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On Reparations: Part I

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The following is part one of a two-part column:

Do you think there should be white privilege tax? If there was one, who should get the money?

When Fox News asked these questions in man-on-the-street interviews awhile back most of us thought it was a joke. Including Fox.


Times have changed.

These days it looks like you can’t be a serious contender for the Democratic nomination for president without endorsing reparations for slavery. Students at Georgetown University just voted to increase their tuition to pay reparations to the descendants of 272 enslaved Africans the Jesuits sold nearly two centuries ago to secure the school’s future.

In what follows, I want to examine the case for reparations logically – the way students might parse ethical considerations in a philosophy class. 

Gene Theory. The idea of original sin is usually thought to have started with Augustine. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. As their descendants, we are all tainted. Augustine didn’t know about genes, of course. Had he known, he would have said that original sin is transmitted genetically.

Adam and Eve sinned against God. But what about one man’s sin against another? The first notable transgression of that type was Cain’s killing of Abel. 

The Bible tells us that Cain had children and by some accounts so did Abel. So, morally speaking, can we say that the children of Cain owe a debt to the children of Abel? Do Abel’s children have a claim against the offspring of Cain?

There are cultures where claims and debts of this sort are recognized. If a member of one clan commits an offense against a member of another, the entire clan of the offender is expected to right the wrong – generally through some type of payment.


The American system of justice, however, is very individualistic. Each of us is assumed to be born morally tabula rasa. We don’t inherit the sins of our parents. We can’t be punished for their crimes. Ditto for brothers and sisters and anyone else we might be related to.

Even in systems where the actions of individuals are assumed to create claims and obligations for the entire groups to which they belong, that only works so long as the groups have clear identities.

The descendants of Cain and Abel do not form two distinct groups. If the myth is true, we are all descendants of both.

That’s not an abstract problem, by the way. Kamala Harris, a supporter of reparations, says that her ancestors in Haiti were slave owners. So, she appears to be a descendant of both slaves and slave owners. The same is true of a great many people who identify as black.

Then, there are the questions about how long a moral debt can linger and how to decide if it has been satisfied. Descendants of Abel might regard their ancestor’s life as priceless. If so, there may be no limit to what they are owed. The debt may linger even up to present day. Cain’s descendants might disagree, of course. Similar disagreements happened with the Hatfields and the McCoys. What started out with the stealing of a hog lasted for almost three decades and led to quite a few deaths.

Finally, there is the problem of cherry-picking history. Julian Castro is an advocate of the idea that moral claims and duties are biologically inherited. But he seems to think this idea only applies to blacks and whites. If his premise is correct, anyone with Aztec ancestry should feel a bucketload of guilt. What the Aztecs did to their victims was far worse than anything the slave owners did.


Inheritance Theory. As I show in the next post, there is a huge differed between costs and benefits for our ancestors and cost and benefits for us, today. One way to argue for reparations is to argue that your ancestor trespassed against my ancestor and, even though both are long since dead, I inherit the claim. My claim is independent of how well off you and I are today.

In the American system of justice, however, children are not responsible for the debts of their parents. No matter what your ancestor owed mine, the obligation doesn’t pass on to the next generation.

An exception to that rule is an asset that could be part of an estate.

For example, the Nazis stole valuable art from Jewish victims. Today, their ancestors assert ownership claims. These claims are based on a legal trail, however. The art was legally owned, and the transfer was part of their estates.

The problem with American slavery is that almost every claim that had a legal footing in the 19th Century, has long since been adjudicated. 

Social Justice Theory. A different approach is to step outside the law and argue that bad actors did bad things and the victims should be compensated on principle. 

An estimated 620,000 people died in the Civil War. I think the notion that the northern troops were fighting to free the slaves is a myth, but we all can agree that was the final outcome. So, who owes who what?

Surely, the soldiers who died to free the slaves in a war that never should have been necessary deserve some compensation. And what about all the property destruction? One of the more dramatic scenes in Gone with the Wind was the burning of Atlanta. Gen. Sherman’s scorched earth march from Atlanta to the sea was an act of terrorism. There was no military purpose. Most of Sherman’s victims were civilians – noncombatants who didn’t own slaves. Are they owed something?


If all these people deserve compensation, who is left to compensate them? The beneficiaries, perhaps. But who were they? Former slaves? How much money do you think they had?

What has all this got to do with anyone who is alive today? Almost nothing, as we show in the next post. 

To be continued.

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