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NYT: It Is Time for Reparations

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

New York Times editor Nikole Hannah-Jones thinks all non-African-Americans owe her money, and she is sick and tired of waiting for us to pay up. It’s really that simple.


In a lengthy essay in The New York Times Magazine titled “What is Owed,” she makes almost word-for-word the case many others have made for race-based reparations payable to African-Americans. And the arguments are mostly based on intellectually dishonest distortions of facts and very unethical moral assumptions.

“At the time of the Civil War, the value of the enslaved human beings held as property added up to more than all of this nations’ railroads and factories combined," she writes. "And yet, enslaved people saw not a dime of this wealth. They owned nothing and were owed nothing from all that had been built from their toil.”

Well, this may be deliberately misleading, or it may just reflect Hannah-Jones’ ignorance. In 1861 the railroads were still relatively small, and manufacturing was still a minuscule fraction of the American economy. So, to say that the slaves were more valuable than two relatively unimportant sectors of the economy in 1861 is not particularly meaningful. Also, she fails to notice that when the slaves were freed, the slaveowners irretrievably lost that capital represented by their slaveholdings. The slaves themselves were given that capital, in the form of their freedom (which of course was long overdue).

But Hannah-Jones nowhere mentions or acknowledges that it was a Republican President and a Republican Congress that passed the 13th Amendment to free the slaves. It’s the same old story for leftists who hate America: All Bad, Nothing Good.


It has been 155 years since the abolition of slavery. And it has been about seven decades since the last of the former slaves died. And there are exceedingly few Americans who are descended from the antebellum white planter class.

This is the key problem with reparations for slavery. All of the people who suffered the wrongs of slavery are long dead. Their children are long dead. The children of their children are long dead. Ms. Hannah-Jones great-great-great grandfathers or grandmothers would have spent their childhood in servitude; only her great-great-great-great-great grandfathers and grandmothers would have died a slave. But Hannah-Jones wants to collect for wrongs done to people she has never known, much less any wrong she has personally suffered.

And who should pay? If the theory is that the labor of the slaves was stolen (which morally speaking is certainly true), who was it stolen by? There can be only one answer to this question: the slaveowners. The white population of the Confederacy was just about five million. Most slaves were held in bondage on large plantations, and assuming the average plantation held 150 slaves, then almost all of the South’s three million slaves were owned by a mere 20,000 whites. And they are also long dead. It’s a case with no living plaintiffs and no living defendants.

None of this matters for Hannah-Jones. All non-African Americans are guilty, and all are responsible for compensating her for the wrongs of the antebellum slaveowners.


“It does not matter if your ancestors engaged in slavery or if you just immigrated here two weeks ago.”

So, a young woman who has just immigrated to America from Korea, or a family that just immigrated from Jamaica, is obliged to pay money to Hannah-Jones because some long-dead slaveowner once owned Hannah-Jones’ great-great-great-great grandparents? Three hundred million people are morally responsible for the sins of 20,000 people 155 years ago? If we are going to adopt a policy of collective responsibility based purely on African-American or non-African-American, then I want compensation from her for the dozen or so times I was mugged or assaulted by African-Americans when I lived in Brooklyn.

And assuming the demand for reparations will cost at least several trillion dollars, where will the money come from? Who is going to pay? Hannah-Jones has an easy answer to this question.

“Reparations are not about punishing white Americans, and white Americans are not the ones who would pay for them," she writes. "Reparations are a societal obligation in a nation where our Constitution sanctioned slavery…. And so it is the federal government that pays.”

Well, that’s a relief. Oh, except where will the federal government get the money?

Now, Hannah-Jones does correctly point out that African-Americans suffered employment discrimination prior to the mid-1960s, and that they suffered from practices such as redlining, all long-ago outlawed. But she does not care to mention the massive sums of government money given to African-Americans since the 1960s or the huge racial preferences they receive in university admissions.


Hannah-Jones goes on to cite an academic study purporting to show that African-Americans themselves are entirely blameless for their lower incomes and wealth.

“Americans, they write, tend to explain away or justify persistent racial inequality by ignoring the ‘tailwinds that have contributed to their economic success while justifying inequalities of wealth and poverty by invoking the role of individuals’ traits and skills as explanations for these disparities.’”

In other words, according to Yale University professors, “individuals’ traits and skills” have no effect on life outcomes.

Ironically, she cites another study that documents lower incomes for African-Americans, but she omits the study’s explanations for the difference. This is why dissecting faulty arguments sometimes requires reading the footnotes.

“First, different life trajectories – lower levels of human capital, weaker attachment to the labor market, poorer health, and less stable family structures – can lead to differences in income which in turn affect asset accumulation," according to the study.

These are long-established facts, but which are extremely inconvenient for radical activists. In plain English, poor work skills, not seeking work, alcohol and drugs, and children growing up without fathers are the real primary factors that explain high rates of poverty among African-Americans. The study also notes:  

“Fourth, high rates of incarceration, particularly among black men, impede wealth by lowering family incomes, imposing legal costs, and incurring debts.”


When a third of African-American men have felony convictions, I think it is not unfair to say these men carry some responsibility for their own relatively lower incomes and wealth and the poverty endured by their children.

Reparations for slavery endured by people long dead is based on a terrible moral premise: some people today deserve compensation for wrongs inflicted on entirely different people, in the long-ago past. Intellectually, it’s based on a flimsy edifice constructed from lies, distortions, and half-truths. Politically, it is extremely divisive and will tear this country apart.

But: there is a powerful lobby behind reparations. It’s not just a far-fetched proposal pushed by the most radical of BLM activists. Prestigious foundations and think-tanks, elite universities, influential media outlets like the New York Times, and more and more of the Democratic Party establishment are lining up to make reparations payments a reality. And reparations may be just the start of much more extortionate demands to come.

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