William Robertson Boggs, American Renaissance, June and July, 1993
The latest attempt by blacks to extract race-based benefits from whites is the increasingly popular demand for “reparations” for the injustice of slavery. Although neither Congress nor any state legislature is likely to pass a reparations act any time soon, black activists are laying the groundwork for what they hope will be a massive transfer of wealth from whites to blacks.
The demand for reparations is based on a completely misguided understanding of the origin, nature, and consequences of slavery. Nevertheless, the climate of our times is one in which whites listen patiently to virtually any demand blacks make in the name of race. Preposterous as the idea can be shown to be, our country may yet be capable of handing over money to today’s blacks in atonement for practices that came to an end 130 years ago.
The rationale for reparations is that today’s blacks have a moral right to compensation for the unpaid labor of their ancestors. That right is not open to question; the only disagreement is over the amount of compensation and how it should be distributed. Activists’ convictions are based in part on the idea that blacks “built America,” that slavery was uniquely profitable and productive, and that today’s Americans owe their material comfort to the past labor of slaves. The billions of dollars to be handed over to blacks would be only fair compensation for their ancestors’ vital contributions.
Reparations activists were vastly encouraged by the 1988 Wartime Relocations Act, which provided for payments of $20,000 to each of the 120,000 suriving Japanese-Americans who were interned during the Second World War. Blacks also point to the billions of dollars that Germany has paid out over the years as compensation for its wartime Jewish policies. Payments have gone not just to individuals but to the state of Israel. Transfers of this kind set a precedent for punishing today’s (and tomorrow’s) taxpayers for acts their governments committed in the past.
Although many different groups around the country agitate for reparations, the largest and best-organized is the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, which has the pseudo-African acronym of N’COBRA. The group is based in Washington (DC) and has chapters and affiliates in other states. Vince Goodwin, the group’s co-chairman, describes slavery as the “the largest holocaust committed,” and sees reparations as the only way America can “heal itself.”
N’COBRA was delighted when Rep. John Conyers of Detroit introduced a bill in Congress to establish a presidential commission to study black reparations. Today, N’COBRA’s main mission is to encourage the introduction of similar legislation both in Congress and in state legislatures.
Massachusetts state Senator William Owens has actually held hearings on a reparations bill, and one has been introduced in Michigan. Cities with large black populations have passed resolutions calling for reparations. Detroit and Washington (DC) have both issued official demands, and the Detroit chapter of N’COBRA has taken to picketing the local federal office building.
The Urban League and the NAACP have gotten on the reparations bandwagon and Jesse Jackson has endorsed the idea. Former Harvard Law School professor, Derrick Bell, believes in reparations because “The struggle against racism requires action . . . Anything and everything should be tried.” Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam has long preached a form of reparations that would involve turning over several American states to blacks, along with huge cash payments.
Even one prominent white, neo-conservative Charles Krauthammer, has publicly endorsed reparations. He says that payments to blacks would be better for them than “the warm glow of condescension that permeates affirmative action.” Once the debt of slavery were paid off, America could abandon affirmative action with good conscience and finally institute color-blind policies.
For the reparations activists, that would not be enough. Dorothy Lewis of the Black Reparations Committee explains that affirmative action and reparations are remedies for different wrongs. As she explains, “Affirmative action is needed to curtail racism that exists now.”
Reparations movements are gaining ground in Brazil, Jamaica, and England. As Cindy Owens, wife of the Massachusetts state senator says, “The slaves built not just this country but Jamaica, the Bahamas, England and other places. Why shouldn’t we all be paid for that labor?”
Even the dark continent has caught reparations fever. In 1991, President Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria made a public demand that Africa be compensated for the people it lost in the slave trade, and he is planning an international conference this summer to flesh out details. Speakers will include Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress and President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
There is great fun to be had in calculating the damages award. Andrew Jenkins, a Detroit real estate agent who has been a reparations activist for 27 years, says that every black in the country is entitled to $1 million. It does not seem to bother him that this would work out to about $30 trillion, or the equivalent of the entire federal budget for the past 20 or so years. State Sen. Owens of Massachusetts is more modest. He calculates the debt at only $3 trillion, with perhaps another trillion in back interest.
One favorite way to calculate the debt is to figure what 40 acres and a mule were worth in 1865 and then add the accumulated interest up to the present. A theorist in Washington state concludes that this works out to $98,191.35 per black person. Mr. Krauthammer’s is the stingiest proposal of all: $100,000 for every black family of four.
Like so much of what our country says and does in the name of race, all this is pure lunacy. First, slave owners certainly did buy and sell slaves and forced them to work without wages.
However, all slaves and slave owners are dead. There is no legal basis either for punishing distant descendants for the wrong-doing of their ancestors or for rewarding the distant descendants of those who were wronged.
The parallel between compensation for interned Japanese and today’s blacks is tenuous. First, only those who were actually interned have been compensated. Surviving children get nothing. Furthermore, internment was a deliberate act of the United States government, so a case can be made for government redress. Slavery was a private practice regulated by states and localities. The federal government never owned a single slave. When it abolished slavery (by means of a dubious Constitutional amendment that excluded the states of the defeated Confederacy) it ended a private practice that had begun more than a century before the federal government even existed.
Those who ignore these obvious arguments and nevertheless insist on government compensation do so because they believe two things: that slavery was a unique and unparalleled evil done by whites to blacks, and that it was so productive America would have remained poor without it. The first of these ideas has been so widely promoted it is almost an article of faith, and it is worth looking into slavery in some detail in order to refute both charges.
The Slave Trade
Slavery and the trade in human property were well established on the continent long before Europeans ever arrived. There is no record of whites ever venturing into the interior of Africa in search of slaves; they had no need to do so. The 500,000 or so blacks who were brought to the United States were first captured by Africans and delivered to the coast by professional African slave traders.
Slaves were usually captured in tribal wars, but Africans had learned that it was impractical to enslave people from neighboring tribes, since they could easily escape back to their own people. Captives were therefore sold to traders who resold them only after they had marched the slaves so far from home they could not return. This infrastructure was easily adapted to meet the needs of white slave merchants.
Nevertheless, the trans-Atlantic trade had some requirements different from those of the traditional inter-tribal trade. In African warfare, the usual practice was to enslave captured women and children but to kill all male prisoners. It was an agreeable surprise for Africans to discover a profitable export market for men. Many of the slaves who were marched in coffles to the sea would therefore have been slaughtered had there been no demand for them in the New World.
Some Africans formed raiding parties specifically to supply European slavers, but the primary source for the trans-Atlantic trade was the overflow of captives from tribal warfare. The most promising slaving sites therefore moved up and down the coast, depending on the fortunes of war. When there was peace along the Gambia river, operations shifted to the Sassandra or the Konkoure.
Whites certainly did not rob Africa of its manhood. Unlike the Africans who supplied them, whites paid for what they got. If today’s Africans have a quarrel, it is with their own warfaring ancestors rather than with whites.
As for American blacks, the idea that they should be paid because of the injustices done to their ancestors crumbles to dust when one compares their present state with that of Africans. There has never been a group of blacks anywhere in the history of the world that has enjoyed the material prosperity of American blacks. Even the poorest American black is vastly better off than the average African. Whatever one may say about the wrongs that were done to slaves, their descendants have every reason to be grateful that their ancestors were shipped to America rather than killed or left in Africa.
The high standard of living that blacks enjoy in America is due to the fact that they live among whites. For an example of the kind of society they would have built for themselves one need only visit Liberia. This West African nation, established by freed American slaves, has long been one of the most miserable nations on a miserable continent and is now in a state of barbarous anarchy.
Moreover, despite the lip service they give to Afrocentrism, very few American blacks emigrate to Africa. Those who think they would like to “go home” usually change their minds after a single visit. The power of attraction runs entirely the other way; hundreds of thousands of Africans would come to America if they could.
It is pure silliness to claim, as reparationists do, that the United States was made uniquely prosperous by the labors of blacks. Blacks contributed to the development of America in much the same way horses did, by laboring under the direction of whites. Moreover, it was those parts of the country where slaves were most common that have always been poorest and remain poor to this day.
Eugene Genovese, a Marxist historian of slavery who certainly has little sympathy for slaveholders, writes that the slave system retarded the development of the South. He argues that since slaves could not be taught to handle livestock carefully, the South did not develop a cattle industry. Modern agricultural equipment could not be introduced on plantations because slaves were sure to break it. The only farm implements that survived were simple, crude, and heavy. The “nigger hoe,” for example, weighed three times as much as the more effective “English hoe,” which slaves habitually broke. Slave labor in factories was virtually out of the question because slaves could not be trusted with machinery.
The slave was said to be the laziest, most untrustworthy servant on earth and had constantly to be watched. A common reflection on his abilities was that “It takes two slaves to help one to do nothing.” Nor was it always possible to wring more work out of a slave by threat of punishment. “Every attempt to force a slave beyond the limit that he fixes himself,” wrote one owner, “. . . only tends to make him unprofitable, unmanageable, a vexation and a curse.”
Other than in the cotton fields, there is some doubt as to whether slavery was even profitable. Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903), the landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York City, made a study of slavery when he toured the antebellum South. He estimated that on many plantations slaves worked one third as much as a hired hand on a New England farm. He was convinced that free blacks could be hired for considerably less than the cost of keeping slaves.
Although some slaves were driven for long hours, northern anti-slavery tracts abounded with accounts of how the excessive leisure of slavery would be ended under strict, Northern employment practices. They promised that abolition would produce a decisive rise in the nation’s productivity.
Northern working men were well aware of these arguments. Slaves were provided for as children and maintained in sickness and in old age. Northern wage earners, who had no sick leave, children’s allowances, or retirement benefits, often wondered if they were not worse off than slaves.
A workingman’s newspaper, The Fall River Mechanic, lashed out at “men who stand and dole out pity for the southern slave but would crush with an iron hand the white laborer of the north.” Another paper, The Man, mocked the upper-class women who supported abolition:
Their tender hearts were sighing
As the negro’s wrongs were told
While the white slave was dying
Who gained their father’s gold.
Many Southerners firmly believed that they treated slaves better than Yankee capitalists treated workers. James Hammond, a Southern senator once rebuked his colleague from New York on the Senate floor with the following words: “Our slaves are hired for life and well compensated . . . Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated.”
One indication of the value placed on the lives of slaves was a practice that Olmstead noted in his travels: Irish navvies were invariably hired to drain swamps and dig irrigation ditches. Malaria and intestinal disease made this some of the most dangerous work in the South. When Olmstead asked why the Irish were hired for it, he was told, “It’s dangerous work and a negro’s life is too valuable to be risked at it. If a negro dies it is a considerable loss you know.”
The black man’s value as a slave protected him in other ways. From 1840 to 1860, of the more than 300 people lynched by mobs in the South, fewer than ten percent were blacks. So long as the black man had tangible property value he was safer from lynch mobs than a white man.
As Olmstead noted, when the black man was definitely a slave, it seemed to break down the “natural” revulsion of whites for blacks, and lead to affection and intimacy of a kind that would have sickened Northerners. It was after Reconstruction, when free blacks were goaded on by carpetbaggers to mistreat and humiliate their former masters, that lower-class whites began to hate blacks and take pleasure in lynching them.
Reign of Terror
Today, as part of the reparations campaign, slavery must be described as a psychopathic reign of terror, the blackest blot on the record of the white man. There certainly were cases of barbarous mistreatment, but they were exceptions.
In The Mind of the South, W.J. Cash writes that the standard that “no one but a cur beat, starved, or overdrove his slaves became a living rule of daily conduct; a standard so binding as to generate contempt for whoever violated it.” Many owners took pride in the kindness they showed “their people,” and even among Northern abolitionists there was grudging acknowledgement of a certain noblesse oblige among the better element in the South. It is worth noting that even in that great abolitionist tract, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the sadistic villain was not a Southern slave owner but a Yankee overseer.
Slaves were valuable property, which only one Southern household in five could afford. The rougher classes who might have been abusive masters were generally too poor to own slaves.
Although it is unfashionable to acknowledge it today, the bonds of master and slave were often affectionate. A contemporary ditty illustrates why some slaveholders resisted the idea of “colonizing” blacks by sending them back to Africa:
What! Colonize old coachman Dick!
My foster brother Nat!
My more than mother when I’m sick,
Come, Hal, no more of that!
That slaves were commonly addressed as “Auntie,” “Uncle,” or “Mammie,” showed the affection their masters felt for them. There certainly were acts of cruelty against slaves, but to dwell on them is to paint a false picture of the South. When Jefferson Davis took leave of the slaves on his Mississippi plantation to assume the Presidency of the Confederate government in Montgomery, he wept and his slaves wept. Of course, the “happy darkies” picture of slavery is not the whole story either. Wherever Union armies marched through the South, all but the house servants usually escaped to join them.
Reparations activists commonly maintain that the government “promised” freed slaves 40 acres and a mule, and that this gives today’s blacks a legal claim. It is true that Thaddeus Stevens, who wanted to punish the South, proposed legislation to seize all Southern land holdings worth $5,000 or more, break them up into 40 acre plots and give them to blacks. His intention was not so much to benefit blacks as to humiliate the Southern aristocracy, which he hated, and his bill never became law.
Reparations agitators also ignore the fact that some slaveholders were black. In 1830, more than 3,600 free blacks owned slaves, and a few were prosperous enough to own as many as a hundred. How would a reparations program treat the descendants of blacks who owned slaves — or who were owned by blacks?
Although it is specifically slavery over which the white man is supposed to beat his breast, by some measures slaves fared better than free blacks. According to one contemporary study, the slave infant mortality rate was 153 per thousand. As late as 1915, the infant mortality rate among blacks in Massachusetts was 163 per thousand, while in Pennsylvania it was 185 and in New York, 192.
The Final Tally
The reparations argument is based in part on the view that even if there are no longer any slaves who can be paid for their forced labor, the country as a whole has benefited so much from slavery that it should pay for that benefit. In fact, the final tally on the presence in America of blacks, whether slave or free, is overwhelmingly negative.
Far from contributing to the nation’s progress, slavery was probably an obstacle to the South’s development. Moreover, as Abraham Lincoln once pointed out to a delegation of blacks, the presence of their race was the cause of the nation’s greatest frenzy of self destruction: “See our present condition — the country engaged in war! — our white men cutting one another’s throats . . . But for your race among us there could not be war, although many engaged on either side do not care for you one way or another.”
Ever since abolition, those parts of the country with large black populations have been afflicted with crime and poverty, which have only worsened in recent decades. It is through only the most heroic “celebration of diversity” that the presence of blacks in the United States can be seen as anything short of a calamity, and it is one for which whites continue to pay a high price.
Prisons, welfare, and crime prevention are disproportionately paid for by whites. Underclass blacks have made many of our cities so squalid and dangerous that whites rarely venture into them. School integration has so lowered the standards of public instruction that many whites now pay for two systems: public schools for blacks and private schools for their own children. As Southerners now sometimes observe, “If we had known then what we know now, we would have picked the cotton ourselves.” They feel they have already suffered more than enough for the sins of their ancestors.
Slavery was practiced by a fraction of the people in just one section of the country. Only a tiny minority of the current white population counts slaveholders among its ancestors. Slavery came to an end nearly 130 years ago and it is because of slavery that today’s black Americans enjoy a higher standard of living than blacks anywhere on earth. The call for “reparations” is therefore just one more attempt to blame whites for the failures of blacks and to use this as a pretext for more race-based spoils.
[Editor’s Note: This review is in A Race Against Time: Racial Heresies for the 21st Century, a collection of some of the finest essays and reviews published by American Renaissance. It is available for purchase here.]