Perhaps it is my legal training that recoils a bit at the thought of “reparations” in the sense of writing a check to individuals who were not the direct subjects of slavery. Or the thought that a Korean businessman, whose family has been in the US for 65 years, should be responsible for a portion of the payment. And if the reparations are for the larger, more amorphous set of “racist” actions which encompass formal slavery and so much more, down to and including the present (by myself included, I’m afraid), then I get tripped up over the question of who is deserving of recompense and who should be responsible. And how to calculate “damages.” And where to draw the line as between the actions taken against Black Americans and those taken against ____-Americans, of which there is a lengthy list. There are dozens of other questions and complications which would need to be thrashed out.
Indeed, a second level of concern lies in the easily envisioned litigatory morass over eligibility and a second set over liability that would take decades to work out (at no small administrative cost and no small enrichment of the bar). I’m afraid our society would be consumed with the process and, as a result, the meaning of both the underlying deeds and the compensatory societal gesture would be lost. To what end?
Finally, as a historian, it seems that those who find reparations due for the nation’s “original sin,” embodied in the Constitution since 1787, are playing fast-and-loose with alternate history. If the Founding Fathers had not agreed to allow slavery to continue, then there’s a high likelihood that the US of A would never have gotten off the ground. Reparations advocates seem to want to assume that we have our current country and everything else that happened was the same, but for that one grave error. Stated differently, would it have been better if the Northern states set themselves as a slavery-free country and a set of Southern states had gone their own way, preserving the “peculiar institution?” Who then would be responsible for what might have happened? Moreover, I’m wary of taking the moral standards of one era/culture and applying them to another. It’s too easy to be smug and, at least implicitly, argue that “we” have it all figured out and are in a position to judge others from another time.
I’m more inclined to leave the monetary issue aside. Part of my concern with “reparations” is that it could easily turn the events and attitudes of race and power into a variety of tort, a “class action” for something like securities fraud or product liability. If Hannah Arendt assailed Nazism for its “banality of evil,” then what is more banal than litigating claims and “solving” the problem of slavery with a check. How easy to “wash our hands and walk away” after the money has changed hands.
Pointing fingers is also a great means of avoiding looking hard at our own behavior. The debate has already started to turn into a distraction from the more fundamental and important work of remedying the embedded racism in our (and other Western) societies and improving our common future.
What is left to be done then? Our media-saturated, legal-formality-obsessed society has wrung the meaning and pain out of “apologies.” As Richard Nixon said: “I accept the responsibility, but not the blame.”
Nor does it quite make sense for us in the 21C to apologize for actions taken by those (long-dead) in the 17C-19C. We need to own our own issue somehow, to recognize the evil from our own perspective and use our recognition of history as a starting point (or, rather, a re-starting point) for ourselves. We need to own it simply, without too much qualification or counterpoint. We need to ground it in our core values (historical and, hopefully, current). We need to make it hard to deny.
So, here’s my take:
We believe that all persons are created equal and that they are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is the premise and aspiration of our society and of the government of the United States of America which is the expression and instrument of our society. As we look back over the past 250 years, we have not lived up to this aspiration and have harmed millions of people in dozens of categories as a result. We have harmed ourselves as a society as a result.
Three groups: Blacks, women, and native Americans (as measured by the duration, depth, and extent of our shortcomings) have suffered the most; many others were harmed as well. For a society that claims to value hard work and the individual, we have far too often used categorization as a substitute for close consideration and applied simplistic characterizations; in a word, we have been lazy.
We are ashamed of these acts and omissions which have demonstrated our shortcomings, including the enslavement, murder, theft, oppression, discrimination, abuses of law and power, hatred, and infliction of harms to the lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of our fellows.
It is the policy of the United States of America to treat all persons with respect, to write and enforce laws which treat everyone fairly, and to afford citizens and others the rights to which they are entitled under our laws and our principles.
I don’t have illusions about Congress passing such a resolution (certainly without inserting enough caveats, qualifiers, and exceptions to eviscerate its spirit and triple its length); but I believe this statement is one to which we can all aspire. Then, let’s get to work to make it real.