Every year that John Conyers (D-MI) was in Congress, he introduced a bill calling for reparations for black Americans as a compensation for their ancestors being enslaved. The argument being that enslaved blacks contributed to the wealth of the nation without being adequately compensated for their labor. Now that Conyers is no longer in Congress, the mantle has been taken up by Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). This is the same Jackson Lee who wondered in a congressional hearing if the Mars lander could go over and take a picture of the flag planted by Neil Armstrong. Nevertheless, the bill which does not call for direct compensation is being endorsed by some declared presidential candidates and has some traction by some democrats in the House of Representatives. There is some precedence. Japanese-Americans who were illegally interned in camps by Franklin Roosevelt during World War II were paid $20,000 as reparations.
The issue of reparations is nothing new. In 1999 several African nations demanded that the West pay $777 trillion in reparations. This argument was curious in that many if not most Africans were sold into slavery by other Africans. In 2004, the British government was sued for reparations for their role in the slave trade. Nothing was paid but the British prime minister did apologize for Britain’s active participation in the slave trade. In the Caribbean, many nations also demanded reparations to no avail.
The problem of payment is an issue unto itself. If individual blacks were to be compensated there would be a problem of equity. Surely individuals such as Tiger Woods and Lebron James could not receive payments that were the same as those paid to the indigent. Questions would arise as to who was black and whose ancestors were slaves. There would be a rush on DNA studies as whites would seek to be classified as black. As case in point, a dear friend mine while conducting an ancestor search discovered to her surprise that her great grandmother was classified as mulatto in an early census. Should she receive compensation? In my case, my mother’s DNA revealed that she was 32 percent British and less than 50 percent African. In my case, I am over 50 percent African with the rest being British, Scotch-Irish, Western European, and Scandinavian. Thus, instead of being African-American, I guess I should be reclassified as Mongrel-American.
However, consider that there have already been reparations aplenty. The War on Poverty has spent over a trillion dollars in reparations. Although some on the right point out that poverty rates are unchanged and those on the left say that this means more trillions must be spent, both are wrong. Income in kind (grants and subsidies) are not counted as income. If it were, then poverty rates fall to less than 5 percent, indicating a lessening of poverty. Moreover, when I look at the household income of blacks I also see that reparations have already been paid. Yes mean black household income of $59,000 is significantly less than that of whites ($89,000) but compare that to the per capita income of the three African incomes in my DNA: Cameroon $1,451, Mali $827 and Togo $610. So even though slavery was evil, cruel and harsh, I am reminded of a student of mine who was wearing a t-shirt with a black person in chains. On it was written “I was not asked to be brought here.” I asked her “Weren’t you glad you were?” Her answer was “Yes! Do you think I would have this standard of living if I were in Africa?” So I repeat: reparations aplenty.
Dr. Harold Black is professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. This piece appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK – TENNESSEE. Dr. Black can be reached email@example.com.