Sunday, June 12, 2005

On the topic of reparations

No, not war reparations, something that the US hasn't once asked for in either my lifetime or my father's for that matter. I'm talking about the concept of reparations for slavery which came back into the spotlight this past week when it was discovered that Wachovia Bank stood accused of facilitation of and profitting from slavery.

::::::::The nation's fourth-largest bank will make a financial contribution for black history education following its public apology for reaping past profits from slavery, Wachovia Corp. said Friday.

Charlotte-based Wachovia, which apologized Wednesday, agreed to make a financial commitment but provided no details.

"We didn't want to create the appearance that we were putting a price on the harm done to people by slavery," bank spokeswoman Carrie Ruddy said. "We decided it was not the right time.

"Our first priority was to communicate with our employees, shareholders, customers and the community. Our next step is to work with community partners with expertise in these areas."

The bank issued a 109-page report Wednesday that concluded that two of its predecessor banks, the Bank of Charleston (S.C.) and the Georgia Railroad and Banking Company, owned slaves before the Civil War.

This is exactly the kind of silliness I have been concerned of since the whole topic of reparations was broached. With hat tips to Michelle Malkin and the Instapunk, I find Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe summing this situation up just fine:

::::::::Clearly Wachovia committed some shameful racial crime. What could it have been? Did the nation's fourth-largest bank holding company rob its black depositors of their savings? Charge exorbitant interest rates on loans to black customers? Segregate its branches?

Worse: It owned slaves.

Well, not exactly. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, and Wachovia wasn't founded until 1879. The slaves for which Thompson was so apologetic were owned decades before the Civil War, when slavery was still lawful throughout the South. They were owned not by Wachovia but by the Bank of Charleston and the Georgia Railroad and Banking Co. -- two of the approximately 400 financial institutions dating back to 1781 that over the centuries merged with or were acquired by other institutions that eventually became part of the conglomerate known today as Wachovia.

In other words, Thompson's apology was for something Wachovia didn't do, in an era when it didn't exist, under laws it didn't break. And as an act of contrition for this wrong it never committed, it can now expect to pay millions of dollars to activists for a wrong they never suffered.

Emphasis mine. Under the conditions of a Chicago law, the city may revoke contracts with companies who do not fess up completely about their status as slaveholders prior to the Civil War. Wachovia, rightly concluding that it didn't own slaves since it wasn't even in existence when slavery was considered legal here, filed its paperwork saying so. After receiving pressure to look deeper, they hired an outside investigator and, lo and behold, found the aforementioned companies in their ancestry. Following the fevered advice of their legal staff, no doubt, the apology and promised millions resulted.

I have long had a problem with this idea of reparations. I don't think it's fair in any way to make all of us pay when there's no evidence of fault for a large chunk of the populace. I've researched my own family's history and, while I've found several Civil War veterans (who fought on the Union side, by the way) I've not run into a single one that was a slaveholder. Not one. So why should I be forced to watch my taxes go into someone's pocket who is not and was never was a slave? Who never once suffered as they did? It's an era of US history that must be acknowledged, and not for the "feel guilty, you white people" angle on the matter. It's so we recognize what it looks like and make very sure to do something about it when we see it again. Acknowledge, not fixate. Quite a bit of our nation's historical education focuses on slavery and its ill effects, so I don't think we need yet another black history month or slavery awareness week. We certainly don't need to pay people money over it. (I suspect the bulk of the money would be going to lawyers, anyway.)

I've not approached the issue the way Instapunk did, however.

::::::::Therefore, I am going to take the argument precisely in the direction decried by the sentence boldfaced above -- not for the purpose of transforming the descendants of slaves into debtors, but to illuminate the only rational basis on which reparations could be calculated in dollars and cents. I know that it's risky to apply cold logic to an issue so fueled by emotion, but I ask readers to follow my logic to its conclusion before exploding in righteous fury.

The first step is to acknowledge that any claim of reparations pursued through the courts now is on behalf of people who have not themselves been slaves. The specific pain and suffering illustrated by the photograph(s) above was committed by people who are now dead against victims who are now dead. All possibility of reparations as a moral expiation of guilt is moot because all parties to the immoral acts involved have been deceased for about a century. For this reason, the question of what reparations might be owed to the descendants of slaves must be a purely financial one, computed in terms of opportunity cost; that is, what financial losses are still being experienced by African-Americans that they wouldn't be experiencing if slavery had never existed in this country.

It is easy to see that the only valid comparisons we can make in this regard are between contemporary African-Americans and contemporary sub-Saharan Africans. The latter are the control population -- that population which was NOT captured, chained, sold to slave traders, and carried to American states for resale to slave owners. It is equally easy to see that the only statistic which matters is the lifetime financial expectations of African-Americans versus those of sub-Saharan Africans.

The numbers are startling, even for someone who's been paying attention to the difference in per capita income of people in different parts of the world. If you've not thought about the topic of reparations much, you should give these links a read.