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ROBERT L. MARONIC: The Folly of Reparations for The Descendants of American Slaves

In my last column entitled “West African Slave Trade: Buyers and Sellers,” I clearly explained that in the (northern) transatlantic slave trade the “west Africans were the sellers, and the Europeans were the buyers.” I also stated that “American slaves and their descendants in both the North and South should have received reparations between 1865 and 1877” during Reconstruction.

Despite Washington’s passage of the Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth Amendments (1870), the White House and Congress never approved any cash reparations or other compensation for over 250 years of African-American bondage and unpaid labor.

The granting of “forty acres and a mule” (Special Field Order 15), which General William Tecumseh Sherman approved in Savannah, Georgia on January 16, 1865, became a dream unfulfilled or surreal nightmare nine months later. This occurred after President Andrew Johnson heartlessly rescinded Sherman’s order in the fall of 1865, and returned the freedmen’s land to the former plantation landowners.

Washington had plenty of time to approve reparations before 1913, but the North dominated by the Republican Party despite having won the war had “lost” the peace after President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration ended on March 4, 1877.

The “enlightened” and self-righteous abolitionist North, especially the northeastern states, greatly downplayed their historic responsibility for the transport of slaves into the U.S., which would have potentially incriminated them in paying reparations for the national sin of slavery since the seventeenth century.

Plus, too many northern politicians were too miserly to authorize any tax increases for the former slaves’ reparations, which allowed them to commit a huge moral dodge in postbellum America.

Over the decades of the latter nineteenth century, the fading faces of the former slaves became much less of a priority, and the  620,000 soldiers killed on both sides of the Civil War became Washington’s primary reparation or atonement for redressing slavery’s end. Unfortunately, deceased Union and Confederate soldiers for the former slaves did not put food on the table, purchase land, stop illiteracy, clothe the naked and put money in the bank after 1865.

The death of more and more former slaves from poverty, old age and the increasing number of lynchings after 1882, especially in Georgia, Mississippi and Texas, shockingly created little humanitarian urgency for intervention or reparations from the federal government. Every year both abject neglect and the lynchers were cruelly culling the number of former slaves, who could potentially receive reparations, as Washington ran out the clock.

In the Jim Crow South, wealthy white landowners often exploited sharecroppers making them live in debt peonage like serfs or quasi-slaves, which almost nullified the Thirteenth Amendment. In the industrialized North, the robber barons exploited the poorly paid steel workers and coal miners making them live in debt peonage like serfs or quasi-slaves, which nullified human dignity.

In 1896 Jim Crow finally became codified in the South and many other parts of the United States for African-Americans with the Supreme Court’s approval of Plessy vs. Ferguson, which made “separate but equal,” especially in regard to school segregation, legal. The bright light of the Fourteenth Amendment truly began to look dimmer and dimmer almost resembling a meaningless mirage until Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.

The former slaves never received any reparations throughout the twentieth century, but only a “dream deferred” in regard to their civil rights.

The “promissory note” or promise made in both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, which the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. mentioned twice in his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, “was a promise that all men — yes, black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Unfortunately, this noble “promise” was legally not realized for most African-Americans until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

So, should African-Americans in the U.S. receive reparations in 2023 or in the future?

I respectfully reply no because all the former slaves, who lived before June 19, 1865 (Juneteenth) are simply deceased, which was generally true by 1960 or 1965. In my opinion, since all the victims who incurred the persona hardship and suffering of slavery are deceased, there should be neither direct nor indirect reparations for their descendants for a myriad of reasons.

First, how is an African-American even defined? Is an African-American with 100% sub-Saharan DNA to be compensated the same way as a mixed race person, who is “light-skinned” with straight black hair and only 5% or even 1% sub-Saharan DNA? Perhaps someone, who has 5% or 1% “sub-Saharan DNA,” should only receive pennies on the dollar in a future cash reparation on a forty-year installment plan?

Second, how is an African-American with sub-Saharan DNA going to be scientifically differentiated from other Africans whose ancestors emigrated to the U.S. after 1865? Would this scientific methodology be available for public scrutiny? Would people, who are denied reparations, have the legal right to sue and appeal?

No matter what methods or criteria are selected to determine who might “qualify” for reparations, hundreds of thousands of deserving African-Americans could potentially not receive any reparations or at a much-reduced amount leading to generational resentment, decades-long anger and an unjust settlement.

Third, what company or government agency will make the scientific determination that a person is a bona fide African-American of west African origin? Would it be the highly respected Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the less credible ancestry.com, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland or some transnational agency within the United Nations?

Fourth, should African-Americans whose ancestors emigrated from east Africa or elsewhere on the continent (excluding southeastern and southwestern Africa) since 1865 to be regarded as descendants of American slaves? I reply no. For example, former President Barack H. Obama’s father came from Kenya, which was not a hotbed of the west African slave trade. Would Obama be entitled to reparations? I reply no.

According to the Pew Research Center the “number of Black immigrants living in the U.S. [country] reached 4.6 million in 2019, up from roughly 800,000 in 1980.” Should these recent immigrants, who never experienced American slavery, be given partial or full reparations? I reply no.

African-Americans of north African descent such as Moroccans, Algerians and Libyans including those descended from the Barbary pirates, who were overwhelmingly the enslavers of white Europeans rather than the enslaved, are especially problematic. It is estimated that “between 1530 and 1780 there were almost certainly 1 million and quite possibly as many as 1.25 million white, European Christians enslaved by the Muslims of the Barbary Coast.”

(The massacre of the entire seaside town of Vieste in eastern Italy in July 1554 epitomized these Muslim slave raids when the Ottoman Turks, the overlords of the Barbary pirates, enslaved approximately 5,000 inhabitants and beheaded another 5,000.)

Fifth, should black slaveowners of their fellow African-Americans receive any reparations? If so, how does someone decide if a black slaveowner was either benevolent or malevolent if reparations were to be approved? Surely black slaveowners, who were benevolent toward their slaves, should receive some compensation since they were all victims of an oppressive white racist slavocracy and not greed? I reply no.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Governor Gavin Newsom (D-CA), are you listening?

In my opinion, giving reparations to the descendants of American slaves would be like opening Pandora’s Box. This would be pure folly creating a never-ending cycle of victimhood and grievance insidiously tearing apart the social fabric of the United States, which is precisely what the political far left wants because it will lead to chaos. Plus, the U.S. is almost $32 trillion in debt.

If the descendants of American slaves were to receive reparations, would the Jews now have the right to seek reparations from Egypt as recorded in Exodus because of three hundred and fifty years of slavery (c. 1300 B.C.E. to c. 1650 B.C.E.)? Would the Armenians have the right to seek reparations from Turkey because of genocide (1914-23)? Would the Irish have right to seek reparations from Great Britain because of the potato famine (1845-49)? I could give more examples ad infinitum.

I believe that in order to have a successful reparation for anybody all compensation must be given to the actual victims before their deaths. A recent example would be the Japanese-Americans in California, Oregon, Washington and other states, who were unjustly sent to internment camps from 1942 to 1945. Fortunately, the survivors were belatedly compensated with $20,000 per person, which I considered a pittance, after the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

When I was a high school Latin teacher, I once privately told one of my African-American students to beat the white man at his own game. I used both the NFL and NBA as prime examples. I told her that these athletes ultimately got to their level of excellence not because of natural talent alone but because of a tremendous work ethic.

Likewise, a retired Sarasota, Florida police officer once told me that the Afro-Caribbean father is a mighty figure to be feared. The African-American father seriously needs to step up his game.

What African-Americans desperately need is a great reduction in the racial wealth gap. Job creation and better competitively-oriented K-12 schools in such blighted inner cities as Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago and throughout the U.S. need to be a top priority.

Another possible solution that would help all Americans regardless of ethnicity would be to have gradational affirmative action for poor people even if the student’s parents graduated from college or any other postsecondary institution. I am open to suggestions.

  • Robert L. Maronic

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