We could have commenced this blog with something anodyne to cut our teeth on, but where’s the fun in that? So let’s get straight into it.
The proposition has been put forward by a UN-affiliated body (United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent), among others, but also the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA and a coalition of Caribbean nations is making similar claims from their former colonial nations. The UN body’s report is here.
Instinctively, it feels right and fair, doesn’t it? African slavery to the USA was an unequivocal case of evil perpetrated by one group of people on another, many of the descendants of both groups are easily identifiable and, in numerous cases (too many to be considered a coincidence) the inequality between the lives of the two groups remains wide.
If we agree with the paragraph above, perhaps looking at the practicalities of delivering the reparations might be a useful test of whether the moral case is valid?
First we will need to agree the answer to two separate questions; “from whom?” and “to whom?”.
The “to whom?” part is probably the easiest. Records exist for immigration, citizenship, birth, death and marriage certificates to a high degree of accuracy in the USA. It should therefore be reasonably straightforward to ascertain who is descended from slaves rather than, say, later free immigrants from West Africa.
However, there still might be some discomfort in judging the level of “degrees” in this regard. Imagine a scenario where someone who can trace their heritage back to a great-grandparent who was a slave but the other 7 great-grandparents were free citizens. Should this person be entitled to only an 8th of the compensation of a person who can show 8 slave great-grandparents?
What about present day outcomes? Should we means test?
If the 1/8th slave-descendant was living a comfortable middle-class life, it might feel fine to limit the amount of compensation due to them. What if the situations were reversed though? Would we be comfortable compensating the person with 8 slave great-grandparents if they were successful and had a high net worth and giving “Mr 1/8th” little or nothing regardless of their relative net worth?
This is the more difficult question which doesn’t seem to be adequately answered by the UN body. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to state that the report recommends that the “the United States” pays (point 94). Given that there is no one person called “the United States”, the body are presumably calling on the US Federal government to foot the bill. From where does the Federal government receive its income? Either taxes from living citizens or debt incurred on behalf of those yet to be born, neither of which were around during the transatlantic slave trade era to bear any responsibility for the evils committed.
In fact, a very large number of those taxpayers or yet to be born taxpayers are themselves descendants of slaves, so there will either have to be a two-speed tax system for proven descendants of slaves (for how long and at what rate?) or a recognition that descendants of slaves will have to pay for reparations to descendants of slaves.
What’s the statute of limitations for evil acts?
In most countries with a well-functioning and universally-respected rule of law, there is no statute of limitation for the most serious crimes such as murder. Or, more accurately, the statute of limitations is triggered at the end of the life of the alleged criminal. The child of a murderer is not held accountable for the crimes of their parent.
Perhaps the idea of reparations is not to punish the descendants of slave owners but to compensate the descendants of slaves only? The problem with this is that compensation requires two parties; the compensated and those who provide the compensation. We’re back to looking for the person called “the United States” to pay with revenue received from taxes from those who weren’t around at the time of the crime.
The question of the practicalities of compensation for slavery is even harder to grasp than that of the theft of a family heirloom or other type of property; personal freedom was taken 3 generations ago, there is nothing tangible you can take from the (innocent) descendants of the guilty that would “make good” that crime without involving a crime against the descendant. This is how everlasting blood feuds develop in some parts of the world.
What tangible loss has been incurred by the living?
This is not the strongest argument made here today but it requires articulating nonetheless. The descendants of slaves are able to demand reparations due to several key attributes that they possess, the first and least trivial is life itself. The life expectancy in the USA for African-Americans is 75 years compared to around 52 years for West African countries. If your ancestors survived slavery, you are better off than your relatives who were left behind.
Another important factor in the ability to claim reparations is the fact that the descendants of slaves are currently living in the USA, a country with a legal system which enables claims to be made. This is no guarantee of a favourable outcome of course, but the possibility of success of a tort claim in Alabama is far greater than Angola.
Thirdly, living American descendants of slaves posses something millions of Africans currently desire and thousands risk dangerous sea crossings in Europe to obtain; citizenship of a country that isn’t in Africa, the rights and privileges of which have a tangible market value in the world, easily measured by the fees charged by people-smugglers and forgers of identification documents.
Of course, none of the last three paragraphs are intended to suggest that the living descendants of slaves have had an easy life comparative to the descendants of free men but, by the nature of the system within which they were freed, they have had a better chance to survive and thrive than the control experiment in West Africa.
What role does personal responsibility play and when?
Following on from the previous question, we might consider at what point does the impact of evil perpetrated on an ancestor become auxiliary to the free will and personal responsibility of the descendants? How many generations later might it be reasonable to expect their own actions to play a greater part in determining their outcomes? We risk further suppressing the freedoms of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of slaves by suggesting that the root cause of all their challenges in life is due to the evil perpetrated 3 generations previously.
Which other groups might be called upon to pay?
Is the guilt of the transatlantic slave trade exclusive to one group of people, defined either by nationality or ethnicity? If not, should the other guilty parties be called up to pay, should reparations be determined necessary, moral and practicable?
European slave traders didn’t instigate slavery on the continent of Africa, but exploited a pre-existing practice. Rival tribal groups in West Africa delivered their prisoners to the coastal ports to be sold to the slave traders, reducing the requirement for the Europeans to make dangerous journeys into the interior to do their own dirty work.
An African slave trade existed for nearly a thousand years prior to the European involvement, resulting in tens of millions of African slaves being transported to the Middle East. If reparations are due, why aren’t the Arab states being handed an invoice too?
Can a group prosecute a group?
The proposition of the existence of group guilt is a difficult one to justify; to suggest a collective responsibility is to reject the concept of free will. Either we have free will and therefore only individuals commit crimes or we don’t make our own choices and groups of people are collectively guilty.
Tangible harm inflicted upon any person, including our ancestors, has a statute of limitations which ends at the death of the guilty, just like all other crimes. To suggest otherwise requires us to agree to the concept of generational guilt.
If we reject the concept of generational guilt, we must reject the idea of state-funded reparations as the state does not have any possessions that are held on behalf of citizens who are guilty of crimes committed 200 years ago.