Most Black Americans favour the idea of monetary compensation for the hardship of their ancestors. But who is ready to shell out the cash?
In these post-George Floyd days, calls for reparations to the descendants of black slaves have been intensifying. But should Americans, many with painful life stories of their own, be forced to pay for crimes they did not commit?
If California Governor Gavin Newsom gets his way, the Black Americans living in his state could soon be hitting the proverbial jackpot. Newsom, one of the most radical progressive liberals in the country, created a Reparation Task Force in 2020, a nine-person group tasked with gathering data to estimate the impact of historical racist policies on black people in the state, and how that impact translates into monetary damages to be potentially compensated with reparations. Eligible Californians, the task force has ruled, are the descendants of African American slaves or of free black people who lived in the US before the 20th century.
Nearly 6.5 percent of California residents, roughly 2.5 million, identify as Black or African American. The task force is expected to release its final report this year, but the early numbers look staggering already. Housing discrimination from 1933 to 1977 alone – one of five fields studied – warrants a compensation of around $569 billion, or $223,200 per person. Whether those should be education or housing grants or cash payments is still being debated.
Needless to say, the proposal has triggered a political firestorm in the US where the white population as a whole is being accused of systemic racism and even white supremacy. By an overwhelming majority, White Americans, as well as Latinos and other historically marginalized racial groups, do not think it is their duty to pay for crimes they did not commit, against people who were never slaves. At the same time, many Black Americans are of the opinion that it’s the only fair way of addressing the centuries of oppression that their ancestors have endured.
Last year, an online survey by the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that 86 percent of African Americans supported compensating the descendants of slaves, compared with 28 percent of white people.
Despite this extreme divergence of opinion along racial lines, it is interesting to note that some of the most heated opposition to reparations comes from some members of the black community.
“Do you think that we’re the only group that has had something awful happen to them in this country?” the political commentator Candace Owens asked a group of university students. “Did the Japanese get reparations for the internment camps? Should the Irish get reparations for the ‘Irish need not apply’ period and all the terrible things that happened to them? What about the Jewish people, should they get reparations for the Holocaust?”
“No matter where you go in history, someone was oppressed. You cannot look to correct history by writing a small check, because every single person in this room would get a check,” she concluded.
Notably, California was not the worst-offending state when it comes to slavery in the 19th century, with only several thousand reportedly having been forced to mine during the Gold Rush. And while the plight of even one slave could be considered a tragedy, not all of these men and women suffered a terrible fate, as was the case with an African American slave named Edmond Edward Wysinger (1816–1891). He is said to have arrived in the Northern mine area of the California Mother Lode with his owner in 1849. After a year of performing hard labor, he was able to buy his freedom for $1,000 and went on to lead a relatively successful life.
And then there is the question as to who exactly should pay the reparations considering that many Africans were initially sold into slavery by their own tribes. Will African countries be willing to shell out half a trillion dollars to turn historical wrongs into rights? Somehow I doubt it.
The push for reparations is coming at a time when many white people in the United States are already feeling sidelined by the wave of progressiveness that sees them being pushed to the back of the social justice bus, so to speak. At the corporate level, for example, the decision on new entry hires is no longer based purely merit, as it was in the past, but on “inclusivity and equity,” which is a polite way of saying race quotas. With businesses taking a strong hand in leveling the playing field, women and minority groups stand a good chance of equaling white men in terms of pay and social standing in a few short decades.
So why the need to fork over billions of dollars for a problem that has been at the center of the Civil Rights movement since the 1960s? The US taxpayer has already spent many billions advancing the rights of minorities through Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society,’ which saw the birth of the welfare state and affirmative action, and gave educational and work privileges to the disadvantaged. So when is enough, enough?