Reparations: A Memorandum

October 24, 2019

by Terry Smith

The early definition of “reparations” was simply “war debts.” It consisted of war losers paying the cost of waging war to war winners. As they say, “To the victor go the spoils.” Citizens in their individual capacity did not participate in the flow of reparations. The transfer of wealth was from one nation-state to another nation-state.

The more recent and enlarged definition includes “restitution or atonement for damages inflicted.” As it applies to the demand for reparations for slavery, this broader definition raises numerous questions. Who is the payer? Is the payer also the perpetrator? If the payer is not the perpetrator, what is the legal basis for making a claim for payment? How is the victim class defined? What is the measure of damages?

Seeking answers to these questions is complicated by the fact that there are different political beliefs regarding payment for labor. Socialists such as Bernie Sanders believe that all payment for labor is owned by the nation-state and the nation-state will decide how much of one’s payment for labor he or she will be entitled to keep.
On the other hand, conservatives believe that all payment for labor belongs to the citizen, subject only to an amount taxed as agreed upon by the citizens. Unearned income, such as interest, dividends, rents and profits are treated in a similar manner as payment for wages (the government of progressive liberals claims to own all income).

If my payment for my labor is my property, and if I have not owned slaves, how can I be required to make reparation for slavery? Or if payment for my labor is owned by the American nation-state and that state gives my property to a black American, does that mean I am or have at sometime in the past been an owner of a slave? 

So I reject being labeled a “slave owner.” In criminal law, judges order perpetrators to make restitution to their victims. As to reparations for slavery, I am being accused of victimizing persons I do not know. Where is my due process? 

In the political arena, the current claim is that the American nation-state is the perpetrator and that black Americans are victims, but reparations paid in 2019 for slavery that ended in 1865 makes no sense unless words are tortured to mean something different than intended. Democrats understand that “reparations for slavery” makes good press but at the same time raises so many questions that the public would never consent to such an expenditure of the U.S. Treasury. 

A history of slavery in the United States convincingly refutes any reparations payable by our national government to individuals. The United States of American has only existed since 1788 when the U. S. Constitution was ratified by the seventh colony. Prior to that, black Africans were rounded up mostly by Arabic Muslims and sold to white Portuguese slave traders who sailed their slave ships to the British colonies where the black Africans were sold into slavery to British citizens. No reparation by my nation-state is justified here.

From 1788 until 1865 the American nation-state fought to keep all new states and territories free of slaves. The history of the U.S. is mostly forgotten that all 50 of the United States of America are “nation-states” except with respect to those powers given to the national government through our Constitution. The southern nation-states that legalized slavery perhaps should pay restitution but the national government is blameless when it comes to slavery.

It appears that Democrats should be making their claims to African states, Britain and Portugal, certainly not to the United States. (There might have been a few Frenchmen involved in the enslavement of blacks in and around New Orleans; Democrats can add them to the list of perpetrators they claim owe them reparations for slavery.)

I realize that none of these arguments will dissuade Democrats from advocating payment of reparations from the American treasury, but they still have the problem of identifying the class of injured persons entitled to restitution. Certainly, there are no persons alive today living in the U.S. who were enslaved by any southern nation-state. And that understood, what criteria do we use to define the “class” of recipients? 

This is where Democrats change their definition, “slavery” being replaced with “discrimination.” All living black Americans at one time or another have been the victims of discrimination and therefore are entitled to reparations, it is argued, not for slavery but for being black. The class of victims entitled to reparations, then, is not those who suffered from slavery but all black Americans.

Moreover, Democrats lately have been using phrases such as “victims of Jim Crow laws” supporting segregation and “victims of discrimination.” These arguments, however, are inapplicable because the American nation-state was not the source of victimization. Rather, it was liberal Democrats who inflicted harm upon black Americans.

In fact, Southern Democrats enacted the Jim Crow laws, Democrats formed the Ku Klux Klan to enforce segregation and discrimination, Democrats stood firm against civil-rights laws, including the right-to-vote laws eventually enacted by a Republican Congress. In any case, neither the Democrat National Committee, nor the Southern Poverty Law Center, nor the southern states have the financial wherewithal to make anything but token reparation payments. There is no pocket deep enough to justify a national campaign except that of the U.S. Treasury.

This demand for reparations for slavery, then, is nothing more than an artful deceit for a transfer of wealth to black Americans. 

And what is the measure of damages? As much as they can get.

And what is the purpose? To buy votes.

Terry Smith, a citizen of Columbia City, wrote this at the request of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.


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