial discrimination and oppression from the New Deal to the Great Society.

For further reading on these and related issues, I recommend consulting University of Dayton law professor Vernellia Randall's Apology and Reparations for Slavery page and University of Maryland professor Robert Fullinwider's The Case for Reparations.