America’s first slavery reparations attempt proved unintended and unsuccessful.
Union General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order #15 in January 1865, seizing about 400,000 acres of Southern coastal land and giving it, in 40-acre parcels, to newly freed slaves. No whites could live there, apart from assigned military personnel. A later order authorized loaning mules to black settlers.
Though Sherman’s orders likely created the “40 acres and a mule” idea that many consider the U.S. Government’s “promise” to former slaves, that was not Sherman’s primary intent. His March to the Sea created thousands of black refugees who followed his army; the orders ended Sherman’s responsibility for their support and protection. They also punished Confederate rice planters for their role in the war. But after President Lincoln’s assassination, President Johnson overturned Special Field Order #15, the land returned to its previous owners, and the reparations attempt failed.
Subsequent attempts during Reconstruction were more intentional, but not more successful.
Radical Republicans in Congress like Thaddeus Stevens worked to secure freedoms for former slaves granted under a newly ratified 13th Amendment, and drafted early 14th Amendment versions. Stevens pursued “40 acres and a mule” reparations, proposing to redistribute the land of Southern whites, owning 200 acres or more, to blacks. Stevens considered the South conquered territory and wanted to eradicate the foundations of Southern society through federal governance. However, Stevens’ preferences did not happen.
After U.S. Reconstruction, three 20th Century reparations attempts occurred:
• The Treaty of Versailles, which punished Germany for World War I’s devastation,
• The collapse of the Nazi Regime, which fully revealed the atrocities committed against Jews by Germany and other countries, and
• The internment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
How did they fare? Briefly:
• The Treaty of Versailles’ war reparations so devastated Germany’s economy that Adolf Hitler rose to power; instead of repaying the Allies for their harm from WWI, reparations led directly to the even larger WWII,
• Holocaust Reparations: 1) were not popular in Israel, called “blood money” by many; 2) compensated a government that did not exist when the atrocities occurred, instead of individuals who directly suffered; and 3) were paid only by West Germany, which was least like the Nazis (East Germany ignored reparations calls), and
• The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 did not compensating internees until 1990. The $20,000 given to survivors was worth $2,494.26 in 1942, when the average house in the U.S. cost $6,827; many other survivors received only 1/4 that amount. Internees lost not only 5 decades, but also 60% and more of the value of their confiscated goods.
Nevertheless, and at the start of every U.S. Congress since 1989, Rep. John Conyers, D-MI introduced legislation, House Resolution (H.R.) 40, with this formal title:
To acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.
Saying he wants to “heal this nation”, Conyers vows to continue introducing this bill until it becomes law:
After a quarter century, apparently no one believes it will “heal” anything; H.R. 40 has never to come to a vote, even when Democrats held the majority in Congress. Perhaps they see the poor record of reparations and find there is no benefit in their consideration.
Nevertheless, reparations supporters have advocates other than John Conyers, and forums outside the U.S. What they do not have is more success:
• In 1999, The African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission’s Accra Declaration, demanded “the West” pay $777 Trillion to Africa within 5 years. The amount was not paid. (World Gross Domestic Product in 1999 was $30.2 Trillion, less than 1/25th of the demanded amount),
• In 2004, descendants of American slaves sued Lloyd’s of London for insuring slave ships in the 1800′s. The lawsuit, and subsequent appeals, failed,
• Also in 2004, Rastafarians in Jamaica claimed Europeans should pay £72.5 Billion to resettle 500,000 of them to Africa. The British government and rejected the claim, denying accountability for wrongs committed in earlier centuries,
• In 2007, Guyana’s president called for European nations to pay reparations for slavery. They did not,
• In 2011, the Caribbean island state of Antigua and Barbuda took to the U.N. to demand reparations from former slave-owning countries. The demand remains unmet,
• and so on…
Adding to this litany of frustration and failure is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent essay in the Atlantic, The Case For Reparations, which states, in its subtitle: “…Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole”…and that is a problematic assertion.
Because morals and money are like apples and oranges, neither comparable nor fungible. Money neither creates nor corrects erase immorality, and money neither determines nor measures a person’s, or situation’s, morality.
Which, in part, explains: why reparations backfire (World War I); how poor a remedy they provide (Japanese internment); and the resistance to throwing money at troubling, even tragic, events which cross both time and international boundaries, especially when offending, as well as the injured, parties are dead.
Coates, instead of keeping morals and money separate, or recognizing the historic failures of reparations attempts, simply repeats the flawed proposition presented before: harm occurred, therefore someone must pay, even if all involved are dead. Still, Coates’ essay does something unique, if unintentional: without specifically addressing them, Coates demonstrates the failings of those he puts forth as victims. Further, he does so in a way that weakens his “case”. Consider the account of Chicago’s Contract Buyers League.
Coates’ describes an unscrupulous system of exploiting blacks, in 1950′s and 1960′s Chicago, through “buying” homes on contract, a predatory agreement that combined all the responsibilities of homeownership with all the disadvantages of renting—while offering the benefits of neither:
“In a contract sale, the seller kept the deed until the contract was paid in full—and, unlike with a normal mortgage, [the buyer] would acquire no equity in the meantime. If he missed a single payment, he would immediately forfeit his…down payment, all his monthly payments, and the property itself.”
The FHA, which opted not to discourage racial discrimination in its housing policies, left blacks to the Chicago thieves who would rob multiple families with a single property, serially evicting them for failing to make inflated monthly payments on an overpriced house. No doubt those whites engaged in this scam were at fault; they set traps which they sprung, reset, and sprung again, to blacks’ detriment.
But there is something interesting in the words of the black buyers. From the essay:
“We were ashamed. We did not want anyone to know that we were that ignorant,” (Clyde) Ross (one of the blacks who “bought” a home on contract and would later join the Contract Buyers League) told me… “I’d come out of Mississippi where there was one mess, and come up here and got in another mess. So how dumb am I? I didn’t want anyone to know how dumb I was.
“When I found myself caught up in it, I said, ‘How? I just left this mess. I just left no laws. And no regard. And then I come here and get cheated wide open.’ I would probably want to do some harm to some people, you know, if I had been violent like some of us. I thought, ‘Man, I got caught up in this stuff. I can’t even take care of my kids.’ I didn’t have enough for my kids. You could fall through the cracks easy fighting these white people. And no law.”
Could Ross avoid the contract buy scheme? Not if he wanted a house. But did Ross have to “buy” a house? Had he not, his children might have fared better:
“The problem was the money,” Ross told me. “Without the money, you can’t move. You can’t educate your kids. You can’t give them the right kind of food. Can’t make the house look good. They think this neighborhood is where they supposed to be. It changes their outlook. My kids were going to the best schools in this neighborhood, and I couldn’t keep them in there.”
Had Ross walked away from his contract, he would have lost every dollar paid to the seller. But how much more did he lose by staying, and at what cost to his children, according to his own word? Many gave up their lives ending slavery and Jim Crow segregation that hurt them and the next generation of people they would never see or know; is it therefore unreasonable to think a father should give up a house that hurt him and his children?
Mattie Lewis and Ethel Weatherspoon, like Clyde Ross, became members of the Contract Buyers League. Coates spoke with them as well:
In 1958, [Mattie Lewis and her husband] bought a home in North Lawndale on contract. They were not blind to the unfairness. But Lewis, born in the teeth of Jim Crow, considered American piracy—black people keep on making it, white people keep on taking it—a fact of nature. “All I wanted was a house. And that was the only way I could get it. They weren’t giving black people loans at that time,” she said. “We thought, ‘This is the way it is. We going to do it till we die, and they ain’t never going to accept us. That’s just the way it is.’
“The only way you were going to buy a home was to do it the way they wanted,” she continued. “And I was determined to get me a house. If everybody else can have one, I want one too. I had worked for white people in the South. And I saw how these white people were living in the North and I thought, ‘One day I’m going to live just like them.’ I wanted cabinets and all these things these other people have.”
Coates quotes scripture at the beginning of his essay, Deuteronomy 15:12-15. However, heeding another scripture might have protected Lewis:
Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding. — 2 Corinthians 10:12 (ESV)
Measuring one’s success by comparing oneself to others, even one’s oppressors, is poor judgment. The essay continued:
Whenever [Lewis] visited white co-workers at their homes, she saw the difference. “I could see we were just getting ripped off,” she said. “I would see things and I would say, ‘I’d like to do this at my house.’ And they would say, ‘Do it,’ but I would think, ‘I can’t, because it costs us so much more.’ ”
I asked Lewis and Weatherspoon how they kept up on payments.
“You paid it and kept working,” Lewis said of the contract. “When that payment came up, you knew you had to pay it.”
“You cut down on the light bill. Cut down on your food bill,” Weatherspoon interjected.
“You cut down on things for your child, that was the main thing,” said Lewis. “My oldest wanted to be an artist and my other wanted to be a dancer and my other wanted to take music.”
When blacks strive to be like white people, not out of need, but simply to emulate whites…
When emulating whites makes them volunteer for scams…
When volunteering for scams means children’s aspirations get set aside…
That is beyond poor judgment; that is a moral failing, and not just that of a depraved oppressor, but also that of a willing victim.
In the end, fewer than 20% of Chicago’s Contract Buyers League members kept their homes, and their lawsuit failed. But slavery did not cause those losses; choosing to “get cheated wide open” did. Are reparations due for that?
Coates made the effort to tie all of the 20th century ills of blacks to the 17th through 19th century phenomenon of slavery, a common tactic of blacks and others who are, politically, left-of-center. However, this denies the fact that there has not been slavery in the US for 150 years; it denies that those who owned, and those who were, slaves are all dead; it denies that each generation makes its own decisions and its own way, like former slaves who formed a majority in South Carolina’s legislature during Reconstruction, or Madam C.J. Walker, the daughter of former slaves who became America’s first self-made female millionaire; it denies that compelling descendants to bear, and also monetize, the misdeeds of their ancestors is wrong (Ezekiel 18:20).
And it denies the lessons of history regarding reparations: they do not work. One could argue, at 40% of U.S. welfare recipients, blacks already receive reparations of a kind, as they have since the War on Poverty was declared a half century ago. How much of the trillions spent made it to blacks is hard to measure, but these things are not:
• Only 32% of black men, and 26% of black women are married today; in 1960, 61% of blacks were married,
• Black Illegitimacy stands above 70%, more than 3 times pre-War on Poverty levels,
• “From 1973 to 2012, abortion reduced the black population by 30%, and that doesn’t even factor in all the children that would have been born to those aborted a generation ago”, and, though less than 13% of the U.S. population, blacks account for 30% of U.S. abortions, as blacks accepted left-leaning political ideology, including that they should be paid for evils done (though not to them personally) in the past.
Neither have the effective reparations from the War on Poverty done much to correct poor economics for blacks: in 2012, the black poverty rate (36.7%) was about 70% higher than the national rate of 21.8%, and roughly double that of whites (18.5%). If giving blacks money to correct the sins of the past, which was clearly among the aims of LBJ’s Great Society, worked, then the current condition is hard to explain.
Unless one accepts the lessons of history, and human nature’ bent, which both say reparations do not work…neither can they. Giving people money they did not earn does not create success. Else, every public assistance recipient would remain above the poverty line, and every lottery winner would thrive.
Blacks seeking success, despite the ravages of history, might heed Booker T. Washington and, “Cast down your bucket where you are!” rather than seek another’s bucket. To all who “help” blacks by giving him a check for past injustices, Frederick Douglass’ words remain wise:
In regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us…. I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! … And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! … Your interference is doing him positive injury.
In looking to settle “moral debts” from the past, history teaches that the time for reparations has not only not come, but that it will never arrive.