Stefan Smith, writing for the Foundation for Economic Education, makes the case against reparations.

“There has been much debate about reparations for slavery. According to its proponents, the federal government should award Americans of African descent financial damages solely because slavery, as an institution, existed in the United States from the founding until almost a century later.

“Three principal arguments are offered: (1) The legacy of slavery has hindered the economic progress of blacks in America; (2) reparations would serve as a damage award that would rectify a historical wrong committed by the United States; and (3) reparations would give poor blacks more disposable income, which would increase their living standards and lift entire black communities.

“On the surface. These arguments seem to have a modicum of legitimacy. However, because of the potential divisiveness that the issue is sure to have, it is important to closely examine the premise on which these arguments are based. To do that effectively, we must first look at the institution of slavery itself from a historical perspective.

“Slavery as an institution existed on every inhabited continent of the earth for at least 4,000 years of recorded history.

“In the West, once the abolitionist momentum was underway, there was no turning back. This was especially the case in the United States, where the ideological underpinnings of a constitutional republic made it increasingly difficult rationally to deny slaves their rights. The abolition of slavery in the United States marked a historically significant moral high point, not only for this country, but also for the entire world.

Has Slavery Hindered the Economic Progress of Blacks?

“Economist Thomas Sowell, in his seminal work Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality, concluded after exhaustive statistical research that the vast majority of whites and blacks believe there are a higher percentage of blacks in poverty that there actually are. Indeed, when surveyed, most whites and blacks believe three-quarters of black Americans live below the official poverty line, when in reality only one in four do, according to the 2001 Census.

“Why is there so much confusion? Part of the problem is the perception that ‘black’ and ‘poor’ are synonymous. In the 1960s it was politically expedient to associate the state of being poor, uneducated, and oppressed with being black. The civil rights establishment found this association rhetorically necessary to focus public attention on the plight of southern blacks and to engage the emotions of the white majority against overt southern racism.

“However, this political strategy had an unexpected impact on the emerging black middle class. According to the black-equals-poor logic, when the black middle class achieved more opportunity and became more educated and affluent, it essentially became less “black.” This perhaps explains the black establishment’s attitude toward Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Essentially, black identity was hijacked and frozen during the 1960s.

“Unfortunately, the image of poverty-stricken blacks in need of government handouts to get by is still perpetuated by race demagogues like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who stand to gain politically by fostering that stereotype. It is a truism of politics that charlatans in search of political power will always benefit from having a constituency with a chip on its shoulder.

“Is there a legacy from slavery that has hindered the economic progress of blacks today? Let’s consider the numbers. Major marketers have long constructed a black “gross national product” (GNP) from government statistics to gauge the financial power of black Americans. This is actually a misnomer since it tries to measure the total products and services consumed, not produced, by the black community. This statistic is often cited by black political leaders to persuade corporate America to produce more goods suited to the preferences of blacks. It turns out that if black Americans constituted their own country, they would have the 11th largest economy in the world.

“In addition to being a wealthy demographic group (richer than 90 percent of the people in the world), blacks in America have a longer life expectancy than African and Caribbean blacks, as well as whites in many parts of Eastern Europe and Latin America. Black Americans have higher rates of literacy and achieve more postsecondary degrees as a percentage of the population than blacks in Africa.

Who Gets What?

“If the proponents of reparations take to the courts, it will be interesting to see their principle for determining who is entitled to what. For many reasons that will be a Herculean task.

“Because of centuries of migration, conquests, and intermixing, racial purity is more of a social construct than a biological fact. Intermarriage between whites and blacks in America over the past two centuries has produced a large population of individuals who defy the stark dichotomy.

“With so much racial intermixture, will those who dole out the potential reparations demand certificates of racial purity? The thought is preposterous. Another quagmire in paying reparations is that a small percentage of blacks were free before slavery ended, having bought their freedom or having had it bequeathed to them by sympathetic slave owners. Are their descendants eligible for reparations?

“In antebellum New Orleans it wasn’t uncommon for freemen of color to own slaves. That blacks owned slaves has been a hotly debated point. It is true that a vast majority of blacks who bought slaves did so to emancipate relatives and friends. However, there are several well-documented cases of black slave owners in Louisiana who kept their slaves in servitude for life.

“Black slave ownership poses a serious conundrum in the equitable distribution of reparations. Few Americans, white or black, are familiar enough with their genealogies to know, with any certainty, significant details about what their ancestors were doing almost two centuries ago.

“Then there is the case of African and Caribbean emigres from the post-Civil ware era. It is estimated that this subgroup of the black community comprises between 3 to 5 percent of the total black population in the United States. Will they pay or receive reparations?

More Reparations?

“In some respects one could argue that reparations for slavery have already been paid. These implicit reparations, the argument goes, have taken the form of direct monetary transfers such as welfare payments or nonmonetary benefits such as hiring and admission quotas. Indeed, policies based on racial preferences such as affirmative action have allowed hundreds of thousands of blacks to enter universities and obtain employment based on criteria different from those applied to other groups of people.

“It should not be overlooked that the greatest irony of American slavery is that the descendants of those brought across the Atlantic from Africa are demonstrably better off than the descendants of those who remained. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to some of the poorest countries with some of the most appalling living conditions in the world. Disease, war, and famine are commonplace, and corrupt governments led by military dictators and kleptocrats ensure that economic growth and development for the masses is a low priority. In this book Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, American reporter Keith Richburg concludes that black Americans should consider themselves lucky to have escaped the squalor of what is contemporary Africa.

Are Current Taxpayers Culpable?

“Of the three primary arguments for reparations, the argument for damages is the most irrational. Though slavery was widespread in the southern United States, slave ownership was not. It is estimated that less than 10 percent of whites owned slaves. The vast majority did not; thy had neither financial nor agricultural resources to warrant slave labor. Slave ownership was restricted to a highly concentrated group of wealthy southern elites—the landed aristocracy.

“Today we live in a country with a population of 285 million people. Because of immigration, it is safe to argue that the majority of white people in this country are descended from post-Civil War immigrants who had nothing to do with slavery.

“Many ethnic groups that arrived on American shores in the early twentieth century, including the Irish, European Jews, and Chinese, were subject to severe discrimination. However, with every passing generation, ethnic groups developed the occupational skills, knowledge, and cultural norms necessary to fully assimilate and rise to higher socioeconomic levels within the mainstream American culture.

“Our Constitution provided the framework for legal equality for all individuals, and later legislation eliminated remaining race-based government barriers to freedom, assuring that blacks, like whites, can be beneficiaries of this great system.”

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