ALEXANDRIA, VA — In June, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution
apologizing for slavery, making way for a joint Congressional resolution.
The Senate’s apology follows a similar one passed last year by
the House. One key difference is that the Senate version explicitly
deals with the long-standing issue of whether slavery descendants are
entitled to reparations, saying that the resolution may not be used
to support such claims. The House is expected to revisit its resolution
to conform to the Senate version.
Charles Ogletree, the Harvard law professor who has championed reparations,
was consulted on the Senate resolution and supports it. He stated that
it is not a substitute for reparations. “That battle will be
prolonged,” he said.
Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America
Owes to Blacks, said he sees the Senate’s apology as a “confession” that
should lead to the next step of reparations. “Much is owed, and
it is very quantifiable,” he said. “It is owed as one would
owe for any labor that one has not paid for, and until steps are taken
in that direction we haven’t accomplished anything.”
However, the question of reparations is far more complicated and has
been debated for many years.
Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has introduced legislation into every Congress
since 1989 calling for comprehensive study of reparations for black
Americans who are descendants of slaves. Every year the legislation
has been stalled.
In 2001, as a serious campaign for reparations got underway, the state
of California passed legislation mandating every insurance company
licensed in the state to research its past business and that of its
predecessor companies. The law requires each company to report to the
state whether it ever sold policies insuring slaveowners against the
loss of their slave property, and if so, to whom. A number of other
initiatives also have been launched in other states and localities.
Reparations moved further into the spotlight when David Horowitz,
a conservative author and political activist, placed full-page advertisements
in several newspapers attacking the notion of reparations.
Titled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks Is a Bad Idea
— and Racist Too,” the ad countered several commonly held
arguments for reparations. Among other things, the ad declared: “Only
a minority of white Americans owned slaves, while others gave their
lives to free them... There is no single group that benefited exclusively
The ad also stated, “Slavery existed for thousands of years
before the Atlantic slave trade was born, and in all societies, but
in the thousand years of its existence, there never was an anti-slavery
movement until white Christians — Englishmen and Americans — created
History of Slavery
Sadly, from the beginning of recorded history until the l9th century,
slavery was the way of the world. Slavery played an important part
in many ancient civilizations. Indeed, most people of the ancient
world regarded slavery as a natural condition, one that could befall
anyone at any time. The legal codes of ancient Sumer provide documentary
evidence that slavery existed there as early as the fourth millennium
B.C. The Sumerian symbol for slave in cuneiform writing suggests “foreign.’”
It has existed almost universally through history among people of
every level of material culture — nomad pastoralists of Asia, hunting
societies of North American Indians, and sea people such as the Norsemen.
It existed in Africa — black Africans were sold into slavery to white
Europeans by other black Africans.
Nature and Challenges of Reparations
The current reparations movement overlooks many important facts. First,
reparations usually are paid to direct victims. The U.S. Government
apologized and paid compensation to Japanese-Americans interned during
World War II, and Holocaust survivors received payments from Germany.
In addition, not all blacks were slaves, and an estimated 3,000 blacks
were slaveholders. Many immigrants not only came to the U.S. long
after slavery ended, but many of them were also confronted with discrimination.
Should they pay reparations, too? Or should they receive them?
Reparations would raise more concerns than they relieve, argues black
commentator Armstrong Williams: “One wonders, for example, what
percentage of black blood would entitle a citizen to reparations? What
reparations, if any, would Africans be required to pay for selling
their own citizens into slavery? Would American Indians be able to
make a similar claim? How about the various religious groups that the
Puritan settlers persecuted? Would modern-day members of the occult
be entitled to reparations to make up for the fact that their predecessors
were burned at the stake?... If it literally paid to be a victim, countless
people would rush forward to adopt the mantle. Plainly, forcing this
government to pay reparations to the biological, cultural, or religious
offshoots of every group it wronged over the last 200 years would bankrupt
Those who speak so often of reparations rarely examine the long and
complex history of slavery and where America’s role in that history
really can be found.
Historically, people became slaves in a variety of ways. Many gave
up their freedom because of economic necessity. In ancient Babylon,
Egypt, and Rome, and among Africans and Aztecs, a man who could not
pay his debts sold himself into slavery to his creditor. In ancient
Greece and China, poor families who could not feed all of their children
often sold some of them as slaves. Slavery might also be declared the
punishment for certain crimes, such as treason or wife abduction, as
in medieval Europe.
When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in l787, not
a single nation had made slavery illegal. Denmark became the first
nation to abolish the slave trade in 1792. What is historically unique
is not that slavery was the accepted way of the world in l787, but
that so many of the leading men of the American colonies wanted to
eliminate it — and pressed vigorously to do so.
Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were ardent abolitionists.
John Jay, who would become the first chief justice, was president of
the New York Anti-Slavery Society. Rufus King and Gouverneur Morris
were in the forefront of the opposition to slavery and the slave trade.
One of the great debates of the Constitutional Convention related to
the African slave trade, and George Mason of Virginia made an eloquent
plea for making it illegal.
While many have criticized the Framers for their decision not to eliminate
the slave trade immediately to ensure that Southern states would join
the union, others have understood that they had set in motion an opposition
to slavery that would bear fruit in the future. Oliver Ellsworth of
Connecticut stated: “Slavery in time will not be a speck in our
The history of slavery is hardly a simple one. Those who continue
to promote the case for reparations would do well to review this complex
history and the real problems faced by minorities at the present time.
Their crusade is a diversion we can ill afford.
Read this article at the Daily
News-Record of Harrisonburg, Virginia
The Conservative Curmudgeon archives
The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2009
by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald
All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which
is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has
been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and
the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.
He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing
editor to such publications as Human Events,
The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle
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