By Michael E. Berumen
We often think of reparations in terms of its juridical denotation, that of a criminal compensating a victim for injuries she has incurred. It is a legal remedy intended as both retribution and as a form of restitution for the victims. Such reparations could be made by an individual or even by an institution, such as a corporation, in order to account for an unjust deed done to another. But there is another kind of reparation, and that is when a person or persons is given recompense for an injustice or injustices at the hand of government. Such was the case with Japanese who were unjustly interned during World War II. When a government pays such reparations, the cost is presumably borne by members of the society raised through various forms of taxation. Reparations become a liability, therefore, a debt to society. This is kind of reparation I wish to discuss, namely, a social reparation.
Now, it goes without saying that a government often incurs debts paid by the taxpayers, and this is true notwithstanding the fact that some of the citizens paying will not themselves derive any benefits from the original purchase or the largess bestowed. In fact, the debt may even have originated so long ago that many living might not have been around when it was incurred, such as the debts acquired from war, major building projects, aid to other countries, or for incurred but unpaid liabilities for the sick and elderly. Interest payments on old government bonds (which essentially represent a loan) are perhaps the most obvious example. We generally accept these kinds of liabilities as a matter of course and without too much controversy as part of the normal burden of the implied social contract, one that bestows both rights and duties to the members of society. We may quibble over amounts or how to go about paying for them, but it is generally accepted that there are debts that people in the here and now owe for things that were incurred long before, liabilities based on decisions made by people who might be long gone. Then, of course, there are also the kinds of debts that arise from expenditures today that do not have a direct benefit to some or even many of the ultimate payers of the encumbrance, the taxpayers. We might be paying for federal highways or social programs we’ll never use, for example. We are accustomed to many such debts.
Whenever the subject of reparations for African Americans in the United States arises, those who oppose them are wont to argue that they are not responsible for the wicked deeds of prior generations. They tell us they have not enslaved anyone or done anything untoward to African Americans, and therefore, that they should not be burdened by the costs for someone else’s transgressions or because of the past injustices inflicted by society. “Where will it end,” they might reasonably ask, for many have suffered all manner of evil at the hands of prior generations. They will go on to say that those whose ancestors were once enslaved are not any more disadvantaged, today–––at least not in any significant way–––under the law, in places of employment, or by other institutions subject to public accommodation than any other group of people, some of whom were also disadvantaged before or even now, and, therefore, that they ought simply to buck up and deal with it. Of course, the empirical evidence contravenes this latter point quite convincingly by any number of economic and sociological measures. The argument that opportunities are equal, notwithstanding the intent of the law various affirmative measures, simply flies in the face of the unvarnished facts. In fact, each of the foregoing arguments in opposition is fallacious.
Let us stipulate that it is true that there are no African American slaves in the United States today. Let us further stipulate that the current generation of people of European ancestry are not responsible for having committed the historical injustices associated with slavery and Jim Crow that were inflicted upon African Americans, a people forcibly kidnapped from their homes; enslaved and robbed of their culture, history, dignity, and independence; separated from their families–––wives from husbands, children from parents, brothers from sisters; brutalized, raped, and often killed; and who, long after slavery ended, were denied justice under the law and discriminated against in nearly every area of public life. The argument is that there should be no moral or financial burden as a consequence of these facts, for the past is the past, we cannot undo it, and current generations did not commit these egregious acts and thusly ought not to be held culpable or penalized for the many regrettable things that were done long ago. But this is not an argument about moral blame, but instead, it is one of moral duty.
If we are going to suggest that the past has no bearing on our present, then it also follows that the present generation of Americans is to no small degree “freeloading” based on the advantages bestowed upon it by its ancestors, a foundation and starting place enjoyed by the present generation in varying degrees, and with no cost borne by its current beneficiaries. They are essentially historical “free riders, to use the parlance of economists. In other words, if we are to say that we do not bear responsibility for the injustices of the past, how then, ceteris paribus, in the same breath, can we also suggest we deserve the benefits that resulted from the toil of our forbearers? Why is it that the benefits of past efforts are assumed to be ours, but the injustices of the past are merely for the history books, when the fact is that these injustices have created very real, demonstrable economic, sociological, and psychological deficits for people in the present time, in the here and now, much as positive things we enjoy today have resulted from the labors of our predecessors? Opponents who base their arguments on the non-transferability of responsibility for social injustices from one generation to the next want to have their cake and eat it too. They are more than willing to accept the advantages given to them from the toil of their predecessors or the good fortune with which they began at birth–––and in both cases through no sweat of their own brow or from any special moral desert.
The African American experience in our country is unlike that of any other post-Columbian immigrant group, notwithstanding the fact that other ethnic or religious groups also have experienced discrimination and inequality under the law, including women or non-heterosexuals of all ethnicities. Theirs is a unique experience. Africans did not immigrate here freely, for one obvious thing, and many who were kidnapped and sent here lost their lives in transit. It is believed that at least 2 million people died while being transported in the infamous Middle Passage. No other post-Columbian immigrant group en masse has sustained nearly the level of systematic legal and institutional oppression for as long a period with as many widespread, multi-generational effects on outcomes, effects that can be observed today, and traceable to miseries sanctioned and even mandated by society at large, indeed, even as recently as little more than a generation ago. All of this is true, notwithstanding the notable exceptions and progress that has been made in the post-civil rights era of the mid-1960s.
Only one other group of people has sustained similar privation, namely, the Native Americans, the people who discovered and first settled the Americas thousands of years before others arrived. Through theft, expropriation, conquest, or deceit, their land was taken from them by Europeans. Entire nations were wholly or nearly demolished through state-sponsored genocide, and their way of life was all but eradicated. When Columbus arrived on Watling Island in the Bahamas in 1492, it is estimated that there were about 10 million Native Americans in what now constitutes the United States. By 1900, there were only 300,000. Many millions more were killed in other parts of the American continents. Discriminatory and oppressive practices continued long after the foregoing tragedies with the surviving Native Americans. As with African Americans, while there have been prominent exceptions and there certainly are observable areas of progress, the awful effects of this history of genocide, oppression, and discrimination continue today. Moreover, while there certainly have been other instances of discrimination and oppression, whether Catholic, Chinese, Irish, Japanese, Jews, Mexicans, Mormons, etc., no other groups in the United States can make the same claims of sustained and systematic brutality, persecution, and discrimination by the society at large as African Americans and Native Americans.
To be born of European heritage in the United States, indeed, in the Americas as a whole, is an advantage. It is just a plain, empirically discernible fact. This is true in various ways even with poorer Euro-Americans, though it is apparently difficult for some people to comprehend how a rich black man can be disadvantaged when compared to a relatively poor white man. A poor Euro-American does not suffer nearly the same kind of attention or suspicion in public accommodations, even in as mundane an activity as walking through a store, nor do they suffer the same risks in the enforcement and administration of justice as someone of darker pigmentation, all without regard to the latter’s economic or educational background. This creates a constant and very real burden and psychological anxiety from an early age. Some will always point to this or that person who has achieved great success to illustrate the contrary, but the exception, here, does not make the rule.
Put more simply, a lighter complexion in a society whose political, commercial, and cultural institutions are dominated by those of European heritage is a decided advantage in multifarious ways, and one begins his life with a set of privileges that cannot be enjoyed by darker peoples in either the present or the near future, notwithstanding any of the other advantages they possess. What is more, the statistics on average incomes, employment, educational achievement, rates of incarceration, death penalty convictions, morbidity, mortality, and any number of other criteria provide overwhelming empirical evidence of the pernicious effects of centuries of oppression and deprivation. In an effort to provide a just society, we seek to eliminate all of these forced and unnecessary inequalities, but it will take much more effort and time. Reparations certainly are not going to solve all of the problems, but, if handled correctly, it could be a very large step in the right direction.
We are social animals. Each of us depends upon society in a variety of ways to protect our interests and to ensure our well-being. Government is the instrument through which much of this occurs, whether by protecting and defending us against adversaries, through our various institutions of justice, or by providing for the common welfare in accordance with the state’s economic and technological wherewithal. The balance of social support occurs through our various affiliations and associations and, perhaps most importantly, from the family. Even the least social among us has some dependency upon these things. All of us are born into a position of one sort or another without having had anything whatsoever to do with that starting place ourselves, that status being merely a result of the good luck or the bad luck of the draw––genetically, financially, and in terms of our familial circumstances. We may be equal in an abstract, ideal sense under the law or in moral terms, but we most certainly are not equal in terms of our personal advantages and disadvantages out of the gate, advantages and disadvantages over which we had no say. Few who are fortunate to have good families and economic security at birth would be willing to trade their position with those who are not as privileged, and yet, it is not altogether uncommon for those who were so advantaged to imagine their ensuing success was derived solely by their efforts, while simultaneously thinking those who have not had similar fortune are responsible for all of their failures and undeserving of any redress that might come at an additional cost to those who were luckier.
I submit that reparations for the kind of extreme injustice suffered by African Americans and Native Americans over many generations are not only defensible, but morally required. Society has a responsibility to redress these injustices with such profound trailing consequences and to militate against the kinds of disadvantages caused by centuries of oppression without causing concomitant and disproportionate harm to others. I am uncertain what forms these reparations should take, but I believe one place to start–––one that will benefit the direct beneficiaries and society as a whole–––is education. More federal and state dollars directed towards inner-city and tribal schools would be one thing that seems very practicable today. Tuition-free education at institutions of higher learning for several decades would be another. A payment of substance over a period of several years based on per-capita family income might also help to shore up opportunities for better housing, independence, and not inconsequential, greater self-respect, particularly with the children of said beneficiaries who might begin with fewer disadvantages.
The problems of envy and resentment within society, of course, will be issues, and ones that must be handled intelligently. Some will think it unfair that they are not also recipients of such assistance. These unfortunate human character flaws exist in all manner of social settings–––e.g., families, neighbors, and colleagues–––and especially where there are extremes in wealth and privilege. A strong case of historical and moral desert can be made in our civic and educational institutions that will serve to lessen these undesirable feelings on the part of others. We can also promote the value of the satisfaction that comes with generosity, as well as capitalize on the social stigma attached to our more primordial and baser emotions of envy.
Obviously, the devil is in the details with any approach. But we cannot ignore the fact that these two groups, and more than any others in the United States, are deserving of recompense and additional uplift for the harm–––harm that continues even today in various material ways–––that was inflicted upon them by society for many consecutive generations, and that this shoring-up is no less warranted than our freely accepting the benefits created by prior generations through no effort of our own. The fact remains that the extreme damage done cannot be wiped away with just a checkbook. People in their private lives and in our institutions, both public and private settings–––and particularly the various institutions that enforce and administer justice–––must all play a curative role. We have a moral obligation to ensure that we do our utmost today to protect the interests of future generations, and we must carefully consider any action that we undertake today that could have deleterious ramifications beyond our own time. Moral obligations do not end in the present, and they also cannot ignore the past. Morality is about behavior, how we act, and that can affect outcomes in future generations, and also redress the injustices of the past. These are the things a civilized people ought to do. Society has incurred a debt originated by others that is due and payable from past acts with consequences that persist and cannot be settled in a bankruptcy court or erased from the ledgers of justice by a simple stroke of the pen. History will render a harsh verdict if we do anything less. The future depends on what we do today to rectify these profound moral arrears that continue to haunt us.
Michael Berumen is a retired CEO and a published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, music, and philosophy. He has lectured to civic, academic, and business audiences internationally, and testified before the US Congress and local legislative and regulatory bodies as an expert witness on health insurance reform. He has served on various boards of directors. Among other things, he is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business. An Army veteran, aviator, kung fu sifu, outdoorsman, music lover, former juvenile delinquent, CSUEB and Stanford alum, and longtime Californian, he and his wife retired to the northern Colorado countryside. He still takes on speaking engagements, but on a limited basis.
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