Reparations: A Short Overview
Compiled by Ryan Tibbens for educational purposes only
On this Juneteenth, 2019, the United States House of Representatives held hearings on reparations for slavery. This is not a new idea, but new voices made themselves heard and breathed life into an otherwise stale debate. This article serves as a brief, basic introduction to the new debate; it includes two video clips from today's congressional testimonies, an excerpt from a best-selling modern philosophy book, and a video of the book's author teaching class. Additionally, this article includes a new feature: reader surveys. There is one survey in the beginning; use it to indicate your beliefs now. The other survey is at the end of the article; use it to indicate your beliefs after considering the compiles sources.
Before launching into the sources, remember this: you can't reasonably claim pride in your community's past achievements if you won't also accept shame for the past failures.
Source #1) An argument in favor of reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Source #2) An argument against reparations by Coleman Hughes.
Source #3a) An excerpt from Michael J. Sandel's Justice, in which he discusses loyalty, community, and individuality. (Full text available here.)
~~ WHAT DO WE OWE ONE ANOTHER? / DILEMMAS OF LOYALTY ~~
It’s never easy to say, “I’m sorry.” But saying so in public, on behalf of one’s nation, can be especially difficult. Recent decades have brought a spate of anguished arguments over public apologies for historic injustices.
-- Apologies and Reparations --
Much of the fraught politics of apology involves historic wrongs committed during World War II. Germany has paid the equivalent of billions of dollars in reparations for the Holocaust, in the form of payments to individual survivors and to the state of Israel. Over the years, German political leaders have offered statements of apology, accepting responsibility for the Nazi past in varying degrees. In a speech to the Bundestag in 1951 , German chancellor Konrad Adenauer claimed that “the overwhelming majority of the German people abominated the crimes committed against the Jews and did not participate in them.” But he acknowledged that “unspeakable crimes have been committed in the name of the German people, calling for moral and material indemnity.” In 2000, German president Johannes Rau apologized for the Holocaust in a speech to the Israeli Knesset, asking “forgiveness for what Germans have done.”
Japan has been more reluctant to apologize for its wartime atrocities. During the 1930s and ’40s, tens of thousands of Korean and other Asian women and girls were forced into brothels and abused as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers. Since the 1990s, Japan has faced growing international pressure for a formal apology and restitution to the so-called “comfort women.” In the 1990s, a private fund offered payments to the victims, and Japanese leaders made limited apologies. But as recently as 2007, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe insisted that the Japanese military was not responsible for coercing the women into sexual slavery. The U.S. Congress responded by passing a resolution urging the Japanese government to formally acknowledge and apologize for its military’s role in enslaving the comfort women.
Other apology controversies involve historic injustices to indigenous peoples. In Australia, debate has raged in recent years over the government’s obligation to the aboriginal people. From the 1910s to the early 1970s, aboriginal children of mixed race were forcibly separated from their mothers and placed in white foster homes or settlement camps. (In most of these cases, the mothers were aborigines and the fathers white.) The policy sought to assimilate the children to white society and speed the disappearance of aboriginal culture. The government-sanctioned kidnappings are portrayed in Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), a movie that tells the story of three young girls who, in 1931, escape from a settlement camp and set out on a 1 ,200-mile journey to return to their mothers.
In 1997, an Australian human rights commission documented the cruelties inflicted on the “stolen generation” of aborigines, and recommended an annual day of national apology. John Howard, the prime minister at the time, opposed an official apology. The apology question became a contentious issue in Australian politics. In 2008, newly elected prime minister Kevin Rudd issued an official apology to the aboriginal people. Although he did not offer individual compensation, he promised measures to overcome the social and economic disadvantages suffered by Australia’s indigenous population.
In the United States, debates over public apologies and reparations have also gained prominence in recent decades. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law an official apology to Japanese Americans for their confinement in internment camps on the West Coast during World War II. In addition to an apology, the legislation provided compensation of $20,000 to each survivor of the camps, and funds to promote Japanese American culture and history. In 1993, Congress apologized for a more distant historic wrong — the overthrow, a century earlier, of the independent kingdom of Hawaii.
Perhaps the biggest looming apology question in the United States involves the legacy of slavery. The Civil War promise of “forty acres and a mule” for freed slaves never came to be. In the 1990s, the movement for black reparations gained new attention. Every year since 1989, Congressman John Conyers has proposed legislation to create a commission to study reparations for African Americans. although the reparations idea has won support from many African American organizations and civil rights groups, it has not caught on with the general public. Polls show that while a majority of African Americans favor reparations, only 4 percent of whites do.
Although the reparations movement may have stalled, recent years have brought a wave of official apologies. In 2007, Virginia, which had been the largest slaveholding state, became the first to apologize for slavery. A number of other states, including Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Florida, followed. And in 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution apologizing to African Americans for slavery and for the Jim Crow era of racial segregation that extended into the mid-twentieth century.
Should nations apologize for historic wrongs? To answer this question, we need to think through some hard questions about collective responsibility and the claims of community.
The main justifications for public apologies are to honor the memory of those who have suffered injustice at the hands (or in the name) of the political community, to recognize the persisting effects of injustice on victims and their descendants, and to atone for the wrongs committed by those who inflicted the injustice or failed to prevent it. As public gestures, official apologies can help bind up the wounds of the past and provide a basis for moral and political reconciliation. Reparations and other forms of
financial restitution can be justified on similar grounds, as tangible expressions of apology and atonement. They can also help alleviate the effects of the injustice on the victims or their heirs.
Whether these considerations are strong enough to justify an apology depends on the circumstances. In some cases, attempts to bring about public apologies or reparations may do more harm than good by inflaming old animosities, hardening historic enmities, entrenching a sense of victimhood, or generating resentment. Opponents of public apologies often voice worries such as these. Whether, all things considered, an act of apology or restitution is more likely to heal or damage a political community is a complex matter of political judgment. The answer will vary from case to case.
-- Should We Atone for the Sins of our Predecessors? --
But I would like to focus on another argument often raised by opponents of apologies for historic injustices — a principled argument that does not depend on the contingencies of the situation. This is the argument that people in the present generation should not — in fact, cannot — apologize for wrongs committed by previous generations. To apologize for an injustice is, after all, to take some responsibility for it. You can’t apologize for something you didn’t do. So, how can you apologize for something that was done before you were born?
John Howard, the Australian prime minister, gave this reason for rejecting an official apology to the aborigines: “I do not believe that the current generation of Australians should formally apologize and accept responsibility for the deeds of an earlier generation.”
A similar argument was made in the U.S. debate over reparations for slavery. Henry Hyde, a Republican congressman, criticized the idea of reparations on these grounds: “I never owned a slave. I never oppressed anybody. I don’t know that I should have to pay for someone who did [own slaves] generations before I was born.” Walter E. Williams, an African American economist who opposes reparations, voiced a similar view: “If the government got the money from the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, that’d be great. But the government has to take the money from citizens, and there are no citizens alive today who were responsible for slavery.”
Taxing today’s citizens to pay reparations for a past wrong may seem to raise a special problem. But the same issue arises in debates over apologies that involve no financial compensation.
With apologies, it’s the thought that counts. The thought at stake is the acknowledgment of responsibility. Anyone can deplore an injustice. But only someone who is somehow implicated in the injustice can apologize for it. Critics of apologies correctly grasp the moral stakes. And they reject the
idea that the current generation can be morally responsible for the sins of their forebears.
When the New Jersey state legislature debated the apology question in 2008, a Republican assemblyman asked, “Who living today is guilty of slaveholding and thus capable of apologizing for the offense?” The obvious answer, he thought, was no one: “Today’s residents of New Jersey, even those
who can trace their ancestry back to . . . slaveholders, bear no collective guilt or responsibility for unjust events in which they personally played no role.”
As the U.S. House of Representatives prepared to vote an apology for slavery and segregation, a Republican critic of the measure compared it to apologizing for deeds carried out by your “great-great-great-grandfather.”
-- Moral Individualism --
The principled objection to official apologies is not easy to dismiss. It rests on the notion that we are responsible only for what we ourselves do, not for the actions of other people, or for events beyond our control. We are not answerable for the sins of our parents or our grandparents or, for that matter, our compatriots.
But this puts the matter negatively. The principled objection to official apologies carries weight because it draws on a powerful and attractive moral idea. We might call it the idea of “moral individualism.” The doctrine of moral individualism does not assume that people are selfish. It is rather a
claim about what it means to be free. For the moral individualist, to be free is to be subject only to obligations I voluntarily incur; whatever I owe others, I owe by virtue of some act of consent — a choice or a promise or an agreement I have made, be it tacit or explicit.
The notion that my responsibilities are limited to the ones I take upon myself is a liberating one. It assumes that we are, as moral agents, free and independent selves, unbound by prior moral ties, capable of choosing our ends for ourselves. Not custom or tradition or inherited status, but the free
choice of each individual is the source of the only moral obligations that constrain us.
You can see how this vision of freedom leaves little room for collective responsibility, or for a duty to bear the moral burden of historic injustices perpetrated by our predecessors. If I promised my grandfather to pay his debts or apologize for his sins, that would be one thing. My duty to carry out the recompense would be an obligation founded on consent, not an obligation arising from a collective identity extending across generations. Absent some such promise, the moral individualist can make no sense of a responsibility to atone for the sins of my predecessors. The sins, after all, were theirs, not mine.
If the moral individualist vision of freedom is right, then the critics of official apologies have a point; we bear no moral burden for the wrongs of our predecessors. But far more than apologies and collective responsibility are at stake. The individualist view of freedom figures in many of the theories of justice most familiar in contemporary politics. If that conception of freedom is flawed, as I believe it is, then we need to rethink some of the fundamental features of our public life.
As we have seen, the notions of consent and free choice loom large, not only in contemporary politics, but also in modern theories of justice. Let’s look back and see how various notions of choice and consent have come to inform our present-day assumptions.
An early version of the choosing self comes to us from John Locke. He argued that legitimate government must be based on consent. Why? Because we are free and independent beings, not subject to paternal authority or the divine right of kings. Since we are “by nature, all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.”
[Sandel continues by making connections to the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls.]
Source 3b) A recording of Michael Sandel teaching his "Justice" course at Harvard, this segment addresses many of the topics and texts mentioned above in 'Source 3a.' This is the most popular course in the history of Harvard University and is fully available online for free at JusticeHarvard.org as well as his Harvard webpage and YouTube. Both the book Justice and the class are strongly recommended.
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