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Jewish World Review Feb. 6, 2001 / 13 Shevat, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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The reparations calculation -- FEBRUARY is Black History Month, and the demand for reparations to compensate for the worst chapter in black American history -- slavery -- is being heard more insistently than ever.

Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, and a dozen other cities have passed resolutions urging Congress to hold hearings on the lingering impact of slavery -- a first step in getting the government to pay reparations. In California, a new law requires insurance companies to supply information on pre-Civil War policies sold to slaveowners. Another directs the University of California to study how the effects of slavery benefit modern businesses. Both laws were written by state Sen. Tom Hayden, who says they "may be seen as a prelude to reparations."

Some companies have already issued apologies for having once profited from slavery-related business. Aetna Inc. expressed remorse last year for having insured slaves as property. The Hartford Courant published a Page 1 apology because it used to advertise slave sales and rewards for the capture of runaways.

Apologies, of course, will not pre-empt reparations lawsuits. And no one should doubt that lawsuits are coming. A high-octane team of lawyers -- including Harvard Law School's Charles Ogletree, Johnnie Cochran, and Richard Scruggs, lead lawyer in the anti-tobacco lawsuit that ended in a $246 billion settlement -- is already meeting to work out whom to sue, where to file, and how much to demand. "Both public and private parties," Ogletree tells the AP, "will be the subject of our efforts."

Reparations for slavery is a dreadful idea -- illogical, unjust, and certain to do far more harm than good. But in a legal system that can free O.J. Simpson and pay millions to a woman who spilled coffee on herself, those are not necessarily fatal flaws. Do not assume that reparations are going nowhere.

On the surface, the claim for reparations is not hard to understand. Blacks in America worked for more than two centuries, often at backbreaking labor under degrading conditions, and never got paid. Their sweat and blood generated enormous wealth -- wealth that went into the pockets of others, enriching white Americans at the expense of blacks. And their losses didn't end when slavery ended. Bruised by generations of enslavement, African Americans continued to suffer after Emancipation; to this day, much of black America is woefully disadvantaged.

But one inch below the surface, the argument breaks apart.

The most obvious objection is that those who would collect reparations were never slaves -- or even the children or grandchildren of slaves -- while those who would be expected to pay reparations (or in whose name payment would be made) were never slaveowners -- or the children or grandchildren of slaveowners. How can it be just to compel those who didn't commit a wrong to pay reparations to those who didn't suffer the wrong?

Even supposing that culpability for the crime of slavery descends from parent to child, only a minuscule fraction of 21st-century whites are tainted by it. Tens of millions of nonblack Americans are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants who arrived after the Civil War. The vast majority of the rest are the offspring of whites who never owned slaves. (Even at slavery's peak, three-fourths of Southern whites held no slaves.) By what moral calculus can people who are not even descended from slaveowners be said to owe a debt for slavery?

The complications multiply. Should all present-day blacks be eligible for reparations? Even those, like blacks of Caribbean origin, whose forbears weren't American slaves? Even those whose forbears *owned* slaves? In 1830, the Census counted 3,775 free blacks who owned 12,740 slaves: 171 years later, who owes reparations to whom? And what of the millions of blacks with some white ancestry? Or the many whites with some black ancestry? Does Tiger Woods pay reparations? Or does he collect?

Reparations advocates brush aside such questions. All whites benefit to this day from the legacy of slavery, they argue; that is why it is fair to demand reparations from all of them.

But the uncomfortable truth is that every American is an indirect beneficiary of slavery -- and of every other condition, good and evil, that built America into the wealthiest nation in history.

"If you add up all the income black Americans earn and consider us as a separate nation, we'd be the 13th or 14th richest nation" on earth, says Walter Williams, a George Mason University economist. "Blacks have benefited from the fact of slavery, because we have far greater freedom and far higher incomes that we could ever find in Africa."

Keith Richburg makes a related point in "Out of America," the memoir he wrote after three years of covering Africa for The Washington Post. Africa is nightmarish, he concluded bluntly -- a land of cruelty, disease, dictatorship, and death. As a black American, he condemns the slave trade that kidnapped his ancestor four centuries ago and shipped him west in chains. But he also knows that slavery made his good American life possible. He is pained whenever he sees yet another scene of modern Africans in misery. "But most of all," he writes, "I think: Thank G-d my ancestor got out, because, now, I am not one of them."

Slavery was a monstrous evil. And yet without it, the history of blacks in America -- the greatest success story of any black people, ever -- could never have occurred. That is a credit to be deducted before any bill for reparations is presented.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment on this column by clicking here.

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