The reparations question will not go away. Black congressional leaders are criticizing the Bush administration for not taking a larger role in the upcoming World Conference Against Racism, which will take up the question of reparations.
A group of black lawyers, including Johnnie Cochran, has announced plans to sue large corporations they claim have benefited from slavery, as well as the federal government. And on college campuses across America, David Horowitz has caused a ruckus by publishing -- or vainly attempting to publish in college newspapers -- an advertisement listing 10 reasons to oppose reparations.
The idea will not die because many parts of the black community are sunk in what Prof. James McWhorter calls the "cult of victimology." But the truth is that family structure is a far better predictor of success in America today than race, or the condition of servitude of one's ancestors.
Black intact families enjoy incomes and standards of living indistinguishable from whites. But only 30 percent of black children are born to married couples today. Is this family disintegration itself a legacy of slavery? Doubtful. As economist Walter Williams writes, "In 1880, in Philadelphia, two-parent family structure was: black, 75.2 percent; Irish, 82.2 percent; German, 84.5 percent; native white American, 73.1 percent."
Slavery was a crime and a sin. The Founders knew it. Jefferson said, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."
But no one alive today was ever a slave or the son of slaves, neither is anyone alive today a slaveowner or son of a slaveowner. The intervening generations have swelled the population with immigrants, so that a majority of whites living in America today have no ancestors who lived in America at the time of slavery. Only one third of the citizens of the Confederacy (and, believe it or not, 12,000 free Southern blacks) owned slaves.
If we were to attempt to categorize Americans as oppressors or victims based on their skin color, we will sink into an impossible morass. Millions of Americans are of mixed racial ancestry -- many due to the widespread practice of slaveowners raping or taking slaves as unofficial concubines, but many others the product of mixed marriages in the generations since. How should these people be counted? And what about those, like Tiger Woods, who have four or five races in their family tree? Shall they pay with one hand and receive with the other?
Just since the 1950s, American taxpayers have spent, according to Williams' calculations, roughly $6.1 trillion on the war on poverty, education, housing and medical care -- all aimed mostly at relieving the poverty and hopelessness so prevalent in the black slums. Since the 1960s, the U.S. government and virtually the entire private sector has maintained a system of racial preferences and reduced standards in employment and education aimed at eradicating the "legacy of slavery."
But of course, that legacy has not prevented blacks from excelling in sports, entertainment and music. Eighty percent of blacks are now in the middle and upper classes. Surely the idea of Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan receiving reparations checks must give pause.
To end slavery, the United States undertook the greatest and most devastating war of our history. More Americans were killed in the Civil War than in all of the rest of the wars we've fought put together. Those 620,000 dead represent the ultimate reparation for slavery. Lincoln saw it in those terms. In his Second Inaugural Address, he said: "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this great scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
Just one month later, Lincoln paid for those sentiments with his own life.
Human history is sadly littered with crimes and cruelty. But historical crimes cannot be avenged. Many black criminals have blighted the lives of other Americans. Is it justice to make other blacks pay reparations to other whites for that? Of course not. Only the actual criminal can be punished and only the actual victim can be compensated. Anything else is dangerous nonsense.