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On Reparations: Part II

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

The following is part two in a two-part series. The first part can be found here

In a previous post, I began analyzing arguments for reparations for slavery the way students would analyze the argument in philosophy class on ethics. This is a continuation.


Collective Guilt Theory. In World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry. This was done under the racist premise that Japanese Americans were likely sympathizers with the Japanese combatants with whom we were at war. Internees not only lost their freedom for the duration of the war; they also lost property and suffered significant economic harm. 

Then, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, offering a formal apology and $20,000 of compensation to each of 26,550 survivors who filed claims. 

This is an example of reparations for acts that were possibly legal at the time, but wrong. Compensation was only paid to survivors (not to their descendants) and was paid by the entity that did the bad act – the government.

However, the payments were made with money collected though general taxation. That means the funds did not come out of the pockets of the people who made the bad decision (Roosevelt and others in power). Instead some of the burden was born by people who didn’t vote for Roosevelt and who opposed the internment at the time it happened. The bulk of the burden was borne by taxpayers who weren’t even alive at the time of the transgression. And (most troubling of all) some of the funds came from taxpayers who were themselves Japanese American.

If you find this a bit morally muddy, get ready. Reparations for slavery would be much worse.

Derivative Justice. Here is a completely different line of argument. Your ancestor committed bad act toward my ancestor, and I am worse off today because of it. Therefor, you owe me something.


Note: this argument is not based on my ancestors being worse off. It’s based on me being worse off.

The argument requires us to imagine an alternative universe: how things would have been better for me today, but for your ancestor’s bad act. One problem: almost no one in the United States today is worse off than they would have been if their ancestors had remained in some other country.

This is the paradox of derivative justice.

Take Hong Kong. The British used brute force to assert control over the island years ago – just as they used military might to assert control over India, Singapore, the Americas and so many other places that in its heyday the sun really never did set on the British empire.

But Hong Kong was very well run by the British governors. It had free trade, a flat tax and one of the freest economies in the whole world. By the time it was turned over to China, per capita income in Hong Kong was higher than it was in Britain.

Although the victims of British imperialism in the past may have suffered, their descendants have prospered. Do people in Britain today owe people in Hong Kong something for the sins of the past? That’s one of the last things on anyone’s mind in either country.

The black writer John McWhorter explained in The New Republic that years ago black African kings sold other Africans to slave traders who brought them to the new world. On the derivative theory of justice, today’s descendants of the kings owe a debt to today’s descendants of the slaves. Yet, at least in the United States, the slave descendants are so much better off than the king’s descendants that the idea of such a moral debt seems impossible to accept.


Identity Theory. According to one report, only about one-third of the black students at Harvard are unambiguous descendants of American slaves. The other students had slave owners in their Heritage or were immigrants. Why does that matter? Because Harvard is hugely invested in the idea that its affirmative action program is atoning for sins of the past. It is horribly embarrassing to discover that you are admitting students who may have benefitted from slavery or foreigners whose ancestors may have actually sold blacks into slavery.

While she was on the faculty of Harvard (and for most of her adult life) Elizabeth Warren listed herself as a native American. Yet a DNA test revealed that she had no more Indian blood than any other average white American. The only difference is that normal people don’t go around putting “native American” on their employment applications, even if they are 1/16th Cherokee.

Welcome to the world of identity politics. It is here that we find a new argument for affirmative action, race-based preferences and, of course, reparations.

For lack of a better word, I will simply call this argument the racist argument.

Is it valid? It’s no more valid, I’m afraid, than any other racist argument.

Reparations and the Democratic Party. Are Black Americans suffering from oppressive discrimination today – as a result of slavery, or for any other reason? Brief answer:  In the marketplace, mainly no. In the political system, often yes.


Former Congressional Budget Office Director June O’Neill and her husband Dave have studied discrimination in the labor market exhaustively. Even though individuals may discriminate a lot, the market as a whole mainly does not. People with equal education and skills tend to get equal pay for equal work. In fact, black women workers tend to earn somewhat more than white women, all other things equal.

In the political sphere, things are different. As I wrote in a previous post, in every major city in the country, black families all too often are living in the worse housing, are sending their children to the worst schools and are subject to the worst environmental hazards. In every case, these conditions are the result of political decisions made by local governments run by Democrats. Often, by black Democrats.

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