Reparations for Slavery: Unjust or Just?
by Nathan Kidanemariam, Form V
5 min. read — March 24, 2022
Reparations for slavery is the idea to recompense the slaves that were shipped to America and their descendants for the abuses they have suffered under U.S Law. The call for reparations began in colonial times and became popular after the Civil War and Emancipation. While some descendants and former slaves have received reparations, many have not, and they blame it on the U.S.’ failure in understanding or creating a lasting policy. This failure has kept the reparation controversy alive. Many activists and public leaders continue to ask for some form of compensation for their hard work and injustices caused by the system.
The topic of reparations has its roots in the abolitionist movement in the United States. During the Colonial era, Quakers became the first to free their slaves and compensate them by cash payments and sharecropping. They saw this as a way of paying back the slaves for their hard work and making amends for owning them in the first place. The debate over slavery played a crucial role in the conscience of the Founding Fathers, who understood that owning them was contrary to the constitution. By 1808 importing slaves to the U.S. was made illegal and led to the end of the transatlantic slave trade. A few years later, there was increasing pressure for the South to free their slaves. This became the abolitionist movement, and from it emerged the call for reparations. They believed that the crime of slavery should be terminated and the slave must be paid back for all their wrongdoings. They also wanted to let the African Americans know that they are worth something. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, which strengthened the push for reparations. The end of the Civil War meant an end to slavery. It also became a reconstruction period for the South. The devastated South was rebuilding its economy without slave labor. In the North there were calls for direct reparations which proposed that Confederate farms should be handed over to the slaves that worked for them. This allowed 400,000 acres of Confederate lands to be given to 18,000 freed slaves.
The idea of reparations is rooted in the claim that only white people have benefitted from slavery, and that is not entirely true. Slave labor created wealth for Americans, so it must have also created wealth for the first African Americans to step foot on U.S. soil and their descendants. In addition to this, only a small percentage of people in the North had owned slaves. In the South, 1 in 5 white people owned slaves. Many treated them fairly and freed them after a while. No one can deny that some slaves suffered at the hands of their cruel masters, and it was wrong for the government to wait a long time to apologize and help the slaves, but why should those who have no connection to the events that took place back then pay for the damage? Why should their descendants owe a debt to the people their ancestors most likely freed? What about the descendants of all the Union soldiers that fought to free the remaining slaves? They gave their lives for the cause. Should they not also be paid back in some way? This idea of reparations is illogical because present America is a diverse society, and tracing the descendants of slaves will be a painstakingly challenging task. America is a society of mixed races, and because of that, it would be impossible to find each person related to a slave.
Not all white people supported the practice of slavery. Many actively campaigned against it like the Abolitionists and those that lost their lives for it such as the Union army members. It is important to note that freed African Americans also had slaves working under them. By paying them back, the government would be showing its support for the practice of slavery. The supporters of this ideology believe that slavery is the sole reason why Black Americans face so many problems. This might be right because there is evidence that African Americans struggled to be where they are socially, politically, and economically. Nevertheless, it has been over a century since slavery was outlawed, and many have risen to a high social, political, and economic level regardless of what their ancestors went through. The Black middle class is thriving and larger than the underclass. This shows that the economic problems they have faced are a result of a lack of determination and weakness of character rather than the effects of slavery.
Since reparations favor certain groups of American society, it can cause further division among the American people. Most reparation funds will come from the white taxpayers, who will feel annoyed for being made to suffer for the mistakes they did not commit, and in turn, will most likely cause an increase in racism. Some supporters of reparations also forget that most white people and black people came to the country after slavery had long been abolished. So which groups of white people will be made to pay? How will the government identify who was or who wasn’t here? Hence, if this ideology is promoted it can threaten the unity between the American community.
To end this debate and restore unity, Americans must face the real facts and accept that, although it is a good way of compensating those who suffered under the rule of their evil masters, their descendants have become multiracial and have moved up in the world. To deal with this issue correctly, the government should create economic programs to help the Black community and close the gap between their white counterparts.