Slavery, Reparations, and Beer

April 26th, 2010

By Tom Carter

Most people will remember Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Harvard professor who stirred up a hornet’s nest last year when he verbally abused a Cambridge, Mass. police officer, Sergeant James Crowley, who promptly arrested him.

Accusations flew back and forth, fingers were pointed in every direction, and we had another one of those seemingly endless “conversations about race.”  It pretty much ended with Gates, Sergeant Crowley, the President, and the Vice President having a beer together at the White House.  The “beer summit” didn’t accomplish anything, of course, beyond providing another photo op for the politicians.  But maybe that was the reason for doing it.

Professor Gates recently published an interesting article in The New York Times,   Ending the Slavery Blame-Game.  On the negative side, he helps keep the issue (or non-issue) of slavery reparations alive by merely discussing it.  However, he adds an important perspective on reparations that isn’t generally discussed — the active participation of Africans in promoting and profiting from the slave trade.

Gates wrote:

While we are all familiar with the role played by the United States and the European colonial powers like Britain, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain, there is very little discussion of the role Africans themselves played. And that role, it turns out, was a considerable one, especially for the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa. …

The historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90 percent of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred.

Advocates of reparations for the descendants of those slaves generally ignore this untidy problem of the significant role that Africans played in the trade, choosing to believe the romanticized version that our ancestors were all kidnapped unawares by evil white men….

Given this remarkably messy history, the problem with reparations may not be so much whether they are a good idea or deciding who would get them; the larger question just might be from whom they would be extracted.

To his credit, Gates acknowledges that reparations would be largely a symbolic gesture.  Apparently, though, he and others who much more strongly advocate for reparations still think that some kind of payment or compensation is necessary.  After everything that’s been done, from multitudes of apologies to decades of breast-beating to efforts like affirmative action, it sometimes seems that there will never be an end to it.

Anyone who has studied the relevant history knows that arriving at a rational reparations scheme would be impossible.  About 12 million people were sold into slavery in Africa and shipped to the New World.  (That isn’t counting the number who died in the infamous middle passage, estimated to be about 15 percent of the number who began the voyage.)  Of those 12 million, around 500,000 (about four percent) were brought to the colonies of North American.

There begin the imponderables in any discussion of reparations.  Who are the direct descendants of those original slaves brought to the British colonies, and is that the basis for receiving reparations?  Would African Americans who came to the U.S. later and are not descended from American slaves be eligible?  It comes down to the question of who owes what to whom.  Here are a few questions about reparations that I posed in an earlier article:

  • None of my ancestors owned slaves, and I didn’t promote slavery back in those days, so what do I owe?  Why would I owe anything?
  • Would the ancestors of black slave owners (yes, there were, and more than a few) also have to pay reparations?  Would they receive reparations?
  • Would people of mixed racial ancestry pay reparations, receive reparations, or both?  Would President Obama’s white half pay his African-American half, zeroing out his obligation?
  • Would African-Americans whose ancestors came to American long after slavery ended be owed reparations, too?  Back to President Obama.
  • What about the 350,000 or so white soldiers who died fighting for the Union in the Civil War, which resulted in freedom for the slaves?  Do their descendants have to pay reparations?  Or will reparations be paid to them?
  • What about more than half a century and billions of dollars in welfare programs, along with affirmative action and quotas that gave African-Americans preference at the expense of other people?  Does that count?
  • What about all those sub-prime loans that played a big part in causing the current economic crisis?  Remember, those were mandated by the federal government partly as an answer to “red-lining” and generally to ensure that poor folks, many of them African-Americans, could buy homes they couldn’t afford.  That cost us an awful lot right there.
  • How will all these questions be answered?  Will it happen in a court, with due process, where fair decisions can be made about who, individually, has to pay what to whom, individually?  Or will Congress just pass a law that the President will sign, requiring all white folks to pay a bunch of money to all black folks?  Wouldn’t that be, well, racist?

There aren’t realistic answers to any of these questions, and it’s time we stopped debating slavery reparations.  We’d do better to sit down together and have a beer — without the photographers.

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4 Responses to “Slavery, Reparations, and Beer”

  1. Tom |

    Interesting comments by Thomas Sowell:

    The inhumanity of human beings toward other human beings is not a new story, much less a local story. There is no need to hide it, because there are lessons we can learn from it. But there is also no need to distort it, so that sins of the whole human species around the world are presented as special defects of “our society” or the sins of a particular race.

    If American society and Western civilization are different from other societies and civilization, it is that they eventually turned against slavery, and stamped it out, at a time when non-Western societies around the world were still maintaining slavery and resisting Western pressures to end slavery, including in some cases armed resistance.

    Only the fact that the West had more firepower than others put an end to slavery in many non-Western societies during the age of Western imperialism. Yet today there are Americans who have gone to Africa to apologize for slavery — on a continent where slavery has still not been completely ended, to this very moment. …

    An ancient adage says: “Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.” But apparently that is not sufficient for many among our educators, the intelligentsia or the media. They are busy poisoning the present by the way they present the past.

  2. larry |

    Aw yes, the proverbial “camels nose under the tent flap”. Tom, I’m glad your making a point That I, being from the south, could never make. The history of selling and owning people, African in particular, goes back to before the founding of this nation. African tribal chiefs and kings trafficked in humans as a source of wealth. The principle participants were the Africans and the Arabs. The Arabs in turn resold their unlucky captives to the Dutch. Both Dutch and Arab involvement has pretty much disappeared from history as has the African participation.
    You make a valid point about the amounts this nation has paid out in the form of welfare and special programs to address the needs of the African American segment of our population. Are they entitled even more
    Another great but unspeakable truth is that in spite of opinions to the contrary, African Americans overall in this country are much better off than their counterparts in Africa or anywhere else.

  3. Brianna |

    The Sowell quote looks like it comes from “Intellectuals and Society,” which I would recommend to everyone here as worth reading along with all of Sowell’s other works. Another interesting, little known fact about Africa (which I actually learned from Sowell) is that there was a net migration of blacks INTO South Africa even during the height of the apartheid regime. I mention this not to justify apartheid, which was atrocious, but to point out that even with the horrors of apartheid, life in South Africa under european-style rule was still better than life in many of the surrounding African nations.

    I agree with Sowell that we must stop castigating the West for its myriad sins, thus implying that West was somehow alone in the crimes it committed throughout history. The West was no mora rapacious or imperialistic than the Aztecs, the Chinese, the Arabs, or any other group of people; they were simply better at it. The reason the West is special is because along with the crimes that were committed, it is also the place that gave birth to the ideas of the democracy, the rule of law, free enterprise and the rights of man. It has committed its share of atrocities, but it is also the place that eventually repudiated and put a stop to many of these atrocities, as well as the ultimate source of whatever rights, freedoms and wealth are enjoyed around the world today. If we do not recognize these facts and start standing up for ourselves and our values, then they will eventually fall back into obscurity, and for the resulting spread of ruins and slaughter we will only have ourselves to blame.

  4. Brian Bagent |

    If I remember correctly from my US History classes, there were, in fact, more slaves captured in Africa and sent to the Middle East than there were to the New World.

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