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October 28, 2008


George, if we were to have government-mandated and directed reparations, I would ask, "is there a sliding scale for calculating those reparations?"

One doesn't have to go far in Texas (or throughout the South) to bump into the proud descendant of domeone who fought for the Rebel cause, seeking to dissolve the Union and assert states' rights ... including the right to buy and sell people like so many animated widget.

But me? I'm a dang Yankee from 'back east.' My great(x6)-grandfather William served with the 23rd Michigan Infant, seeking to preserve the Union and uphold the Emancipation Proclamation.

So, if we do have to pay reparation, can Sons of Union Veterans apply for discount vouchers - or even waivers! - while Sons of Confederate Veterans pay an added premium?

A silly question, I admit ... but I think reparation for slavery in the U.S. is a silly idea, to begin with.

For those of you who claim to be the only productive citizens in the country and therefore, anyone less fortunate is; as you say, "non-productive" why don't you get your head out of the sand and look around you. That is one of the oldest complaints of the GOP and it appears you have been washed into thinking everyone but you and your friends are NON-Productive. Get a life and think for yourself. You party mongers are the sickest in our society. Don't let your fears control you and think........Is this issue one of the biggest issues facing us today....or is it just another attempt to distract others from seeing the obvious.........we are in trouble...real trouble.

Jeff, good point about the vouchers, it's not all black and white. It would be a case of comparative guilt, that is, if anyone today could realistically be called guilty for something their ancestors did. It's a backward culture that punishes people for their parents' deeds. BTW, go easy on the Southerners. If you are proud of your ancestor, why can't the Southerner be proud of his/hers? Those ancestors were products of their environment, and most likely the only thing that differentiated them was their place of birth, something completely out of their control.

Educated Citizen, I think you must be advocating redistribution of wealth, not necessarily slavery reparation. The foundation of a strong economy is the ability of a skilled individual to be able to use those skills to provide a service or make something that others want to pay for. It's not fair to take money from that person and give the money to someone less skilled simply because the less skilled person makes less money. That's been tried elsewhere, and it doesn't work. The skilled people have a reduced incentive to produce, and the less skilled have no incentive to get better.

I think one problem here is the idea that addressing the legacy of slavery would mean taking money from productive citizens and giving it to non-productive ones.

In fact, while the descendants of slaves are, on average, less wealthy and earn less income, this doesn't mean they aren't usually hard-working citizens. On the contrary, it merely means they tend to have lower-paying jobs, which are often considerably harder or less pleasant, or require longer hours or more than one job to make ends meet.

That still doesn't mean we should compensate anyone for the suffering of their ancestors, of course. But it does open the door to a difficult issue: one legacy of slavery is that many American families started off with absolutely nothing after 1865: no money or real possessions, no education or job training, and stripped systematically of language, culture, religion, and family structure. From the 1860s to the 1960s, there was further, brutal discrimination: often violent, often sanctioned in the law, and preventing hard-working citizens from equal access to good jobs, to job advancement, to better educations, to homeownership and small business loans.

Let's assume that such discrimination is now entirely in the past. We know that if American families work equally hard, those that start off with more (wealth, education, homeownership, and so on) will, on average, end up with much more than those that start with less. Thus the descendants of slaves today can be expected to have less as a result of the treatment of their ancestors.

Does our society ignore this injustice? Or do we at least acknowledge that this is a shameful legacy of the past, even if there seems to be no easy way to correct it?

Every US citizen who is a descendant of a slave is better off today because of his ancestor's slavery than he would be otherwise.

First, considering the harsh conditons of his native continent, he might not ever have been conceived and born in the first place.

If he had been born, can anyone doubt that his life here is much easier that it would be in his native land?

Lastly, most descendants of slaves are Christians, as a result of their ancestors being taught the lessons of Jesus. Had it not been for slavery, it is doubtful many of them would know of the promise of enternal life. For some of us, that is important.

James and Redman, you are both exactly right.

James, slaves did get off to a very bad start in this country, and some of their descendants may have lagged behind as a result of that slow start. White people like me may have had the wind at our backs and didn't notice it. It was an unfair situation.

That said, it shouldn't be the taxpayers' obligation to right every wrong. The government can try to guarantee equal rights, it's not the government's role to equalize everyone's assets.

Redman, you are right that while some slave descendants may lag, they might still be better off as a result of their ancestors' ordeal -- that seldom gets any attention.

One of the mysteries of the reparation movement is why none of the well known philanthropists have taken on the job. They could solicit donations to fulfill this perceived need, and anyone so inclined could donate as much money as they wanted. It shouldn't have to be punitive.

Redman, do you really believe that we should accept that blacks in this country were given a brutal and inferior start due to an evil institution, because if their ancestors *hadn't* been brutalized, they might be living in a less developed part of the world? Aren't all Americans entitled to an equal start in life, at least in terms of how society has treated them and their ancestors?

(I'll agree that claims for slavery reparations for lost wages and such quickly bog down over exactly this type of logic about what those slaves would have had otherwise. Likewise, black Americans, like all of us, have shared in the benefits of slavery--just not as much as whites, and with disadvantages owing to slavery, too.)

"can anyone doubt that his life here is much easier that it would be in his native land?"

Careful. I think I know what you mean, but that sounds like you're saying black Americans are in some sense properly native to Africa, not the U.S. I realize in your alternate-reality scenario, that black American would have been born in Africa, and hence native to that continent--but you aren't calling it "his native land" in the first part of the sentence, when he's born here.

"Had it not been for slavery, it is doubtful many of them would know of the promise of enternal life. For some of us, that is important."

Um ... I'll leave aside your judgment that the religion of the slave-owners is better for the descendants of slaves than the religion taken from the slaves.

But you do know that Africa is roughly half Christian, right? Only about 10% of Africans practice traditional African religions.

Thanks, Geo, for your thoughtful response.

"it shouldn't be the taxpayers' obligation to right every wrong."

True. But this wrong was caused by our government and society, and all taxpayers benefit, to one degree or another, from that wrong.

"The government can try to guarantee equal rights, it's not the government's role to equalize everyone's assets."

Also true. But we're not talking about equalizing assets (or we shouldn't be). We know that those assets aren't equal because of a terrible wrong, and that this in turn dramatically affects whether our citizens face equal opportunities in this society. I think that's what makes this a hard call.

"One of the mysteries of the reparation movement is why none of the well known philanthropists have taken on the job."

Actually, a lot of them have done exactly that, Geo. What's not a mystery to me is that they haven't been able to solicit enough to do the job. Most Americans are woefully uneducated (and even mis-educated) to the point where they don't know our full history in this area. Many Americans, for example, think that the benefits of slavery were limited and have disappeared. Or they think that blacks have had an equal opportunity to catch up since 1865, for instance, or that they've had a level playing field since the 1960s, or that blacks have the advantage today.

I think these misconceptions go a long way towards explaining our society's reluctance to even acknowledge the reality, as you so honestly do in your comments. ("White people like me may have had the wind at our backs and didn't notice it.")

James, it's good to know that some philanthropists have taken on that job. Good luck to them.

What percentage of blacks in America would move to Africa if they could, and what percentage of blacks in Africa would move to America if they could?

Geo, I appreciate that you seem entirely sincere that there's a problem and that it's good that some people are addressing it. However, when you say "good luck to them," I can't help thinking that you're saying this is a problem for "philanthropists" to deal with. In other words, that the rest of us, who have benefited enormously from the problem--as Redman points out, few Americans at any income level would prefer to live with a Third World income--can just stand aside and let it not be our problem.

Redman, I'm sure you ask your rhetorical question with the best of intentions. I hope, though, that you can see how it sounds to me: as though you're saying that it doesn't matter whether the average black family in this country is at a huge disadvantage, due to a history of long and brutal discrimination. That blacks aren't "real Americans," and shouldn't be judged by the standards of equality and fairness that apply to white Americans, but should be grateful that they aren't foreigners living in impoverished nations.

Would you ask a white person who had a civil rights claim to set it aside, because he's better off in America than if he lived in Africa? Would you even find out that his ancestors came from Poland, and check into Poland's current economic condition? If not, what's the difference?

I'm sincere when I say that I realize you probably don't mean anything like that. I'm simply pointing out how it sounds to me--and, I guess, hoping that you can clarify what your thinking is.

James, I appreciate your calm approach to an issue about which you are obviously so passionate. I'm curious about the source of that passion, but I think I know.

I was disappointed at the conclusion of the round table discussion at the end of "Traces of the Trade." The participants went into that venture knowing what to expect of the expedition and of themselves. I admit that if I had been among those people and had a camera pointed at my face I don't know what I would have said. But it was very disappointing that the solution they came up with involved the use of other people's money, not necessarily given voluntarily. It's far too late to punish anyone for something that was legal at the time. It was a tragic part of American history, but we've got to go forward and not try to satisfy old grievances.

The average person has a fair amount of awareness of and empathy for people who are suffering, and the average person does what he/she feels warranted, whether it's giving of one's time or one's money. There's a lot of competition for people who will donate money or work for free. And anyone in a position to give time or money generally selects from among the many choices. So to the extent there are philanthropists who have taken on the project, then I do seriously wish them luck.

"I'm curious about the source of that passion, but I think I know."

I doubt that you could know, Geo ... which is why I appreciate how carefully you phrased that. If you'll share what you think you know, I'd be glad to share why I'm this passionate about the issue.

I can certainly appreciate that you dislike the use of "other people's money" to solve our social problems. So do I. But to me, this is a little bit different. As a society, we spend many billions of dollars each year of "other people's money" to provide benefits aimed at the middle class and even targeted to wealthy Americans. So it's a question of just how much we should spend of "other people's money," and who should benefit.

In fact, this money and this spending has historically created much of the racial inequality we now see. The institution of slavery created much of the current wealth of this country ("other people's money"). Government spending in previous generations helped to build today's middle class, through massive spending on infrastructure, job creation, incentives to business, and such outright gifts as favorable loans to buy homes and start small businesses, tax breaks for homeownership, and support for higher education. Black Americans were systematically denied the chance to participate in most of these programs and to receive most of these benefits.

Does this mean that we can turn back the clock and eliminate inequality that stems from these historic wrongs? That we should? That massive spending of taxpayer dollars would or should accomplish this goal? Not necessarily, but I think we need to start by being clear about what solutions we would reject out of hand, and why, because I don't think the average American evaluates the situation very well.

I would also point out, in passing, that the group in "Traces of the Trade" did *not* endorse the spending of "other people's money" at all. Only one in ten DeWolf descendants in that film supported reparations for slavery, for instance. The most common solutions discussed by the group were education and dialogue, which are not necessarily costly steps at all.

You candidly and, I think, powerfully acknowledge that you don't know what you might have said if you were put on the spot, on camera, about this issue. Given the chance to compose an answer, what do you think you might have said? Or what would you like to say? Would it be anything more than you've already said here, that the problem should be addressed only to the extent that private philanthropists choose to do so?

When you say that we've got to move forward and not try to look backwards to "satisfy old grievances," I have questions. Is it an "old grievance" if people complain that historic wrongs have created present injustices, and they want to address today's problems? Can we expect people to move forward without also seeking justice? Should we?

I don't doubt that the average person gives of his or her time and money to the extent that feels appropriate. I do wonder, though, whether the average person is really giving what's appropriate under the circumstances, and whether it's enough for our society to simply say, as you do, that there are many causes out there, and this injustice should only be addressed to the extent that people happen to contribute and choose to give to this particular cause. So much of what that average person has today stems from this injustice, and comparatively little would go a long way towards addressing, not the wrongs of the past, but the much simpler problem of the remaining legacy in our society today. This is why I emphasize education about this issue, knowing as I do how ill-informed most Americans are on this subject, and believing that our best answer lies with informed citizens making conscientious choices for themselves.

Hmm. This reply only took a couple of minutes to type up, but it's long. Oh, well. As you correctly noted, I'm passionate about this issue. At least to this extent. :-)

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