America's Original Sin

Linda Chavez
Posted: May 30, 2001 12:00 AM
If it were possible to wipe out the legacy of slavery by writing a big, fat check, I'd be all for it. Who wouldn't be in favor of a simple solution to the problems that plague much of the African American community in America today -- especially since all of us are affected, not just blacks? Imagine, a one-time payment that would solve family breakdown, poverty and homicide among young, black males. But there are no easy solutions, and the payment of reparations to the descendants of slaves certainly isn't the answer. It's just more of the same liberal cure-all: Let government redistribute money from one group to try to solve the problems of another. The reparations movement got a big boost this week when one of America's most distinguished newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer, endorsed the concept in an editorial. But the real impetus behind the reparations campaign is the grievance industry -- that group of professional guilt-mongers who hope to enrich themselves by claiming to represent the downtrodden. There is no question that slavery indelibly stains American history. How is it that a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal could perpetuate a system in which some men owned others, like mere chattel? But 140,000 Union soldiers died to expiate slavery, so to suggest that no white Americans ever suffered for the sins of slavery is simply wrong. Still, slaves should have been compensated immediately after the Civil War for the great harm they endured. Congress promised, then failed to deliver, 40 acres and a mule to every former slave. The course of American history might well have been different had all the reforms promised to the Freedmen's Bureau been enacted. As it was, of the post-Civil War Amendments passed by Congress to right the wrongs of American slavery, only the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, was fully implemented. The 14th Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection of the laws, and the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed blacks the right to vote, were universally ignored in the Deep South and throughout much of the nation for more than 100 years after they were adopted. The failure to do what was right at the time has cost this country greatly. As Gunnar Myrdahl wrote more than 50 years ago in his great treatise on America's race problems, American Dilemma, virtually all of the social problems encountered in the black community can be traced back to slavery and the era of Jim Crow laws, which deprived blacks of their most basic rights. But the question is, how do you solve those problems now? Paying the descendants of slaves a monetary settlement today, more than 135 years after slavery ended, will do nothing. Nor is it possible to determine who should receive payments and who should pay them. Some African Americans are descended from persons who came to the United States long after slavery was abolished, including the thousands of Haitians, Dominicans and other Caribbean immigrants of the last 30 years. These person's ancestors may have been slaves in their native land, but should the United States have to pay for the sins of all slave-owning nations? More importantly, why should Americans whose ancestors did not benefit from slavery, or who may not even have lived in the United States at the time slavery existed, have to pay for these sins? Indeed it is a new variation on punishing the sons for the sins of the fathers to insist that all whites who live in the United States today must compensate all blacks who happen to live here now. Most whites are not descended from slave-owners. Nor are they the beneficiaries of ill-begotten gains from slavery, which hampered -- not helped -- the early American economy. The South remained an economic backwater from the 19th century until the modern civil rights era, in large part because the region failed to take advantage of its best resource: human capital. Discrimination on the basis of race is bad business, and the South failed to thrive until it put aside officially-sanctioned racism. Slavery will always remain America's Original Sin. But the best way to absolve ourselves is not by writing a check but by resolving never again to treat another human being as less than our equal because of the color of his skin.