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The Insanity of Reparations

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The latest rage of the left is “reparations,” which is the name given to an issue that has become a litmus test for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Two weeks ago, most of the major 2020 candidates showed up at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and groveled before a group of professional social justice warriors and assorted race baiters.

Without missing a beat, every candidate in attendance signed on to the idea of supporting Congresswoman’s Sheila Jackson Lee’s bill which will “study” the idea of giving money to African-Americans as atonement for the practice of slavery over 150 years ago.

But the word “reparations” is being used improperly by Sharpton and the left. Google’s online dictionary defines the term as “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wrong.” That definition clearly refers to parties in the present tense, meaning actual persons who are wronged would receive money from actual persons who wronged them. But the reparations movement wants people who have committed no injustice or crime to pay people who had no crime or injustice committed against them.

A more accurate description of what the left is proposing would be “bribery,” since that’s exactly what is occurring. We are witnessing presidential candidates promise money to radical black activists in exchange for supporting their candidacies. Nothing more.

Indeed, Trump’s rising support among blacks probably has something to do with why this issue has suddenly burst onto the leftist political scene. The left is hoping this issue will prevent any further hemorrhaging of the black vote.

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Nevertheless, this issue bears scrutiny. When it comes to reparations — especially reparations for those claiming to be descendants of slaves — the issue is fraught with complications, not the least of which is who today should qualify for a reparation payment. How will that be determined? Will there be pervasive DNA testing? And who will be tested? Are there accurate records available that will allow recipients to unequivocally trace their lineage back to enslaved ancestors? How will those records be vetted? Or will it just be enough that an individual is black or looks black and is therefore entitled to reparations based on his or her presumed race? And how black must one be? Do you need to be 100 percent black? Or does 50 percent, or 25 percent, or 10 percent qualify?

Indeed, there are millions of African-Americans living today with zero connection to slavery because their ancestors immigrated here post-Civil War. Should they benefit from reparations? What about blacks who owned slaves? The first legal slave owner in American history was a black tobacco farmer named Anthony Johnson who owned a 250-acre tobacco farm in Virginia. While Johnson was not the first slave owner in American history, he was, according to historian R. Halliburton Jr., among the first to have his lifetime ownership of a slave legally sanctioned by a court. In 1654, a civil court found that Johnson, in fact, owned five indentured servants for life, an outcome historian Halliburton calls “one of the first known legal sanctions of slavery — other than as a punishment for crime.”

In fact, the 1830 U.S. Census shows there were 319,599 free blacks in the United States that year and 3,775 of them owned a total of 12,760 slaves! Thirty years later, the 1860 census shows that the largest black slave owner in South Carolina was William Ellison, a wealthy plantation owner and cotton gin manufacturer. He owned 63 black slaves, making him the largest of the 171 black slaveholders in South Carolina.

Indeed, Halliburton has found that free black slaveholders could be found at one time or another “in each of the thirteen original states and later in every state that countenanced slavery.” Surely, the descendants of these slave-holding blacks should not benefit from reparations, right?

Then there’s the dicey issue of Native Americans who owned slaves. After all, Elizabeth Warren is advocating reparations for Native Americans — but what if they owned slaves? Fear not; some did. According to historian Tiya Miles, the number of slaves held by Cherokees was about 600 at the start of the 19th century and grew to about 1,500 at the time of government-mandated westward removal in 1838-1839 — otherwise known as the “Trail of Tears.” Miles writes, “Slavery inched its way slowly into Cherokee life…. and when a white man moved into a Native location, usually to work as a trader or as an Indian agent, he would own black slaves. If such a person also had a child with a native woman, as was not uncommon, the half-European, half-Native child would inherit the enslaved people (and their children) under white law, as well as the right to use tribal lands under tribal law.” It was a combination that put Cherokee slaveholders in a position to expand their wealth, eventually operating large farms and plantations. In addition, Miles writes that as the 19th century began, Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws held some 3,500 slaves.

But what about other groups that suffered the loss of various rights throughout American history? There were Irish slaves. Authors Don Jordan and Michael Walsh in “White Cargo,” have investigated the Irish slave trade and determined that between “1600 unto 1699, there were many more Irish sold as slaves than African. There are records of Irish slaves well into the 18th century .. Irish slaves were less expensive than Africans, and treated with more cruelty…” Should we set up a fund to pay all Irish-Americans?

What about women? They were not allowed to vote until 1920 so they were deprived of this basic right for the first 100 years of America. Chinese laborers were forced to build many of the first railroads in conditions that were slave-like. Should their relatives receive reparations? Poor whites in Appalachia suffered all kinds of discrimination; should we pay their descendants? What about all the Italian-American, German-American, and Japanese-Americans who were placed into internment camps during WWII? Should all these groups receive funds?

Actually, Japanese-Americans did indeed receive reparations when in 1988 President Reagan authorized the payments of $20,000 to each Japanese still living who had been interned in camps during WWII. The U.S. government eventually paid over $1.6 billion in reparations to 82,219 Japanese-Americans. But this is very different from today’s reparations proposals. These reparations were paid to genuine Japanese-Americans who experienced life in the camps and who lost both their freedom and property as a result. To compare this to paying reparations to descendants of enslaved black Americans from 156 years ago is nonsensical, given the complications we have already detailed.

Then there’s the issue of who should pay? All Americans? If all Americans end up paying reparations via a federal budget expenditure, then won’t we be forcing the black descendants of slaves to pay for the sin of slavery through the taxes they pay? If the left tries to limit those who must pay to whites, a host of other problems arise, aside from such a proposal likely being ruled unconstitutional. Which whites would pay? If one’s forbearers were active in the abolition movement, would they have to pay? What about the descendants of whites who died in the Civil War fighting the Confederacy?

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Should the descendants of white slaves pay reparations? Authors Jordan and Walsh in “White Cargo,” discovered that 300,000 whites were shipped to America as slaves. Most were urchins swept up from London’s streets and shipped to America to work on tobacco farms. The authors write, “The first slaves imported into the American colonies were 100 white children in 1619, four months before the arrival of the first shipment of black slaves.”

Indeed, most whites of that era did not own slaves. Slavery was mostly engaged in by the wealthy plantation class and some factory owners. Without doing an in-depth genealogical study, it is likely the majority of non-blacks alive today in America can be traced to those who took no part in slavery or who immigrated to America after the Civil War. What about those of mixed race? Unless the proponents are advocating the government spend billions in genealogical researching tracking down the living descendants of slave owners, there is no logical way to hold responsible for slavery anyone alive today.

Moreover, the reparations ideology assumes America did nothing to stop slavery or address how blacks were treated in the years since the end of slavery. Do the deaths of 364,5111 Union soldiers who gave their lives in the Civil War not count? What about all the civil rights acts supported and passed by the GOP in the 1960s? Let’s not forget such legislation was opposed by almost all Democrats at the time. Indeed, the KKK was a Democratic Party creation as were Jim Crow laws and the segregation movement in general. The Republican Party was founded to oppose slavery; the Democratic Party was founded to defend slavery. It would be easier and perhaps more accurate to assess all Democrats a reparations fee for their history of support for slavery and subsequently blocking the passage of civil rights laws. If the GOP wanted to use this issue to educate Americans about the true history of the Democratic Party, they should amend the reparations bill to do just that. And then kill the bill.

We also should be concerned about the precedent this silly idea would create. If the government actually starts paying reparations to descendants of people who may or may not have been enslaved, other groups will soon line up at the trough. It will never end. William A. Jacobson of Cornell Law School sums up the argument perfectly: “If you can’t answer the question of why a Vietnamese boat person has to pay reparations for the conduct of white plantation owners more than a century earlier, then you can’t make the argument. If you can’t answer the question of why two successful black doctors living in a fashionable suburb should get reparations paid for by the white children of Appalachia, then you can’t make the argument.”

Reparations ideology is an insult to individual accountability and to the Western notion of justice. Rather, it is a system based upon the concept of identity politics whereby Americans are broken into groups and pitted against one another. Indeed, it is ironic that the left is pushing reparations at a time when leftist demagogues sermonize about racial healing. But rather than heal, the reparations issue will likely increase racial division. Forcing all Americans to pay for something that no one alive today supports is neither just nor moral. The reparations movement is just another scam by race hustlers who see billions, if not trillions of dollars, flowing into some giant reparations fund that they can manipulate and control in perpetuity.

But that won’t dissuade the author of the reparations bill from using this bill to divide Americans; After all, Jackson Lee is one of the most race-obsessed members of Congress. She once stated that Republicans invented some diseases to “kill black people,” and that the names given to hurricanes by meteorologists are racist. During a hearing involving NASA, she asked, “Will the Mars rover be able to show the flag the astronauts planted before?” When others corrected her publicly, her staff denounced them as “racists.” She also refers to herself as a “freed slave” and claims the Tea Party is a KKK group. In other words, she’s obsessed with racial hatred and therefore the perfect person to author a reparations bill.

Ronald E. Yates is an author of historical fiction novels, including the popular and award-winning Finding Billy Battles trilogy. It has won multiple awards, including the 2017 KCT International Literary Award, the 2017 John E. Weaver Excellent Reads Award for Historical Fiction, and the 2016 New Apple Literary Award in the Action/Adventure category. Ron was also an award-winning foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the University of Illinois where he also served as the Dean of the College of Media.

Steve Baldwin is the former California Assemblyman where he served as the Minority Whip and as Chairman of the Education Committee. He also served as Executive Director of the Council for National Policy. He is the author of the book, From Crayons to Condoms, the Ugly Truth About America’s Public Schools. 

The views expressed in this opinion article are those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by the owners of this website.

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