The case against reparations is simple: in the 21st century, they simply will not right the wrongs that have been committed.

By now, you may or may not have read the article written by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the May 21st, 2014, issue of the Atlantic titled, “The Case for Reparations.” Not only did Mr. Coates base his case for slavery reparations for African Americans on the fact that slavery was immoral, unjust, and set up people of color at a disadvantage, but also even after 1865, institutionalized prejudice (e.g., reconstruction, Jim Crow, redlining, segregation, and mortgage discrimination, to name a few) has further purposefully hindered the progress of African Americans in this country and placed upon them a significant burden not experienced by other racial sects.

First, I agree that slavery was a detestable part of this nation’s history because it directly robbed individuals of their personhood and violated the ultimate moral principle of treating your neighbor as you would like to be treated. I also agree that since the abolition of slavery, several biased institutional forces in America have been established specifically aimed to prejudice and discriminate against certain groups. African Americans are included in this group, but they are not the exclusive members.

Second, if the year were 1865, I would totally agree with advocates for reparation because the living former slaves could be directly compensated. And it would be the responsibility of the United States government and former slave owners to compensate victims because it is the same government that legalized enslavement and the same individuals who acted as agents of injustice. A very rational approach to the problem then would be to reimburse every slave as a function of the number of years in bondage multiplied by the median compensation of the workers at the time. An additional sum for “pain and suffering” would not equate to true restitution but would be an earnest gesture toward justice.

Now that it’s 2014, all the former slaves and slave owners have perished, so who exactly are we compensating? Yes, the scars of slavery and institutionalized prejudice remain, but how would you objectively quantify who gets what? Does a man who is 1/8 black get 1/8 the reparation? Does a teenager who is 1/4 white only have to pay 1/4 of the reparation demanded? Does a woman who is ½ black and ½ white need to do nothing because she “cancels out”? What if you were born in the Seychelles in 1985 (and therefore have nothing to do with this), then moved to the U.S.A. in the 1990s? What liability would they have in this case?

Most advocates of reparations want the U.S. government to be the solitary payer, which essentially means the taxpayers. The U.S. taxpayers are black, white, and everything in between. From a moral standpoint, it defies logic to have everyone pay for now what some people did over 100 years ago. Why must the moral mishaps of dead men be resurrected and burdened upon the people of present, who played no part in the iniquities of the past? If that was a valid principle of justice, then all of mankind owes all of womankind an immeasurable sum.

Finally, I think the most compelling argument is theoretical—what is the intended aim of reparations? Is it to right a wrong? Is it to restore harmony to the racial equilibrium? Racism still exists today, and I suggest that it will never be eradicated, simply because all human beings to varying extents are driven by self-interest and self-preservation. This tends to manifest as group identification, leading to group pride, and therefore leading to bigotry. Eradicating racism means eradicating human nature. Will reparations instantly heal the scars that exist in this country, or perhaps would it give a temporary infusion of capital to a certain group of people who would still continue to live in a world that carries the same prejudicial tendencies as it did before? Has Mr. Coates considered that in the long term, reparations may actually have no appreciable effects for African Americans but, instead, only add fuel to a psychology of victimization? If the goal is to empower and assist those who are disadvantaged, then I lend my full support, but if we are to accomplish this task with bankrupt morals and using coercive political tactics, I’m afraid we have all fallen victim to the same flawed ideology that allowed slavery to happen in the first place.


Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

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  1. Craig says:

    The case “for” appeals to a modern sense of decency that was absent in past centuries, but this new sense of morality is not enough to overcome the economic realities of the 21st century. Today, reparations would essentially mean allocating a tremendous amount to some at the expense of others, a path that has too many political consequences to be viable.

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