Should white Americans pay for their ancestors’ injustices?
By Julia Brousseau
“From our founding fabric we have based our political and economic institutions on chattel slavery which makes our institutions not only pernicious but structurally entrenched [in inequalities]…” In a thought-provoking article by BBC’s Pamela Hong, Professor Derrick Hamilton, Executive Director of Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity is quoted as a supporter of reparations for minority groups in the current debate of whether or not it is ethical. Hamilton proceeds to further advocate not just a monetary and educational reimbursement to racial groups who have experienced injustices in the past, and also suggests that governmental policy changes would be a welcome step. “We need to couple it with an economic justice bill of rights. Simply paying the debts doesn’t address the structural problems America has, with certain classes of Americans being able to extract and exploit.”
The discussion of reparations for the African-American community has been in existence since the end of the Civil War era, but the current purpose of reimbursement is no longer limited in scope, as it was originally, to slavery. The history of prejudice continued much longer than that and has included the denial of the rights to vote, education, and own property, as well as by the restrictions imposed on them through the segregation laws which were particularly enforced in the south. Pamela Hong describes the mindset of many people today when she comments, “Those arguing for reparations point to these historic inequalities as reasons for current schisms between white and black Americans when it comes to income, housing, healthcare, and incarceration rates.”
Democratic candidate and senator Elizabeth Warren would agree. She said, “Because of housing discrimination and employment discrimination, we live in a world where the average white family has $100 [and] the average black family has about $5. It’s time to start the national, full-blown conversation about reparations in this country.”
It is because I am resolved that it is inherently an injustice to require Americans to pay for past wrongs they did not commit that I disagree with the position and solution, though well-intended, that these people are taking.
Contention One: Two Wrongs Still Don’t Make a Right
There is no doubt that minority groups, and African-Americans in particular, have been subjected to terrible atrocities throughout the centuries that the United States of America has existed. Slavery is, and always has been, morally wrong. Abusing people and denying them fundamental human rights on the basis of their origin or skin color is an evil, and I am in no way seeking to minimize the guilt or justify those who committed such actions. But the issue is that requiring white Americans to pay for crimes they did not commit would be equally unjust.
Take a simple example, if you will, to illustrate my point. If a relative of mine became guilty of manslaughter, would it be right for me to be arrested in his place and given the consequences of that action, only because he was part of my family? Of course not! From nearly everyone’s viewpoint, this would be absurd. Yet this no different from what advocates of reparations would have us do in the form of a several-trillion dollar payment, according to BBC. While there are certainly examples of moral culpability of an entire people group or nation, in this instance, slaveholding and the wrongs that accompanied it, as well as many examples of discrimination, do not apply to most white Americans; neither should the responsibility for those actions.
Yes, injustice was done. But let’s not promote further injustice and further wrong by requiring a satisfaction from those who haven’t committed those crimes.
Contention Two: Historically Wronged Ethnic Groups Are Not In Agreement
It should be considered of note that even African-Americans who have held to more activist positions see the harms that a policy of monetary reimbursement would bring. Bayard Rustin, a friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and the man who organized the March on Washington stated to the New York Times in 1969, “If my great-grandfather picked cotton for fifty years, then he may deserve some money, but he’s dead and gone and nobody owes me anything.” He proceeded to comment that reparations were a “ridiculous idea,” and wrote that a payout would insult “the integrity of blacks,” adding that “it is insulting… to offer them reparations for past generations for suffering, as if the balance of an irreparable past could be set straight with a handout.”
Furthermore, according to a 2016 Marist poll, only 58% of Black Americans were in support, leaving a significant 42% who were opposed.
And perhaps on a more philosophical, and even moral, level would be the significance of accepting financial retribution in return for over a hundred years of ancestral suffering, which in and of itself would seem to cheapen the cost of human life, in seeking to recompense in just a temporal way the fact that people died as a result of the institution of slavery, and that people’s lives were hurt in a far greater way than can ever be paid for.
In his thought-provoking work, The Sunflower, author Simon Wiesenthal sets forth an amazing story. He, after witnessing the death of his family at the hands of the Nazis, the murder of a child he loved, and being himself imprisoned in a concentration camp of which none of his surrounding friends survived, is brought before a dying Nazi SS agent who tells him of the atrocities he had committed and asks for his forgiveness. Wiesenthal, unable to confront his emotions, leaves without answering him. In the years that followed, the issue of whether or not he should have forgiven the soldier plagued him relentlessly.
What impacted me most were the comments that followed the story. Upon finishing his narrative, the author simply asked, “What would you have done?” and the answers that followed varied as much as their authors. But the overarching conclusion that nearly every contributor agreed upon is that one can only forgive something that has happened to themselves; it would be morally wrong to forgive or pardon a crime or a wrong on behalf of another. To accept retribution for an atrocity that has not happened to oneself is to cheapen forgiveness.
Now, to counter this and state that accepting reparations isn’t unjust, the example of Germany paying the surviving victims of the Holocaust is often cited. But this is very different on several levels. First, reparations were paid directly to the victims themselves. Second, it wasn’t limited within the German nation; these payments were to the victims of many countries. Third, the German nation was truly culpable because of how they were directly involved. Next, we’ll examine how the very problem these advocates are trying to solve will only be worsened...
Contention Three: Reparations Will Not Ease Racial Tensions
It was fall of 2016, and something was smoking in front of the PortlandJustice Center. The event was a Black Lives Matter protest, and the object was an American flag. While this outward sign of rebellion was shocking and offensive to many around the nation, especially after videos of the burning were released, this in and of itself was only a small portion of the tension that has been in existence for decades. One of the BLM organizers, Micah Rhodes, told the media, “The American flag stands for things we don’t support and people who don’t support us. We have no love for that flag.”
The fact that such open hostility still exists is yet another reason why reparations should not be considered an option. Ms. Pavlich from Fox News agrees, insisting that it would only build greater walls between Americans.
And columnist Megan McArdle argued in a similar line when she pointed out that, unlike in the German situation, such a step would not be beneficial. “For the United States to do the same for the descendants of slaves would be to imply that afterward, we will be going our separate ways, with no special obligations on either side. A one-time payment, and then nothing more owed… that is the only concept of reparations that could possibly be politically viable. It would also be utterly toxic, ultimately widening divisions that we’re trying to shrink.”
Let’s return to the scene of the smoke and ashes of our national symbol smoldering in front of the Justice Center. The woman from whose property the flag was taken tearfully told reporters, as stated in an article on Willamette Week, “I am crushed they would destroy something that means so much to me.” Is further division, protest, and hurt something we need any more of? No, yet the current examples of restitution that we presently see in the American culture are causing just that.
Contention Four: Proposed Reparations Are Themselves Racially Biased
In a recently published article regarding the admissions lawsuits at Harvard University and the University of South Carolina, columnist Bhavya Pant describes the racial discrepancies surrounding the attempt to balance the dispersion of racial minorities across US campuses based on race alone, a policy known as Affirmative Action. Pant states, “The moral argument frequently made to justify affirmative action is that to set right racial injustices of the past, society must provide a leg up to historically marginalized communities. Yet a policy claiming to uplift minorities can hardly justify its treatment of Asian Americans, who on average have to score 140 points higher on the SAT than white students, 320 points higher than Hispanic students, and 450 points higher than African-American students to gain entry into the same institution. Do the descendants of Chinese indentured laborers not deserve compensation?”
But that is far from being the only flaw in the Affirmative Action model. Though it claims to aid students by preparing them in a racially diversified environment, in reality, the fact that lowering test scores is the main way of doing this suggesting the patronizing notion that colleges have assumed that minority students would not be able to enter these schools without racial quotas. But this is not true, as California proved after it banned racial consideration for admission in 1996. By 2010, African American students increased by 50 percent, Latino students grew from 15.4 to 23 percent, and Asian students rose from 29.8 to 37.47 percent.
Perhaps these flaws could be excused if there were tangible benefits; however, according to WW, the very policy that is seeking to help these students is actually harming them. “In 2009, 84 percent of Black students and 66 percent of Hispanic students had test scores below their institutions’ averages. By mismatching students to universities that don’t align to their caliber at the time of admission, affirmative action sets them up for failure. Dr. Thomas Sowell pointed out that in 1987, of all the Black students admitted to UC Berkeley under affirmative action, 70 percent failed to graduate. The median SAT score for Black students in that entering freshman class was 952 while for whites and Asians, the median score was 1014 and 1254, respectively. Despite this wide variation, every group’s median score was well above the national average. In short, students in that entering class who failed to graduate from Berkeley were perfectly capable of graduating from any average American college.”
But unfortunately the disadvantages don’t end there. Though the purpose of affirmative action was to atone for the centuries of neglect and hatred, it is arguably doing just the opposite since it is responsible for greater racial discrimination and tension. The Chronicle of Higher Education stated, “if white students believe that many of their Black peers would not be at a college were it not for affirmative action, and more importantly, if Black students perceive whites to believe that, then affirmative action may indeed undermine minority-group members’ academic performance by heightening the social stigma they already experienced because of race or ethnicity.” Michelle Obama highlights this when she wrote, “You could almost read the scrutiny in the gaze of certain students and even professors.”
In conclusion, forced reparations are not going to be a suitable atonement or restitution for past injustices, they are not going to ease racial tensions, and they are not going to benefit the groups that they intend on helping. The supporters of such plans might mean well, but in reality, Liberal solutions are only contributing to the problem, not solving it.
In the words of the late justice Antonin Scalia, “The difficulty of overcoming the effects of past discrimination is as nothing compared with the difficulty of eradicating from our society the source of those effects, which is the tendency – fatal to a Nation such as ours – to classify and judge men and women on the basis of the country of their origin or the color of their skin. A solution to the first problem that aggravates the second is no solution at all.”
Julia Brousseau is a recent graduate who was involved in the NCFCA speech and debate league for four years. She currently resides in New Hampshire, where she teaches public speaking, formal argumentation, and logic.