Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reparations for Black Americans?


Renewed calls for the U.S. to admit its guilt in the whole issue of enslaving Africans, and to pay some form of reparations to the descendants of American slaves, come up from time to time by one group or another. Surely these would be cleansing acts, as well as a way to improve African-Americans’ self-esteem. Acknowledging culpability is a necessary step in the long process of mending the immense damage done to the collective black psyche in America. And it is only fair that blacks in the U.S. should be compensated for the incalculable role their ancestors played in making this country the wealthy superpower it is today – we are told.

What is missing in all of this, however, is some understanding of historical reality and perspective. Most informed folks know that black Africans themselves, in capturing and selling other Africans, played a role in the slavery issue that is probably as heinous as the roles played by the Europeans and Americans. But even more importantly, we can’t just blame Africans (or whites) without realizing that this all occurred in a much different time. The slave trade that brought Africans to the U.S. in the 17th-19th centuries came after millennia of worldwide, indiscriminate enslavement. For as far back as we have written records, men have enslaved one another (and women and children too) – sometimes for money, but more often as a result of war.

Babylonians enslaved Israelites, Persians enslaved Babylonians, and Romans enslaved them both. Spaniards took Englishmen as slaves when they could; native Americans widely practiced slavery. Mexican-Americans rue how vile U.S. Yankees stole the Southwest from innocent Mexico, yet the Spaniards of Mexico enslaved native Indians and imported African slaves in vast numbers. And the Aztecs, which any good Mexican is proud to tell you were their glorious ancestors, were slavers of the worst kind. Cortez and his few hundred men conquered the mighty Aztecs in no small part because they were aided by rival Indians that had been ravaged and enslaved by the Aztecs.
The Slavic peoples (Slavs) got their name because they were so often taken into slavery over the centuries. Whites took whites and blacks as slaves, and Asians too, when they had the chance. Black Africans did the same thing; Asians were hardly above taking slaves. At some point or another in history, just about everybody was enslaved by someone else. This is simply the way it was in the past, when the world wasn’t quite as nice a place as it is these days.

But gradually people began to see things differently. Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1789; by 1830, slavery was outlawed in all Northern states. Britain abolished slavery four years later, France in 1848, and freedom-loving Holland in 1863, only 2 years before slavery was abolished throughout the entire U. S. Spain continued to allow slavery until 1883, Brazil until 1888, China until 1910, and Ethiopia until 1923! So the United States was hardly out of line with the morality of the time a couple of hundred years ago, and in fact was one of the leaders of the world abolitionist movement. It’s neither realistic nor fair to hold slave traders of 300 years ago responsible based on the dramatically different morals of today. It makes even less sense to hold people responsible today for what their ancestors may or may not have done 300, or even 150, years ago. Because if that’s the way we’re going to do things…..

I know that my Scottish ancestors, the original Britons, were brutally conquered over the centuries by Germanic invaders (the Angles, Jutes, Saxons, etc.). Germanic atrocities on the Britons between the 6th and 12th centuries are fairly well documented, as were many cases of enslaving the surviving Britons. These Germanic tribes, benefiting from the work of their slaves, went on to create one of history’s most powerful and richest empires: the British Empire. Since I can clearly prove my Scottish ancestry, should I not, then, respectfully but firmly request reparations from Elizabeth II, the current and enormously wealthy British monarch?

Then there’s the Jewish side of my family. Oy – don’t get me started on how they suffered at the hands of just about everybody for 3000 years! Just consider perhaps the most famous enslavement in history: that of the Egyptians over the Jews. This episode lasted, coincidentally, about as long as the U.S. South’s enslavement of Africans. Surely it contributed greatly to Egypt’s ability to amass and display great wealth, so very long ago. Egypt’s sort of a poor country these days, though, so I’d be willing to accept some priceless antiquities from them for the way their ancestors treated mine. Or – hey, this could really work out well: you know how so many African-American historians now claim that the Egyptian pharaohs were really black? So then, Oprah and Michael (Jackson or Jordan) are basically the descendants of the folks that kept mine as slaves. Those guys – they have some serious money, and are in a position to help mend my shattered Jewish psyche with some monetary reparations.

But what if Oprah or Michael or Michael aren’t descended from Egyptian slave-keepers? Would it be fair to make them pay reparations? That makes me think about my American ancestors.

You see, my people came to the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries, and they all lived in the North. None of them owned slaves. In fact, the Streblers themselves didn’t get here until 1888, long after slavery was history. Great-grandpa Burns (on mom’s side) volunteered to fight for the Union during the Civil War, and then signed up for another tour when his time was up! Great-great grandpa Kieffer also fought for the Union, as did great-great grandpa Moeder, who was seriously injured in battle. I’d be willing to bet that they signed up out of patriotism, and maybe for the veterans’ benefits, but they probably were anti-slavery, and they did help end that “peculiar institution” in this country. Yes, I realize that they, and I, all benefited indirectly from the labor of Southern slaves. But if reparations to the ancestors of American slaves should ever come about, would I be responsible for the same amount as someone whose granddaddies owned slaves? How come?

So look – here’s how it goes: African slaves in the U.S. got a raw deal. So has everyone else, at some point in history. Even after slavery ended, blacks had it really tough with discrimination, Jim Crow laws. etc. By all means, let’s apologize as a nation for what happened in the past. We can also consider stronger and perhaps additional social programs to help shrink the gap between the income and achievement levels of blacks vs. other Americans. But mostly, we’ve got better laws and a better sense of right and wrong now, and slowly – slowly but surely – black folks are getting where they should be. Today they are top athletes, Oscar-winning actors, national teachers of the year, Secretaries of State.

But it's not just high-profile black Americans like Oprah and Condi and Michael. Look around! Everywhere there are black engineers, black professors, marketing executives, stock brokers, business owners, mayors, lawyers, surveyors, fashion designers, doctors - you name it. According to the US census, 1.1 million blacks have advanced college degrees (either a master's or a PhD) . And at another level are the millions of black cops, black bus drivers, bank tellers, store clerks, secretaries, barbers, auto workers, etc. Successful black Americans are everywhere around us. At some point, somebody's parents or grandparents just sucked it up, bore down, worked hard, and moved their family ahead and out of poverty. They rejected the temptation to play victim, to focus on the past, and eventually joined the middle and upper classes of America. These people didn’t need reparations to give them motivation and purpose, to allow them to succeed despite past abuses, and neither does anyone else.

America gave a big chunk of change to Japanese-American internment camp survivors, and Germany did the same thing with Holocaust survivors. But that’s where it ends: you pay the living survivors for the egregious suffering they personally experienced. You don’t go back generations; you don’t go back centuries. Because if you do, then we all just keep paying money to one another, and I want Oprah’s phone number!
Jon Strebler


drew said...

I definitely agree. Why are people all of a sudden giving these reparations and why only the black population? There have been social and racial discriminations for centuries. Yes the enslavement of blacks before the Civil War was a very big issue, but like you said, what about the holocaust? What about the Jew's reparations? Anyways I agree with your point. It is civil and just to give reparations to the black population, but there are plenty of other social and racial classes who would definitely appreciate some compensation for the injustice done to them too.

Alexander said...

Due to the role forced upon Africans in U.S. history, I think it is necessary that the U.S. government formally apologize to those of African descent. However I do not think it is actually necessary for the U.S. government to provide a monetary payment to their descendants to right a wrong. During the last 400 to 500 years, Africans and slavery issues have been closely intertwined in American history but as you mention in your blog response, Africans are not the only group of people who have been enslaved. Many people in some form or another have been enslaved. It would be unfair for one group to claim reparations while other groups have not.

Joanna Garcia said...

The example you give with your own family background is great because you mention your ancestors were conquered and probably enslaved as well. This sums up the whole idea that most of our ancestors at some point were enslaved by another nation who in turn became very prosperous. Just like the U.S. did with African slaves. It is a chain of events that made countries what they are today. If we were all going to give money away to people and take money for the slavery compensation, the net profit would be zero.