What do Stokely Carmichael, Harry Belafonte, Colin Powell, Sidney Poitier and Busta Rhymes have in common? And how are Beyoncé, Ava DuVernay, Barack Obama and Kamala Harris alike?
None of the first set is descended from American slaves. All of the second are descended from slave-owners. Much of the media and the political establishment is pushing the idea of reparations for black Americans. But, as these lists show, it isn’t obvious who should get paid and who should pay.
Consider the case of Kamala Harris. Should her Indian mother pay reparations to her Jamaican father for his partial ancestry from slaves? Should she foot half the bill? Or should her father, whose ancestors also owned slaves, be taxed based on his degree of descent from slave-owners? Or should he, born a Jamaican, pay reparations to Native Americans, or take his reparations suit to the Spanish and British governments, as Jamaica was never American territory?
To determine my debt to Kamala Harris, will we first calculate her slave-owning ancestry and then subtract her enslaved ancestry? Should my assessment be based on the year when my ancestors arrived? None of my ancestors lived in America in 1861. Neither did her ancestors. Should I be asked to recompense Kamala Harris, the daughter of recent immigrants?
Proponents of reparations rightly note that several million enslaved Americans received no wages for their enormous amounts of labor. So, they say, it’s only fair that 155 years later their offspring should be recompensed. This assertion is usually attached to the contention that American prosperity resulted from the profits generated by slavery. To see that this is false, consider how poor most New World countries which had slavery are today. But even if the claim were true, reparations would be unfair.
Is it fair to require people who are not descended from slave-owners to shell out? The 1860 census showed that fewer than 394,000 American households owned slaves. Hence, the number of American descendants of slave-owners is a small fraction of the current US population. And a large proportion of all Americans are the ancestors of people who came to our country after the Civil War ended. That may be nearly half of the total, and it includes a large share of the present black population, many of whom emigrated from the West Indies or elsewhere. (Almost 9 percent of African Americans are new immigrants, which by itself should raise questions about claims that America is horribly racist.)
Complicating things still further is the fact that many American blacks have ancestry from slave-owners. This may be because, like Beyoncé, they have white slave-owner ancestors, men or women who married their slaves. Or it may be because they have forebears who were black slave-owners. This number was not trivial. Before the Civil War, there were black slave-owners in many Southern states. In New Orleans alone there were more than 3,000 black slave-owners. Take Marie Therese Metoyer. Born in rural Louisiana, she married a white slave-owner, and by 1830 she had gained title to an estate with 287 slaves. Earlier, in South Carolina, the Pendarvis family had accumulated over 155 slaves.
America has tried to deal with its ugly history of slavery and racial discrimination through affirmative action. Yet, as many of its critics have pointed out, this has helped relatively few even as it created vast resentment. Reparations is a plan to benefit more African Americans based on the crimes of a proportionately small number of the current population’s ancestors. How can that fail to generate still more conflict, antipathy and division?
Reparations isn’t a new idea. Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington, was asked about it by the New York Times in 1969. Calling it ‘preposterous’, he added, ‘If my great-grandfather picked cotton for 50 years, then he may deserve some money, but he’s dead and gone and nobody owes me anything.’