Reparations for Slavery?

The idea of reparations for slavery has been around in one form or another since the time of the Civil War.[1]  Recently, the subject has received renewed attention as several Democratic candidates for president have announced their support for the idea.  They argue that the legacy of slavery and its attendant evils are largely responsible for the disparities we see today between whites and blacks in terms of their respective educational achievement, household income, net worth, homeownership, unemployment and incarceration rates, etc.  For instance, according to studies done by the Pew Research Center in 2015, 36 percent of whites over the age of 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree compared with only 23 percent of blacks.    

Whites have a significantly higher household income ($71,300) than blacks ($43,300).

Homeownership is more common for whites than for blacks:  72 percent vs. 43 percent. 

The unemployment rate for blacks (as of 2015) was 10.3 percent, more than double for that of whites at 4.5 percent. 

Things have improved a great deal since then for both groups.  As of the first quarter of 2019, white unemployment was down to 3.7 percent and black unemployment down to 7.1 percent.[2]  It should be noted that not only did the rates for both groups go down, but the difference between them narrowed, as well.

Median net worth is 13 times greater for whites than blacks:  $144,200 vs. $11,200

There are several other statistical disparities that we could point to, as well.  The claim is that these disparities are due to the “legacy of slavery,” followed by decades of racial discrimination, and that to make up for these injustices, reparations ought to be paid to the descendants of slaves.  This is fundamentally a moral argument, a matter of justice.  The question is, what are we to make of the argument?  A little historical perspective is necessary.

Slavery:  A Universal Phenomenon
The first thing to be said is that slavery has been a universal phenomenon.  It’s doubtful there has ever been a nation, tribe, or people, that has not either been enslaved or has not traded in slaves at some point in its history.  Most have both in their experience.  Every civilization for which we have contemporary or near contemporary written documentation, archaeological evidence, or reliable oral traditions provide evidence of this.  Slavery was practiced in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Israel, Greece, Rome, among the tribes of Europe, in India, China, Africa, and among the native populations of North and South America.  It would be a mistake to think that slavery was a uniquely American institution or that it necessarily has a racial component to it.[3]

To underscore this point, consider the origin of the word slave.  It derives from Slav, the name of an Eastern European people, including Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians, Czechs, Moravians, Poles, Serbs, Croats, Macedonians, and many others.  In the Middle ages, so many Slavs were captured by the Germans to supply the slave markets of Europe that their ethnic name (Slav) became associated with someone in forced servitude (i.e., a slave).[4]

Slavery Today
Unfortunately, slavery has not been entirely eradicated even today.  According to some estimates, there are nearly 25 million modern day slaves.  This map shows the modern incidence of slavery as a percentage of the population of each country.  The lighter the shade, the lower the percentage of the total population is enslaved. 

Of the estimated 25 million slaves today, 16 million are exploited for their labor, 5 million are victims of sex-trafficking, and 4 million are in state-sponsored forced labor systems[5] 

African Slavery
African slavery preexisted contact with Europe, which is to say that Africans enslaved other Africans long before any Europeans did.  This shouldn’t be surprising.  This was true of other ethnic groups, too.  Mesopotamians enslaved other Mesopotamians, Europeans enslaved other Europeans, and native American Indians enslaved other native American Indians. 

It should also be noted that most of the Africans brought to the New World by Europeans weren’t captured and enslaved by Europeans, but by other Africans who sold them to the Europeans.  Often, they were captured in inter-tribal wars or were sold into slavery as a punishment for crime.  The Europeans simply tapped into an already existing slave market in Africa.  Evidence suggests, however, that as European demand for slaves increased due to the need for cheap labor in the New World, powerful tribes along the west coast of Africa undertook wars specifically for the purpose of capturing people to sell to the Europeans, though this wasn’t necessarily known at the time.[6] 

The first European nation to traffic in African slaves was Portugal.  In the mid-15th century, the Portuguese began to explore the west coast of Africa to see if they could find a sea route to India and thus bypass the long, expensive, and troublesome overland trade routes through Muslim held territory in the Middle East.  In 1441, twelve African men were captured in a raid on the Atlantic coast, taken back to Portugal, and presented as a gift to Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460).  Thus began the European trade in African slaves.[7]  The trade was small and sporadic at first, but steadily grew, with the Spanish, Dutch, and English eventually getting into the game. 

The importation of African slaves into the New World began in 1518 when a cargo of slaves arrived in the Spanish colony of Hispaniola, the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. 

African slavery was introduced into the British colonies of North America in 1619, when a Dutch ship brought 20 slaves to Jamestown, only thirteen years after its founding.  The importation of slaves would continue during the colonial era and in the early republic until 1808.  As a concession to the southern states, the Framers of the Constitution prohibited legislation banning the slave trade until that time.  
Article 1.  Section 9.
The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight…
This was a compromise for the sake of uniting the newly independent states for strength and security reasons.  Slavery was a very troublesome issue that threatened to divide the states and thus make them vulnerable to attack by European powers who still had a stake in the New World.  The members of the Constitutional Convention kicked the can down the road, to be dealt with at a later time.   No legislation could be passed banning the importation of slaves until 20 years after the Constitution was ratified. 

When the time came, Congress acted swiftly.  On March 2, 1807, Congress passed, and President Thomas Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves.  This went into effect on January 1, 1808, the very first day permitted under the Constitution.   Keep in the mind, the bill didn’t outlaw the ownership of slaves, but the importation of new slaves.  Many believed this would eventually lead to the abolition of slavery.  Unfortunately, it didn’t. 

How many slaves were imported into the New World?  The map below gives us a good visual.  The range (it says) is somewhere between 10-15 million.  Most historians put the number below 12 million.  The figures on the map total 11 million.

By comparison, the number of Africans taken across the Sahara Desert to Muslim North Africa or shipped through the Persian Gulf and other waterways to the Middle East totaled 14 million, about one-third more than were brought to the New World.[8]  As Thomas Sowell observes, it’s somewhat ironic that in the 1960s there was a movement among American blacks to repudiate their European names and take Arabic names instead.  A couple of famous examples include Cassius Clay and Lew Alcindor (Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar).[9]  He further observes that:

“North Africa’s Barbary Coast pirates alone captured and enslaved at least a million Europeans from 1500 to 1800, carrying more Europeans into bondage in North Africa than there were Africans brought in bondage to the United States and the American colonies from which it was formed.  Moreover, Europeans were still being bought and sold in the slave markets of the Islamic world, decades after blacks were freed in the United States.”[10]

The following map shows the number of slaves in the British colonies of North America in 1770, just prior to the War for Independence.  The numbers indicate the number of slaves in each state; the colors represent the slaves as a percentage of the state’s population.  The darker the color, the higher the percentage.

Slavery was finally outlawed in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
Amendment XIII
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Jim Crow
Shortly after the 13th Amendment was passed, many southern states enacted Jim Crow laws, which mandated racial segregation in public facilities and permitted private businesses to discriminate against blacks.  These laws were challenged in the courts, but eventually upheld by the Supreme Court’s Plessey vs. Ferguson decision of 1896.  The Court held that state laws requiring racial segregation were not unconstitutional so long as the public facilities provided for blacks were equal to those provided for whites.  This became known as the “separate, but equal” doctrine and resulted in many countless scenes like the following:

In theory and in law it was separate, but equal.  In practice, however, facilities for blacks were consistently inferior to those for whites.  This simple photo illustrates the point rather well.

If it had been only a matter of water fountains, waiting rooms, and laundromats, perhaps the impact would have been negligible.  But discrimination in employment and by lending institutions, and segregation in schools, hospitals, and neighborhoods had a devastating impact on the well-being of black families—not to mention the denial of voting rights.  Facilities provided for blacks—when they were provided at all—were consistently underfunded.  This was seen especially in schools.  White students had much better facilities and newer text books and better paid teachers. 

Jim Crow was, in fact, true institutional racism.  That term gets thrown around a lot today, I think quite inaccurately.  But Jim Crow was straight up institutional racism.  

The separate, but equal doctrine was finally overruled in the case of public schools by Brown vs. Board of Education (1954).  This involved the Topeka school district and was one of the most important court decisions of the 20th century.  A series of court cases and acts of Congress in the 1950s and 60s did a great deal more to roll back segregation, ensure civil rights, and appropriately stigmatize racial discrimination as a great moral evil. 

The Case for Reparations
Those who argue for reparations say that it’s a simple matter of justice:  those held and forced to work against their will for the benefit of others should be compensated for the work they’ve done.  How much compensation are we talking about?  In other words, how much would it cost?  According to University of Connecticut researcher, Thomas Craemer, roughly 6-14 trillion dollars.

Craemer came up with those figures by tabulating how many hours all slaves—men, women and children—worked in the United States from when the country was officially established in 1776 until 1865, when slavery was officially abolished. He multiplied the amount of time they worked by average wage prices at the time, and then a compounding interest rate of 3 percent per year (more than making up for inflation). There is a range because the amount of time worked isn’t a hard figure.[11] 

His estimates are widely considered to be a baseline for consideration.  It’s a hefty price tag, to be sure, but if it is indeed a matter of justice, then the price should be paid.  The Lord requires us to act with justice, and one aspect of justice is that those who do wrong should make things right by compensating their victims (e.g., Ex. 22:1-15; Lev. 5:14-16). 

The Case against Reparations
Two questions arise, however, with reparations.  First, who pays?  Second, who gets paid?  This is not as simple a matter as it may seem.  Those who argue for reparations say the U.S. government should pay.  This means, of course, that the American taxpayer should pay.  But among American taxpayers are many descendants of slaves, in which case they would be contributing to paying reparations to themselves, which seems absurd. 

Perhaps, then, a new tax could be imposed on everyone except descendants of slaves.  But what about the many people who are of mixed European and African ancestry?  To what extent would they be responsible for paying, and to what extent eligible for receiving, reparations?  If someone is, say, ¼ black and ¾ white, would he pay the tax and get a quarter of the benefit back again?  And how far back do we go to determine the mix?  One generation?  Two?  Three?  

To make matters even more complicated, not every black American is descended from a slave.  There are now more people of African descent who came to the U.S. freely in recent years than those who were brought here as slaves, as the New York Times pointed out fourteen years ago:

The number of African immigrants has grown even more since then.  In fact, eighteen percent of blacks in the United States today are first or second-generation immigrants.[12]  Should they be eligible to receive reparations?  Should they be responsible for paying reparations?  Maybe they’re descended from some of the powerful tribes who captured and sold their fellow Africans to the Europeans?

And what of whites, Hispanics, and Asians who arrived in the U.S. after the Civil War and therefore had nothing to do with slavery?  Most people who live in the United States today are descended from people who had not even set foot on American soil until after slavery was abolished.  This includes most whites.  It’s hardly just to hold them accountable for sins that neither they nor their ancestors committed.

Perhaps, then, reparations should be paid by the descendants of white Americans who were here before the Civil War?  But not all of them participated in slavery.  According to the 1860 census, only about a quarter (24.9%) of southern households owned slaves.  This represents only 7.4 percent of all U.S. households, both north and south, who owned slaves. 

To complicate matters even further, among the nearly half-million free blacks in 1860, an estimated 3,000 were themselves slave-owners.  Together they owed about 20,000 black slaves.[13]

Not only did the vast majority of whites not own a slave, many of them were vehemently opposed to slavery.  There were many antislavery organizations in the U.S. at the time, in fact more in the south than in the north.  In addition, a great war was fought in part, at least, to free the slaves, costing the nation a vast amount of blood and treasure. 

If reparations were ever appropriate—and I think they were—they should have been paid at the time of emancipation.  Bayard Rustin, one of Martin Luther King’s closest advisers was a vocal skeptic of reparations.  “The idea of reparations,” he said, “is a ridiculous idea.  If my great-grandfather picked cotton for 50 years, then he may deserve some money, but he’s dead and gone and nobody owes me anything.”[14]

It’s difficult to see how reparations could be paid at this point in history without committing new injustices.  Reparations would require people who were never slaveowners to compensate people who were never slaves.  But even if we could unmistakably identify the descendants of slaveowners and the descendants of slaves, Biblical jurisprudence forbids punishing children for the sins of their fathers.

Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers.  Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.
— Deuteronomy 24:16 (cf. 2 Ki. 14:6; 2 Chr. 25:4)

The soul who sins shall die.  The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son.  The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
— Ezekiel 18:20 (cf. Jer. 31:29-30)

The U.S. has paid reparations before—to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II.  President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 authorizing the payment of $20,000 (equal to $40,000 today) to each Japanese-American still living who had been interned in camps during the war.  The U.S. government eventually paid over $1.6 billion in reparations to 82,219 Japanese-Americans.[15]

There was a proposal at the end of the Civil War to help the newly freed slaves by giving them a tract of land.  This was General Sherman’s Special Field Order 15.  The order set aside 400,000 acres of confiscated Confederate land along the southeast coast to be divided among the freed slaves, with each family to be given up to 40 acres of tillable land.  It wasn’t in the order, but some of the freed slaves also received leftover Army mules.  The plan became better known by its signature phrase, “40 acres and a mule.”  There were several other proposals considered, too (i.e., foreign colonization, domestic colonization, homesteading, etc.).

President Andrew Johnson reversed Shermans order, as it became federal policy to return confiscated land to southern whites if they took a loyalty oath to the U.S. government.  Black land ownership did increase after the war, but it didn’t meet either the expectation of the newly freed slaves or the promises of white politicians.  Most former slaves became wage laborers or share-croppers, often on the land of their former masters. 

Certainly, slavery was one of the most shameful episodes in our nations history, but paying reparations at this late date is untenable.   Those who argue for them regard it as a matter of justice; but how can it be just to require those who have never been slaveowners to make reparations to those who have never been slaves?  This would only create new injustices and inflame racial tensions.  The most effective—and the only just—means our government has of promoting the success of any racial demographic (including making up for whatever residual effects of slavery remain) is to guarantee individual liberty for all under the rule of law.  Then, “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid (Mic. 4:4).

[1] In 1989, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,” also known as H.R. 40.  He proposed the bill every year from until his resignation in 2017.
[3] Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture (New York, NY:  Basic Books, 1994), pp. 186-223
[4] Milton Meltzer, Slavery:  A World History (New York, NY:  Da Capo Press, Inc., 1993), vol. I, pp. 3, 210.  As Meltzer observes, the same thing had happened earlier among the Britons.  “After the Anglo-Saxons invaded England in the fifth century a.d., the word in their language for the persons without freedom was ‘Welshman’—the name of the native Britons they enslaved.  ‘Welsh’ eventually came to mean slave” (pp. 209-210).
[6] See Meltzer, vol. II, pp. 17-23; Jeremy Black, The Slave Trade (London, Eng., Social Affairs Unit, 2006).  To read a particularly moving account of a young African boy captured by a neighboring tribe and eventually sold to European slavers, see The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself
[7] Meltzer, Slavery:  A World History, vol. II, p. 1
[8] Thomas Sowell, Race and Culture, p. 188.  See also, Thomas Sowell, Economic Facts and Fallacies (New York, NY:  Basic Books, 2008), p. 163, note 27
[9] See Thomas Sowell, Economic Facts and Fallacies, p. 163.
[10] Thomas Sowell, Economic Facts and Fallacies, p. 161
[13]  See .  See also Larry Koger, Black Slaveholders:  Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860 (Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1985)
[14] Quoted by Jason Riley, The Illogic of Slavery Reparations at This Late Date, in The Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2019 (


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