When receiving an award, be it for this or for that, it’s now considered churlish not to acknowledge that, “We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.” Only at one’s peril should this be confused with “We stands on the backs of those who came before us.” And yet we’re far more likely to have achieved what we have by standing on bent backs than on upright shoulders.
Of course no one likes to acknowledge his ‘back-standing’. But not to worry. There’ll be plenty of people more than happy to point it out, both to you and to anyone who might otherwise be inclined to honour you for your accomplishments.
For example, Americans are told that their prosperity was built on the backs of slaves imported from Africa. This is probably true. True too is that immigrants who arrived in the century and a half since the abolition of slavery, inherited what was built on those bent backs. And the scars from the lashes that kept those backs bent have clearly been inherited by those whose ancestors they were.
Let all this be granted. What follows?
The standard arguments against reparations are twofold. First, that after that century and a half and still counting, the statute of limitations on liability, both legal and moral, has run out. Should Egyptians be required to compensate the Israelites? On the other hand the Canadian government paid Maher Arar ten million dollars, the city of Louisville just settled with Breonna Taylor’s family for twelve, and many of us believe the Israelis owe the Palestinians compensation for the Naqba of 1948. So what is the statute of limitation on these kinds of injustices?
Is there a principled way to answer this question? Or is it politics all the way down? If so, African Americans are entitled to reparations if and only if they can muster enough political pressure to exact it. Arguments, moral or otherwise, have nothing to do with it.
Second, to whom and by whom are these reparations due? After all, the only truly African African Americans are those who recently stepped off the boat, some of whom, from South Africa and Zimbabwe, are white. And, of course, it’s hard to say what to say about those who’ve arrived from Haiti.
But the real problem is that as many of the ancestors of African Americans were slave owners as were slaves. So whatever her white alleles owe her black alleles, it’s a wash, is it not? Worse yet, blacks owned black slaves, as did some indigenous peoples. Each of us – black, white, indigenous, Jewish – can lay claim to a lineage. But how many of us can prove the lineage to which we lay claim? It’s not that the milkman always gets in there, any more than every soldier in the U.S. military is gay. It’s just that it’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell!”
The counter-argument is that systemic racism in America is about skin colour, not ancestry. Barak Obama is a Black man, and is treated as such, notwithstanding his father was Kenyan and his mother was white. It’s not what percentage of you is black. It’s how black you look. Imagine refusing to sit at the back of the bus in the Jim Crow south by saying, “No no, I’m not really black. I just spent summer break at the beach.” But if, for several generations, you’ve been passing for white, then, dammit, you are white, because you’ve been enjoying the privileges of being white.
And it’s for these very reasons that most advocates think reparations should be paid to communities rather than individuals, because it’s communities that bear the scars of slavery, regardless of the ancestry of the individual members of that community. Of course to some very minor degree this has already been happening, though no one’s been calling it reparations.
Nor, as I shall be arguing shortly, should it be called reparations. But in the meantime, I want to take a very different tack. I want to see what happens if neither the statute of limitations objection nor (what we might call) the tracking objection goes through. I want to imagine that the charge is a live one. And I want to imagine that, in the face of her undeniable accusation, some whitey were to say to her black accuser, “So what?”
Accusers expect denial, or perhaps some plea for mitigation. But they’re never prepared for a “So what?” And being unprepared for the question, neither have they prepared an answer. What answer could they offer? “So, uh … so, uh … so you owe me!”?
But this mockery is unfair. From 1) “Some of my ancestors were slaves,” to 2) “You owe me!” – a.k.a. the Reparations Argument – is an enthymeme with dozens if not hundreds of missing premises. Filling them in takes time. And careful thought. Can one get from (1) to (2)? I have no idea. But I do have an idea of what would have to be overcome in the attempt.
The most obvious difficulty is the one no one has the balls to raise, namely the distinction, if distinction there be, between animal husbandry and human husbandry. No one complains that the West was won on the backs of horses, whose submission to the will of their riders was induced just as cruelly as was the submission of slaves to the will of their masters. So the argument has to be that there’s a moral distinction between whipping a horse and whipping a man. And how might that argument be made?
That humans, but not horses, were created in the image of God? But again, even if that were so, so what?! Yes, the wrongness of fucking a baby doll hangs on the wrongness of fucking a baby. So our being created in the image of God would give me pause only if I give a shit about God. But I don’t. And neither do most of the people who buy the Reparations Argument.
I could, if required, run through the entire litany of attempts to ground human exceptionalism from “nature red in tooth and claw.” Suffice it here to say that none of those arguments work. They don’t work because they presuppose that the property that distinguishes human from animal husbandry is a morally relevant property. But they think it unnecessary to show that it’s relevant.
The sad truth is that there is no such property. People enslave other people when a) it’s economically viable to do so and b) they have the wherewithal to do so. And when some fatuous argument is thrown at them for why they shouldn’t, they come up with an equally fatuous argument to parry it. What’s the only non-fatuous argument in America in 2020? That a) it would not be economically viable to reinstitute slavery and, even if it were, b) there sure as hell ain’t the wherewithal to reinstitute it!
Does it follow that whitey doesn’t owe anything to the descendants of these slaves? It does, but only because ‘owe’ is the wrong concept. Its history is only one of the ways an identifiable group can be systemically disadvantaged. Imagine a plague that rendered all but only African Americans disadvantaged. Harm yes, but fault no. Would it follow that they’re not entitled to a leg up?
Justice is just the wrong concept, as wrong in evaluating history as in evaluating Tay Sachs or Sickle Cell Anemia. What matters, and all that matters, is what kind of world we want to live in now. Some people would rather pay to live in a gated community to ensure none of ‘those’ people are likely to date their daughters. I don’t blame them. I’m just not one of them. I’d rather pay to ensure they are likely to date my daughter. That’s not reparations. That’s investment.
As I say, I don’t begrudge people who’d rather divest than invest. But here’s a sure way to swell their ranks. Tell them that because of the colour of their skin and the colour of yours, you owe them. That’s always a good sales pitch.