Thursday, June 20, 2019

Visiting Column #17 -- The Land Mines in the "Reparations" Discussion

It seems pretty silly that the Democrats in Congress, the party that supported slavery for generations, and which even in 1964 did not support the Civil Rights Act as strongly as Republicans in Congress did, are now pushing a proposal for a committee to discuss the possibility of "reparations" -- some kind of cash payments -- to the descendants of American slaves.  But they are, which tells you that it must have something to do with votes.

That would explain why they're not, in the same discussion, bringing up some of what I will call "land mines" in the whole notion of reparations.  If it were brought up in the face of the reparations types, they'd have to come up with an argument, when they don't, of course, have one.

I have heard reparations described as "payments to people who were not slaves by people who never owned them", and unfortunately that is not the only problem with the whole notion.  But we can start there.

We MIT grads tend to be almost immediately analytical in our thinking, even biology majors like me.  At most all of our final exams, we brought books, notes, calculators (OK, we brought slide rules in those days before the invention of calculators), anything we needed.  I brought beer to my sophomore thermodynamics final).  They wanted you to think, not memorize.

So naturally when I heard of the reparations idea being barfed up again, I started thinking of why it was a stupid idea and impossible to implement.  And I analyzed.

Slavery was outlawed in the USA in the 1860s, which means that all former slaves are dead.  All slave-owners are dead as well, as are all their children.  Now I can name you two people still alive whose grandfather owned slaves, brothers Lyon and Harrison Tyler (actual grandsons of the tenth president, John Tyler), but I think we can call them the exception.

None of my ancestors was in the USA as early as 1865 and so none owned slaves.  According to the 1910 Census, both of President Trump's paternal grandparents were born in Germany after 1865, and we know the president's mother was born in Scotland.  So his family had nothing to do with slavery in the USA.

Back to the analytics then, and lets stay on the "to" side of the equation.  Let's say for example that we actually want to do a reparations deal.  That involves a payment, which means from someone to someone -- and an amount.  We'll look at the "to" part first.

Let's say that we establish a value that a purely descended-from-slaves person would get.  Let's say $100,000 just for argument's sake.  In order to qualify for that, you must be able to document that every single one of your ancestors in one generation were slaves.  Why?  Well, clearly such a person is more "entitled"than someone only descended, say, on their mother's side from slaves.  If there was "harm", they only were "harmed" half as much, right?  They'd only get $50,000.  Only one grandparent purely descended from slaves?  You get $25,000, and you'd better prove those relationships.

How about the time value?  Remember that someone 40 years old today probably had 32 direct ancestors in 1850, and 128 in 1800.  Notwithstanding the fact that a claimant to a pure (highest value) reparation, the full $100,000, would have to demonstrate that all 128 of those ancestors were slaves, there is another dimension to that.

Slaves were being imported in 1850 as well.  How does someone, all of whose ancestors came over in 1850 and therefore slaved for "only" 15 years, compare in reparations to someone whose ancestors were already in the USA in 1700 and lived their whole lives as slaves?  Shouldn't the descendants of relative newcomers get less of the pie than those ancestors slaved for generations?

The calculus has to handle that too.  Verified ancestry percentage, verified time as a slave.  That will be fun.

Lots of land mines on the "from" side as well.  John Brown was a notable abolitionist, a white man who fought slavery to the bitter end and was hanged for the Harper's Ferry raid of 1859.  He died for the cause, so to speak.  Do his white descendants get a proportional discount on their reparations bill, having sacrificed their ancestor (and two of Brown's sons, who died in the raid) to the cause?  How, in any sense of fairness, should they have to pay as much as a slave-owner's descendants, right?

And of course, the same argument applies to pretty much any Union soldier's descendants, those who fought, those who died for the same cause.  Now they're supposed to pay -- "again", as it were?  And of course, any retroactive credit they get has to be apportioned for the percentage of their shed blood their descendants have.  Got to keep it fair, you know.

And once you get into a "credit" computation -- and you have to, to be fair -- you have to go to the "to" side again.  It's not like we have done nothing to offset the effects of slavery on black Americans.  How much of that $100,000 has already been paid over the years in the form of racial preferences, job points, affirmative action, college admissions, court decisions that take race into account?  Aren't we going to factor that in?

I hate to say, before my last point, "finally", because just the few land mines I mention above in computing a reparations deal themselves make it almost impossible to implement (and just try to prove that you had even one slave ancestor in 1800, let alone 128 of them).

But "finally", there is one more point.  Let's assume that we could do all that, and that at some point there is a reparations settlement that pays the deserving and does not dun people whose ancestors had nothing to do with slavery.  Money gets transferred.  Reparations are implemented and paid.  All done.  It's over.  It's so over.

Now what?

In my view, that's the biggest land mine.  At the point at which reparations are paid, black Americans no longer have the right to claim any preferences whatsoever based on the presumption of a history of slavery.  You wanted it, you got it.  Here's your check, now you've been paid and no one owes you anything anymore.  It's up to you to become self-reliant and teach your children self-reliance, because you can't rely on preferential treatment anymore.

Reparations could become the biggest weapon for non-black Americans in the future, predicated on the idea that, having won a settlement, black Americans' claims are over and no longer can be used.

I've often written that the left does not want solutions; they want problems (mostly perceived) to exist forever so they can claim that only all-powerful government can solve them.  This one would backfire on the left in ways they could only imagine.

But they read it here first.

Copyright 2019 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There are over 1,000 posts from Bob at, and after four years of writing a new one daily, he still posts thoughts once in a while as "visiting columns", no longer the "prolific essayist" he was through 2018, but still around.  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at or on Twitter at @rmosutton

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