Should African Americans be paid restitution for slavery in the U.S.?
The descendents of slaves in the United States should be paid restitution by the U.S. government for the wrongs done to their ancestors.
This statement may be a Q1 violation if:
- You don’t always hold the present government responsible for the actions of the government in the past.
- You don’t otherwise think that wrongs can be righted by paying restitution to the descendents of those wronged.
- Your demand for restitution is really intended to address current problems, not the problem of slavery.
Whether this is a Q2 violation depends on in under what other circumstances you would allow demands for restitution of historical wrongs.
Although it is laudable to think that countries should be held responsible for bad — or, in this case, arguably evil — policies, many practicalities have to be considered before restitution for slavery can be reasonably demanded.
The largest difficulty may be in identifying who is owed restitution without violating 2Q. Most likely, not all African Americans would be due restitution, since some of them are not descendants of American slaves. And those who are descendants of slaves are not necessarily the descendants only of slaves — perhaps their great, great grandfather was a slave, but their grandmother is from Jamaica or their mother is Japanese. Should people with only some slave ancestry receive equal payment? Someone who is white other than a black great grandfather, for example? And what about descendants of American slaves who no longer live in the United States?
The politics of slavery in America cause additional complications. If you learned that certain tribes in Africa helped white slavers capture people to be brought to America and sold, do you think those African tribes should also pay restitution? If so, then how should African Americans who are descendents of members of those tribes be treated? And what about descendants of slaves who aided in the slave trade or fought on the side of the South in the Civil War? Should they be treated any differently?
The simplest way to solve this might be to say that institutionalized racism harmed all black people (and continues to do so to this day) and therefore all African Americans (however that term is defined) are due restitution. How much money would be fair restitution? Since payment of restitution will not remove the harms of past institutionalized racism, then shouldn’t all African Americans — including those not yet born — receive payment until the effects are gone? What criteria will be used to judge when no more people are to be paid? Should affirmative action and similar programs and policies be considered part of restitution? Or canceled after the payment is made because now "everything is equal"?
Let’s say that the government does pay restitution. It is important to remember that the government raises money through taxes, so really it is American citizens (including African American citizens) who will be making restitution. If this payment is significant enough that it makes up for the evils of slavery, then it is possible that the redistribution of wealth will be significant enough to impact the American economy. What if there is significant negative financial fallout? In that case, could future non-African Americans argue that restitution to African Americans was a discriminatory practice by the government that negatively impacted their lives and therefore demand restitution?
Going further afield, if you think African Americans are due restitution, do you think restitution is due for the breaking of treaties with Native Americans, persecution of Mormons, Salem witch trials, Bay of Pigs, failure to give refuge to Jewish people during the Holocaust, or killing of British citizens during America’s rebellion?
None of these questions are meant to imply that governments should not be held accountable for damage that they cause to individuals or groups. But the farther you get from the time the damage was caused, the more difficult it is to correct it on an individual basis. This should be kept in mind when you are considering such issues.
You are encouraged to leave your answers to the questions posed in this post in the comments section. This post is based on an excerpt from Ask Yourself to be Moral, by D. Cancilla, available at LuLu.com and Amazon.com. See the 2Q system page for details of the philosophical system mentioned in this post.