Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government


Why the Descendants of Slaves Should not Receive Reparations


August 2000

by David Tucker

Congressman John Conyers (D, Michigan) and the City Councils of Chicago and Washington agree. The descendants of slaves in the United State should receive money to compensate them for the work their ancestors did as slaves. The Congressman and the City Councils are not alone apparently. An assortment of black activists, politicians and lobbying groups support the same cause.

There are a number of reasons why no one should take this demand seriously.

First and most important, the debt, whatever it may have been, has already been repaid. Abraham Lincoln made this clear in his Second Inaugural. There he argued that it would be just if the Civil War consumed all the wealth piled up by the slaves and if every drop of slave blood drawn by the slaveholder’s whip was paid for by a drop drawn by a sword. It took the South decades, perhaps almost a century, to recover the wealth lost in the war. The lives lost on both sides of course were never recovered. It was the sacrifices of those who fought and died in the war, Lincoln announced at Gettysburg, that would make possible a new birth of freedom in the United States. Every American, regardless of color, has benefited from that sacrifice.

If Lincoln’s principled moral accounting does not suffice, we might offer a more political argument against reparations. When those arguing for these payments ask the descendants of the Africans who enslaved their fellow Africans and then sold them to European slave traders to make them, then Americans might consider listening to arguments about reaparations. And if the descendants of Africans still in Africa involved in the slave trade paid reparations, then the U.S. government might consider doing the same.

But in fact, we are already paying reparations in a way. Affirmative action programs have been in place for over 30 years. They are very expensive. Federal, state and local governments spend money administering and enforcing them. Businesses spend more to make sure they are following the rules and defending themselves from administrative and legal action when someone thinks they are not. We also pay costs from increased incompetence and lower morale in the workplace.

Estimates of these costs vary. Some reach as high as hundreds of billions of dollars. But even if we accept lower estimates and remember that women and other minorities benefit from affirnative action policies, it it still clear that payments of tens of billions of dollars annually have been made to black Americans for decades. The fact that these payments do not seem to be doing much, if any, good, does not alter the fact that they are being made.

Finally, when considering the question of reparations we should return to a point suggested by Lincoln. All blacks descended from slaves are more than compensated for the damage of slavery by the good fortune of living in the United States. Every black in the United States is much better off economically, legally, politically, and morally than any black living in Africa. This is a debt of course that all Americans, not just blacks, owe and it can only be repaid by being a good citizen.

David Tucker is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor at the United States Naval Postgraduate School.