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My reparations "hypocrisy"

By Barton Wong
web posted July 9, 2001

I think I have become an utter hypocrite concerning the reparations issue, but the operative verb is think. The problem is, I'm not entirely sure whether I really am an hypocrite or if I am just being all neurotic and insecure about the thing. But this has given me some insight into why some otherwise decent, hard-working, and honest blacks might have a justifiable case, in their own minds at least, for supporting what on the surface, to you or me, seems to be an absurd cause. Well, let me at least explain.

I am completely and utterly opposed to reparations to the descendents of former slaves. The problem and the rationale to reject it have been gone over many times already in FrontPage Magazine and suffice it to say, there is no reason to review it in great detail once again. The issue strikes me as an artificially-created scam built on contradictory and illogical foundations fabricated by certain clever and manipulative demagogues in the American black community in order to prop up their wavering support, give them a lot of free press time, and draw attention away from their own failures in improving the fortunes of that aforesaid community.

Then again, since I'm Canadian, I don't have any real stake in the issue. I can only pontificate and watch with sad amusement as the calls for reparation grow louder and louder in the United States. There is for now, thank God, no movement for reparations for the black descendants of slaves up here in the north. One of the few things the British did right during the Revolutionary War was promise refuge and freedom for black slaves if they actively sided with them, and then once the War was over, practically abolish slavery (by decreeing that the children of slaves would be born into freedom) in the remaining mainland North American colonies. It was a brave step which, as Canadian nationalists will never forget to point out, the Founding Fathers failed to take. As a result, not only have race relations been a lot more stable and friendly up here in Canada, the case for reparations, if there is any to be made in the first place, is built on a foundation of water. Canada, to be all smug and superior about it, had no need for a bloody civil war to settle the issue of black slavery.

Now that I've outlined my opposition, however token, towards reparations, here comes my hypocrisy regarding the issue. About three or four months ago, when I was staying at my uncle's house for the weekend, we got a phone call. My uncle answered it and judging from his end of the conversation, it seemed to be about my grandfather, his father, Don Fong Jan, who had been the one to take his family to Canada in the first place and who had died in 1985. When he had put down the phone, my uncle explained to me that the call had been from a group which was seeking reparations for the Chinese-Canadian head tax. In the early decades of the last century, the Canadian government has imposed a burdensome and racist "head tax" of $500 per family on male Chinese immigrants, who were used mostly as cheap labour on the railways. Immigration of the immigrants' families was tightly restricted and not allowed until this large (for the time) amount of money was paid off to the government.

This policy was designed to maximize the amount of poorly-paid Chinese workers, while minimizing the growth of any Chinese-Canadian community in this country. My grandfather had been one of those men who had worked on the railways to pay off this crushing debt and bring his family over from a war-ravaged Asia. Citing the recent example of the Canadian government paying reparations to Japanese-Canadians for being mistreated in internment camps during the Second World War, the group my uncle was talking to was preparing a lawsuit against our government for reparations for the descendants of the "head tax" immigrants, which of course, included my family. What this group needed was our support, in signing petitions, writing letters to our local Member of Parliament, folding flyers, attending protest rallies, and making phone calls to ordinary citizens to raise this important issue with them.

Well, my uncle and I reacted as almost any human being would in such a situation, by rubbing our hands in greedy anticipation at the prospect of easy money to be made off the memory of someone I hardly even knew. I remember literally leaping out of my chair and racing to get a calculator to see how much we would get. I don't know by what assorted methods we agreed to use to calculate out the compound interest owed on the head tax, but the amount we eventually came up with, was a healthy, but we thought reasonable, $22 000. Add to that the always numinous additional compensation for "psychological damage done" and quite suddenly, the prospect of a new car for the family to replace our falling-apart old jalopy seemed salivatingly close.

Of course, it is only now, in hindsight, that I recognized that we had acted in a rather insensitive and frankly, sleazy way. We shouldn't have been leaping up and down in joy over making free money from someone else's hard work and great personal suffering, especially my own grandfather, as he had no doubt put up with long hours and poor working conditions, and suffered a great deal to get his family away from danger. But at that moment, the natural and all-too human propensity of his rather more comfortable-living descendants for greed had overwhelmed all other emotional considerations and attachments in favour of a dream of some quick cash. It is still shames me to remember this incident, even though I still believe that the Chinese-Canadian community should be compensated over the head tax and that we do in fact, have a stronger case for this than those who call for slavery reparations.

This is based on the premises that a) the head tax was a government-enacted policy designed specifically to oppress and limit the population of one particular ethnic group, and unlike slavery, which was in many ways, a cultural institution back in the old South and could be constitutionally justified; b) some of those who did pay the head tax are still alive and as for those who are not alive, their immediate descendants in only the first and second generation, like my family, are still living here in Canada, and thus deserved to be compensated, unlike reparations for slavery, which come nearly 150 years after the fact, and c) the Canadian government has never compensated the Chinese-Canadian community for the head tax or even issued a letter of regret to our community, whereas the American people fought a murderous civil war and killed 600 000 of its citizens to free black slaves and have thanked the black community many times, whether it is in the form of monuments to prominent black leaders, or the celebration of Kwanzaa, Black History Month, and Martin Luther King Day, for its many invaluable services.

Is it hypocrisy on my part to oppose on principle, reparations for black slavery, while supporting reparations for the Chinese-Canadian head tax, reparations which would personally benefit myself and my family? I do not really think so, for the three reasons outlined above, but I could understand it perfectly if some outsider saw it that way. I believe that compensations to our community should be paid for the head tax and that I am quite justified in doing so, but I still cannot shake the nagging feeling that I am being hypocritical in some subtle or not-so-subtle way. Perhaps it is just that I simply too close to the issue to view it objectively.

Which brings me directly to the slavery reparations issue that Americans are now currently struggling with. Those opposed to reparations have a tendency of caricaturing those advocating it by describing them in terms of being "clever and manipulative demagogues in the American black community [who need] to prop up their wavering support, [receive] a lot of free press time, and draw attention away from their own failures in improving the fortunes of that aforesaid community," and they also tend to wonder why so many seemingly rational blacks would buy into such veritable nonsense. Well, the psychology is rather more complex than the reparations opponents usually give credit for and after my experience with justifying head tax compensation to myself, I think I know why many blacks might think they themselves as perfectly justified in clamoring for slavery reparations. Look at who many of those people who can potentially receive reparations are.

Examining my own family, my uncle is a high school social sciences teacher who is an active member of a teachers' union, but unlike the amusing conservative caricatures of a typical NEA member which I so frequently read about, he is a hard-working man who spends long hours trying to help immigrant students from India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, which his high school is full of. Not only that, he is well-known for being cheap (excessively so in my opinion) with giving marks and he is certainly not advocating a politically-correct leftist agenda in his classrooms, which so many conservatives suspect public high school teachers are doing en masse. He, like my parents, is a decent, industrious person who lives in humble semi-detached house and has a large mortgage to pay off. It's not like my family is starving for food to eat, but neither is this Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I know for fact, that if given reparations for the head tax, we would either save it or put it to some good use. There is still a large income disparity between the black community and rest of America, nearly a century and a half after racial inequality was supposedly abolished in the United States. There are still many blacks who are decent and hard-working, yet who are struggling to make ends meet. These are people, who need the money if they wish to better themselves, and who if given such a chance, would use it productively.

So, when that chance comes, for a wonderful offer to make a great deal of easy money, in the form of slavery reparations, I can see why, like me and my uncle, they would leap at such an offer. Consider these circumstances: you have an opportunity to draw enormous press attention to your particular community and its various problems, increase its political power, receive a formal apology from what you view as an oppressive and racist Establishment, and make $50 000 or $60 000 or whatever the amount the reparations advocates are asking for, which all your life, your community leaders have told you that you've been owed. All you have to do to get your hands on this money is to sign petitions, write letters to your local Congressman, fold flyers, attend protest rallies, make phone calls to ordinary citizens to raise this important issue with them, and otherwise take part in activities which would only take up at most a few hours a week.

Would you go for it? I think many ordinary, hard-working Americans, black, white, or whatever, would. Add to that a culture of psychological victimology, which many black leaders foist on the community they supposedly represent, and I can understand why many blacks feel perfectly justified in asking for slavery reparations. I'm still opposed to reparations, but I think after the incident with my uncle, I am a bit more understanding of why there is a great deal of support for the issue in the black community and I think that others like myself, who are opposed to reparations should be a touch more sensitive to ordinary blacks who support what seems to them to be an outrageously and obviously unfair and absurd proposition, and refrain from labeling or caricaturing them as undeserving of any financial help at all, because there many decent people in that community who would certainly disprove such a thing.

As for the head tax reparations, well, we haven't received any follow-up phone call, so I assume the issue is now dormant, but if it ever does rear its head again, it really is out of my hands whether or not my family lobbies for it. I have a feeling that my uncle and my parents would probably leap at such a chance, no matter how I argue, and like those very same blacks, they would feel quite justified in their quest for financial compensation as well, since to them at least, it is a perfectly straightforward issue of black and white, right versus wrong, with right being on our side, of course. In some ways, the issue of reparations is like the proverbial wallet full of money, which you find on the street. Many otherwise honest people would just take the money and run, because if you don't, someone else will. And when the person you're taking the money from are governments, which are literally swimming in budget surpluses (like in Canada and the United States), well, that just assuages any excessive guilt you might happen to have the misfortune to feel.

Barton Wong is a regular commentator at the Houston Review and studies Literary Studies and Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Reparations anyone? by Kimberley Jane Wilson (June 11, 2001)
    Kimberley Jane Wilson is no fan of the reparations movement and believes we're going to hear a lot more about it in the future
  • Newspaper ad stirs controversy by John Nowacki (March 26, 2001)
    John Nowacki blasts the disgraceful conduct of people angered by the slavery reparations advertising that David Horowitz has had run in some campus newspapers
  • Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks - and Racist Too (March 26, 2001)
    Text of David Horowitz's ad on reparations
  • A missed opportunity: Islam's Black Slaves reviewed by Steven Martinovich (March 19, 2001)
    Had Ronald Segal's Islam's Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora actually been about slavery under Islam, Steve Martinovich might have been satisfied. Instead, it was merely a veiled attack on the west
  • Slavery in our time by Kimberley Jane Wilson (February 14, 2000)
    Slavery wasn't invented in the United States, writes Kimberley Jane Wilson, and nor has it ended around the world

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