What Are They Owed?

David Tucker

August 1, 2002

Under the slogan "they owe us," a crowd reportedly numbering in the thousands rallied in Washington, DC over the weekend to press the case that the descendants of slaves should receive reparations. Those attending the rally differed over how much they should be given, and in what form, but nobody seemed to doubt that they were owed something because their distant ancestors were slaves. And they are owed not just money. "We don’t have the dignity and respect we deserve as humans," one participant in the rally told a reporter.

The claim that blacks are owed something to make up for the hardships of slavery raises many issues of justice and practicality. Why should those who never held slaves (Americans living now) have to pay reparations for slavery to those who were never slaves (blacks living now)? Can reparations or an official apology give blacks dignity and respect? Should recent non-black immigrants to the United States have to pay the reparations? Should recent black immigrants receive them? How long does a black have to have lived in the United States to get something? Should the descendants of blacks who held slaves receive reparations? If not, how will they be distinguished from other blacks? Indeed, who will decide who is a black and thus entitled to a payment? Won’t we have to set up an official office of race identification in order to determine who is black enough to receive a payment? Such an office could employ all those who for years oversaw the apartheid system in South Africa.

Perhaps recognizing the questionable character of the reparations claim, one press report quoted a participant saying that the purpose of the rally was to open a national dialogue on the issue. In that spirit, then, consider the following.

In 2000, the average life expectancy of a black in the United States was 72 years. In sub-Saharan Africa, it was 47 years.

In 2000, the per capita income of a black in the United States was $14,397.

In 2000, the per capita income in sub-Saharan Africa was $470.

From 1970 to 1999, the per capita income of blacks in the United States grew 91%, while in the same period the per capita income of whites grew 65%.

No group that came to the United States suffered more than those brought as slaves. No group suffered as much once they got here. But like all those who have come to the United States, blacks are better off here than they would be in the place where they came from. In fact, blacks are much better off.

One of the ironies of slavery is that more than a century after it ended, the descendants of those brought forcibly to the United States now enjoy a freedom of opportunity and an economic and personal security unknown in their ancestral home. It is the success of American blacks in asserting their freedom and seizing the opportunities of our way of life—despite the centuries of disenfranchisement and the century of discrimination that followed emancipation—that establishes their dignity as human beings and fellow citizens. Should African-Americans now demand "reparations" for what they have already overcome, they might well sacrifice the respect that their civil rights struggle has earned.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.