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The Conservative Curmudgeon
July 7, 2009

Crusade for Reparations for Slavery Misreads History
by Allan C. Brownfeld

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.

Reparations Movement
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 from slavery.”

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 one.”

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 this country.”

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.

Framers’ Views
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 country.”

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

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2009 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

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 East Affairs.

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© 2009 Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation