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Everybody’s Debt

Guest Column
John S. Reed

Lately in the media, a number of straw man arguments have been ascribed to the supporters of reparations for slavery. In one example a question was posed: “If your great-great-great-grandfather committed a crime and was never caught, would you be responsible?” It was claimed that reparation supporters would answer yes.

Although a lot has been written already on this issue, such gross misrepresentations demand that the record be set straight.

As in many political debates, there are a wide range of opinions on both sides of the issue of slave reparations. It’s true that some advocates of reparations believe that guilt is passed down through generations the way some religions believe that original sin is. But others, including perhaps the most notable reparation effort -- “The Reparations Assessment Group,” which includes Professor Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School, appear to be favoring the much less metaphysical and more legally grounded claim of “unjust enrichment.”

A question more analogous to this type of reparation claim than the one given above would be, if your great-great-great grandfather stole something that you inherited, would you have to return the stolen item to the descendants of the person he robbed? A similar claim, albeit on a shorter time scale, was successfully made by Nazi slaves and their descendants against corporations that profited from slave labor. Presumably, if the communists ever lose power in Cuba, American corporations and individuals will be making such claims on property nationalized under Fidel Castro. There are many other examples, all with their own unique circumstances.

The Nazi slavery lawsuits probably are the closest equivalent to the reparations claims for slavery in the U.S. Some argue that the two claims are not comparable since Nazi slavery ended 80 years later than American slavery did and hence there are living former Nazi slaves whereas no former American slaves are still alive.

It’s not clear to me why this difference should disqualify a claim of “unjust enrichment” brought by the descendants of U.S. slaves. Many millions of slaves toiled over a span of 240 years in the U.S. and the colonies that preceded it to produce an enormous amount of wealth. This wealth didn’t simply vanish with the Emancipation Proclamation. It was invested, put into banks, and passed onto heirs. One place that wealth did not go, however, was to newly freed slaves. Instead of receiving “40 acres and a mule” which was far, far less than the compensation they deserved, the freed slaves were subjected to terrorism from the Ku Klux Klan and post-Reconstruction governments. This organized campaign of terror against ex-slaves drove many of them into a state of peonage and continued against them and their descendants for about 100 years.

Beneficiaries of “unjust enrichment” through slavery include the U.S. government, European and African nations involved in the slave trade (note that European powers later conquered all of these African nations and may well have looted any wealth they had from the slave trade), state governments (especially those in the former Confederacy), corporations that were involved in slavery (e.g. banks, insurance companies, maritime companies, investment houses, commodity brokerages etc.), or that acquired corporations connected to slavery, and individuals who inherited wealth connected to slavery.

A claim against governments may seem unfair as it ultimately involves many citizens with little or no connection to slavery. However it is consistent with the almost worldwide convention that current governments must honor the debts, treaties, and obligations created by prior regimes, regardless of whether current citizenry had any involvement or say in their creation. For instance, the current government of Nicaragua owes a debt amounting to thousands of dollars per citizen to U.S. banks and other institutions that was incurred by the Somoza dictatorship 30 to 40 years ago (the average yearly wage there is a few hundred dollars). The relevance of this example to the reparations debate lies in the fact that the current government of Nicaragua must bear the burden created by a dictatorship most Nicaraguans had no involvement with nor gained anything from.

Since the U.S. government imposes this standard on other countries, perhaps it is only right that current governments in the U.S. be held liable for the legalized inhumanity that occurred in this country until 1865. If the opponents of reparations don’t believe in inherited debt and obligation, let them be the loudest in calling for the cancellation of all debts and treaties created by dictatorships and passed on to their citizens. Let them also stand against all debts and treaties period which were formed before the current generations were alive and politically aware. But I don’t expect to read David Horowitz’s “Ten Reasons Why the Third World Debt Is a Bad Idea -- And Racist Too” anytime soon.

The case for corporate liability is less ambiguous. Just as old property deeds and contracts can still be legally binding, so too can old liabilities.

Additionally, when one corporation takes over another, it gains not only the other’s assets, but also its debts and liabilities.

Sometimes when conservatives oppose something they will bring up “merit” as Ken Nesmith pointed out in his column “A Legacy of Contradiction.” The issue of slavery reparation has been no exception, with many claiming they are an attack on merit.

But since when is wealth inherited from slavery, or any inherited wealth for that matter, based on personal merit? It isn’t, unless not getting cut out of a parent’s will qualifies as “merit.”

Rather than wanting a meritocracy, it seems many conservatives just want to make it even easier for mediocre but well-connected young men to get into top Ivy League schools, bankrupt a couple companies, get rewarded with their very own baseball team, and go on to be President of the United States.

It is undeniable that reparations for U.S. slavery represent new legal territory. But so did the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, the Civil Rights Act, the Nuremberg trials, and the recent Holocaust suits directed at Swiss banks and German corporations.

Hopefully the public won’t be fooled by the misrepresentations put forth by David Horowitz and his ilk. Slavery reparations are undeniably a complex and contentious issue, but they deserve their day in court.

John S. Reed is a graduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.