Tuesday, October 29, 2013


God, I love the New York Times.

Today there's an op-ed piece called "Confronting the Legacies of Slavery," in which the author, a history professor at Duke, advocates providing reparations to Haiti and the Caribbean islands for the effects of slavery on those nations.

Now, this is a delicate issue, and "the right thing to do" is far from obvious, from my point of view. Whatever the merits for the Caribbean, the discussion obviously leads to the question of reparations for slavery in the United States. I was impressed with the thoughtfulness of many responses to the article, and the wide range of opinions. Some examples:

Oddly, the article never gets around to revealing how much Haiti actually paid France [to compensate slave holders for the loss of their "property"]. It was 90 million francs. While Haiti was paying France its 90 million francs, the international banking community was loaning Haiti billions of dollars, much of which the Duvaliers stole. In addition to the loans, Haiti has consumed billions in foreign aid over the past three decades. The United States has been servicing Haiti’s IDB debt since 2005. The world has contributed $2.4 billion of aid to Haiti since the 2010 earthquake.
You don't hear the Jews asking for reparations from the Egyptians, but Holocaust survivors and their children have demanded and received various forms of reparations from Germany. The fact that expropriation of Jewish property was legal under the Nazis doesn't mean that it was "rewriting history" for the Jews to demand it back. And slavery in the Caribbean is much closer in time to the Holocaust than it is to slavery in ancient Egypt or Rome.
Should the Romans pay the Brits because they took over the Isles way back when? How far back are you willing to go? People have misbehaved for centuries... should Germany start paying reparations to Israel, to the French, to the Russians,to... the Italians? Should the mostly black slavers in Africa pay reparations? Should Japan pay reparations to China? What about the European nations, and the US, that fought over China at the end of the 19th century.... The historical ledger can never be made even. Sometimes it's better to face the future. I agree Haiti needs help, but let's base it on today's world.
Most Germans would agree that paying reparations to Israel, as the representative of the murdered Jewish people, was good for Germany. It could not erase the crimes, of course. But an attempt at their recognition was made, an attempt at penance and at a symbolic reconstitution of what was destroyed.

Of course money cannot restore a life taken, whether taken by murder or taken by slavery. But to pay it, and acknowledge and shoulder the guilt or responsibility (in the case of later generations), is the first step towards alleviation.

I think the Caribbean slavery issue comes up because it is the closest chronologically to our current time, where we have the moral and economic space to consider the issue of reparations. This wasn't a conversation that would have been possible, or even contemplated, in any previous era.

So it's progress in a way that this issue is taken seriously; which ever way it falls out, I doubt it's going to materially hurt or help any of the countries in question.

This all occurred a very long time ago. Isn't it time to let it go? Dredging up this sad situation constantly only deepens the wound and supports the hurt. In addition to exacerbating the problem it deepens the rift between races creating an us and them mentality. When will we realize that our ancestors all did reprehensible things and acted in their own best interest. I would hope we have grown from their examples and applied these lessons.

Obviously Not! Someone somewhere is bent on perpetuation of this stain on our history. Where will it stop? Even if every black in these "slave" states received a million dollars, it would be in the hands of the slick carpetbaggers in a matter of a few month. Things would return to the present state - only worse for the loss of that money.

The reparations argument never goes anywhere because it's intellectually incoherent. The claims are ridiculously time-barred, to begin with. They are also hopelessly remote. Caribbean descendants of slaves shouldn't get reparations for the same reason Americans of Irish descent, or of Korean descent, shouldn't. The slowly evolving norms of a society are not the same as a compensable injury.

Dr. Dubois' argument about "undoing the divisions created by colonialism" and "ending racial discrimination" are especially ironic since none of her supposed "victims" are actually indigenous to the Caribbean. Whether African or European or Asian, the human beings living in the Caribbean today are newcomers. The native people were wiped out -- they're the ones who have a claim, if anyone does. This is just a terrible fact of history. But if you start awarding reparations to one group or another for their injuries, then you necessarily bring this fact into contemporary light. 

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