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Debate: Reparations for slavery

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Should countries with legacies of slavery compensate the descendents of slaves?

Background and context

Slavery is the use or the threat of violence to make another do work without compensation, and usually involves the ownership of one person by another. It was abolished in the USA in 1865 and was universally abolished by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, although it has persisted in some countries down to the present. The debate that commonly takes place is United States-specific: should government and/or industry be made to make reparations for slavery? Undoubtedly, there are arguments to be had about slavery outside the USA – especially as it undoubtedly still occurs today – as debt bondage (where an individual is used as collateral on a debt), forced prostitution, forced labour and chattel slavery. However, this article covers the USA debate on compensation for historic slavery, as it is the one that is held and discussed most frequently, and because the level of support for reparations is high enough there for it to be a possibility. Some proponents of reparations advocate payment into a fund aimed at assisting blacks today (for example, a fund to help attend college). Others favour direct payment to descendants. This is a matter for the proposition team. In the British Parliamentary format, the model might also include a concrete amount. A similar debate is had as to whether the reparations should be made by colonial powers to the nations they colonised. This is a separate Debatabase topic, although some of the principles underlying the arguments overlap.

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Argument #1

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Yes

Slaves performed involuntary labour without pay. That is wrong. They were entitled to compensation and, being deceased, that money should go to their descendants. This principle doesn’t cease to be true over time – truth and justice don’t have sell-by dates. The most important thing to establish is the principle of reparation being right. The how is less important. A reasonable approach would be to say that individuals would have to establish a direct link between themselves and a slave (many can). The fact that doing so will be difficult does not mean that it should not happen. Dwelling on the practical difficulties is no real opposition. Practicalities come second: the focus should be on righting this wrong.

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No

Who is to benefit? How distant a descendent can one be, and still receive compensation? An eighth? A sixteenth? Many people who are or appear to be completely white, some of whom perhaps have no idea that an ancestor of theirs was a slave or even that they were coloured, will benefit from this. This is made more likely by the fact that many slaves were effectively white – records show slaves who were as little as one 64th black were sold. Plenty of people who are descended from those that suffered cannot provide concrete proof – or, as discussed above, don’t even know it. If there has ever been a case for slavery reparations, it would have been in the generation or two after slavery ended. Now, it’s absurd.

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Argument #2

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Yes

There doesn’t need to be a quantification of how much any individual suffered – all suffered the same gross indignity of being denied their freedom. Denial of liberty is a grievous wrong. Arguments about the supposed benefits of slavery for those who suffered under it are speculative and insulting, set against the great suffering generations of African-Americans endured. Far from being a land of opportunity, the United States continued to oppress black people for a hundred years after the formal end of slavery. Even today, African-Americans are the poorest social group. Finally, a comparison between the USA and Africa today is ill-informed: many of the problems of Africa can be traced to the slave trade and to the colonialism which followed it.

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No

How would one quantify the debt concerned, if there is one? Some individuals suffered much more than others. Should some descendents therefore receive more? On one hand, considering the horrors of slavery, would any amount ever really be compensation? On the other hand, some slaves benefited from being transported to a land of opportunity – and their descendents certainly gained. How can they be said to be worse off than the descendents of those left in disease and war-ravaged Africa? How would that be allowed for?

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Argument #3

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Yes

There is a perfectly reasonable case that the state should pay. The wealth now enjoyed by the USA stems in part from the use of slaves. It development wouldn’t have been as fast, its GDP would not be so high, it would not have so much money. Some of it should be paid back. If links can be established to corporations, then those corporations should pay. Pointing to the fact that individuals alive today didn’t keep slaves is simplistic – they have benefited from living in an environment whose wealth was built on the backs of slaves.

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No

Who is to pay? Many individuals and corporations benefited from slave ownership, and the wealth it generated has trickled down into investments, bank accounts and business funds today. Should that money be traced? It’s a huge undertaking. But why should the state pay, when the primary benefit was not to the state, but to individuals? The current government and state grew out of the Union, which opposed slavery. Furthermore, the state’s money comes from taxes which are levied on a population that never kept slaves. No-one should be punished for something they haven’t done. Even if the principle of ancestral responsibility holds, reparation is still absurd. Large numbers of those whose ancestry can be traced back as pre-1865 Americans will have ancestors who didn’t own slaves, and many will have fought to end slavery. Many in the USA – whites, latinos, and blacks too – are descended from people that came to the USA long after slavery ended. It’s illogical for them to be required to pay.



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Argument #4

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Yes

The fact that this cause is right hardly negates the possibility of other correct claims, too – there may well be other worthy causes for reparation, but that is another debate. This is about total ownership of human beings within society, not the conquest and colonial rule of people elsewhere. It is also very different from wrongs visited on individuals for a purpose that is essentially moral, like wrongful court judgments. Slavery was the state-sanctioned and enforced objectification and abuse of a part of humanity based on the colour of their skin – that’s unique in US history.

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No

Why just this one issue? Why not Native Americans (‘Indians’)? Or the population of the Philippines, for their time under US rule? Or native Hawaiians? If individuals can establish that wrong was done to an ancestor (e.g. wrongful imprisonment) are they entitled to compensation? This is either inconsistent, or the start of an absolutely huge slippery slope.

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Argument #5

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Yes

There are precedents for this kind of compensation. The notion of national responsibility for the acts of the past is displayed in Holocaust reparation – why is the suffering of Africans different to the suffering of Jews? Germany has paid billions not only to individual Jews, but also to the State of Israel. Compensation was also paid in 2001 to victims of the Tulsa race riots of the 1920s – or to their descendants.

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No

Nobody now living was harmed by the activities we’re talking about. Nobody now living committed them. So there’s no responsibility, and no grievance to be redressed. We don’t believe that the punishment for the sins of the father should be passed on the son. We don’t believe in compensation where no harm exists. Holocaust reparation or the compensation given to Japanese internees was money given for the suffering of identified individuals. In the Tulsa riots, compensation was either paid to the individuals or to their first generation descendants, directly affected by violence done to their parents.

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Argument #6

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Yes

This money would be more than symbolic – it could be the means for beginning the restoration of the fortunes of a minority that has been long oppressed. This is fair – because the effects of slavery are felt today.

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No

In effect, this is an argument for aid – and aid should be given based on current need, not past events. Anyway, a system abolished before anyone in the USA was born cannot be said to be responsible for the problems facing African-Americans today.

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Argument #7

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Yes

This isn’t about victimhood or singling out a particular minority for special charitable treatment – this is money owed, and money people are entitled to. It is not the causing of a division, but rather the healing of a still-open wound. That supposed symbol of freedom and liberty, the US Capitol building was constructed by slaves. How can African-Americans truly feel part of the free society and democracy in which they live until this wrong is publicly admitted and righted?

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No

It is divisive to push an agenda that suggests that African Americans are still so different that they can and should be singled out. Why encourage those that weren’t born at the time of slavery to see themselves as victims in a society that actually offers them huge opportunities? Why suggest that whites should feel responsible for the actions of long dead whites (ancestors or not)? The proposal encourages racial stigma and groupthink ghettoisation. It is racist to suggest that people owe others money simply because they were born a particular colour. We should be looking beyond race. We should forgive and forget. This discussion drags us back to old problems, opens old wounds, and makes racial divisions and tensions more likely.

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Argument #8

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Yes

[If in a debate with a model, counter this argument by running a case with an amount that isn’t absurd, either to a fund or to individuals. After all, reparations are about acknowledgement and an attempt at compensation, not an attempt to pay off all the labour of slaves in its entirety. If in a principles debate, agree that the amount has to be practicable, but that it is not the key issue.]

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No

The amount concerned is absurd. Harper’s magazine estimates the total of reparations due at over 100 trillion dollars, based on 222,505,049 hours of forced labour between 1619 and 1865, subject to compound interest since. Dr Robert Brock, a proponent of reparations, suggests $500,000 per descendant. Given the fact that most African Americans have at least one slave ancestor somewhere in their family tree, this equals a mere $15 trillion – or a surtax of $50,000 on every non-African American man, woman and child in the USA (higher than the median family annual income).

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Argument #9

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Yes

Companies can be traced back over many generations, and can be proven to have profited from slavery. It’s fair to take money from them. Recent settlements over the use of slave labour in World War II provide a clear precedent, as do legal liabilities for asbestos injuries.

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No

Many of the companies advocates suggest suing for reparations are only tangentially connected to the slave trade by long-forgotten predecessors. FleetBoston, for example, which grew from hundreds of predecessor banks, has a single predecessor with a loan that went to a slave trader. Should they be liable? Furthermore, most corporations don’t have records from 150 years go. They’re not obliged to.

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Argument #10

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Yes

Slavery was a terrible, fundamental wrong. Even if legal at the time, any member of humanity should have realised that it was his duty to oppose it. It’s the same position as with Nazi executioners – even though following an order to kill a Jew might have been legal under the Nazi regime, it was nevertheless wrong.

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No

Without denying the fact that slavery was very wrong, it was legal in the South between 1789 and 1865. It is wrong to pass laws that criminalise conduct that was legal when originally performed – the Constitution enshrines this in its prohibition of ex post facto laws.

Motions

  • This House would make reparations for slavery
  • This House believes that the descendents of slaves should be compensated
  • This House calls for the USA to compensate the descendants of slaves
  • This House would right historic wrongs
  • That we should compensate the descendants of slaves

In legislation, policy, and the world

See also

External links and resources

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