Part -> 1
SECTION II: Alexander Pires, David Horowitz, and Karl Rahner
Guilt is one of the greatest issues at play in the debate over reparations for slavery and is a strong force on both sides of the argument. Those in favor of reparations proclaim that the United States, and essentially the descendents of slave owners, should feel guilty for the years of kidnapping, bondage, and oppression they forced upon the slaves. To make amends for these acts, the proponents of reparations believe reparations of some monetary sort should be paid to African-Americans today. Those who oppose reparations recognize the guilt in the same way that their opponents do but believe, among other things, that reparations is an attempt to absolve the guilt. Reparations might do more harm than good in terms of helping African-Americans and improving race relations, because it would likely put an end to building the bridges burned by slavery.
The case for reparations put forth by Alexader Pires at the recent Great Debate on the campus of Boston University is largely built upon the obligation America has to the African-American community. Pires, who recently won a lawsuit against the United States for $1 million due to black farmers in the South, is collaborating with other noted attorneys such as Johnny Cochran to file a formal lawsuit against the government for reparations for slavery. This relies on several issues, including precedents such as reparations dealt to victims of Japanese-American internment camps and the Holocaust.
Also at play are issues regarding the obligation Pires believes the government has to black Americans for building the American economic system into what he calls the most powerful economic structure in the history of the world. Since the slave-driven antebellum cotton industry in the South was the most successful industry in the world at the time, reparations proponents believe something is owed to those who built that industry and the powerful economy that followed.
Reparations are also called for by the empirical data that shows a strong link between slavery and the current socio-economic status of African-Americans. By virtue of a poor post-war effort to assimilate the former slaves into society, far too many blacks live in bad neighborhoods, work jobs that do not pay a living wage, are undereducated, or are incarcerated. These statistics point to a strong link to slavery and call for reparations to help get these people on something closer to equal footing with others in America.
Christopher Hitchens also argued in favor of reparations at the Great Debate but from a realist’s perspective. Hitchens, a noted writer and editor, argued that reparations is not an ideal circumstance but the best recourse available today to help to resolve the present-day problems that linger from slavery. Reparations does not solve all the problems, according to Hitchens, but he says one should not make “the best the enemy of the good.” […] The imperfection of reparations is not a suitable reason to discount it, or in other words, “don’t make the best the enemy of the good.”
The arguments against reparations are plenty and one does not have to look far to find someone who disagrees with paying them. About one year ago, David Horowitz bought advertising space in many college newspapers including the Daily Free Press at Boston University for his article “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea and Racist Too.” The ad caused hysteria and disruption in nearly every locale that the article was seen, including Boston University where the ad was pulled after one appearance. Many papers banned the ad, causing an uproar regarding the rights of free speech, while many students protested against Horowitz’s advertisement and ideology.
In his article, Horowitz describes ten ways in which reparations is either ineffective, unnecessary, racist, or foolish. Many of Horowitz’s arguments are important points in the debate over reparations and are at the heart of the dilemma, while others arguments seem venomous, heartless, and even inaccurate. To better understand the argument against reparations, it is important to take a closer look at Horowitz’s article but also to keep in mind that Horowitz surely does not speak for all those opposed to reparations for slavery.
Horowitz’s first argument against reparations is that there is not one group solely responsible for slavery in America. He claims that Africans and Arabs should be indicted alongside white slave owners and claims that 3,000 blacks owned slaves and questions whether their descendents should be paid reparations. This argument is both logical and helpful, because it brings in to question who is owed reparations and the complications in making such a determination.
Next Horowitz argues that black Americans have prospered economically by living in the United States and are better off economically than they would have been in their forefathers’ native lands. This claim is off base, because the fact that the black community has in some ways been able to compete in society does not offset the other statistics that suggest something different.
Thirdly, Horowitz argues that it is unfair to ask descendants of non-slaveholders to pay reparations because their ancestors were not the oppressors and, in some cases, gave their lives to free the slaves. This is certainly a strong point against reparations, because one is asking the descendants of those who freed the slaves to pay reparations for the oppression. Furthermore, Horowitz next points out that many Americans are descendants of immigrants who weren’t even in the United States at the time of slavery and should not be asked to pay reparations. In this light, reparations for slavery might be on the right track but is asking some people to pay for a crime that their ancestors didn’t even commit.
Horowitz’s fifth point recognizes that those in favor of reparations are making judgments based on race rather than on injury. [This is their favorite trick, because it works over and over again. To force Black people to include other groups. Then the other groups get paid some crumbs in exclusion of Black people.] Many blacks, Horowitz claims, are not descendents of slaves and some are even descendants of slaves, so it would be irresponsible to pay reparations to these people. Moreover, Horowitz points out that this case would set a precedent in that never before have reparations been paid to anyone other than the victims or their direct descendants, such as in the cases regarding the Japanese-American internment camps and the Holocaust. [What precedent. Jhws are still getting paid, based on claiming to be jhws without proof of having been in a camp.] While that is an interesting part of the reparations story, it doesn’t affect whether reparations should be paid; it simply means that this case would set a precedent. Perhaps this case could even set a precedent for crimes the United States committed against the Native Americans when the country was being formed. [What precedent?! AmerIndians got some land and money.]
Next, Horowitz writes that it is unfair to give reparations because descendants of slaves do not suffer economically from slavery. In this portion of his argument, Horowitz argues that blacks have had an opportunity to be successful economically since slavery and many have achieved economic success. Those who have not, Horowitz writes, are victims of their own failures rather than the failure of the American system and are not due reparations. Horowitz, however, is unfairly holding the majority up to the standard of the minority. While it is true that many blacks have been successful in society, too many statistics point to the fact that their descending from slavery has had an adverse effect on the standing of blacks in society today.
Horowitz’s seventh argument states that reparations is another attempt to turn blacks into victims rather than to hold them responsible for their state in today’s society. Reparations, then, is a way for the government to help people who can’t help themselves. Once again, Horowitz is holding the black majority to the standard of the successful black minority and overlooking too many other factors. While Horowitz has a point that reparations might make blacks into victims, he fails to notice that the entire point of reparations is that blacks are victims and are due compensation not only for their work as slaves but also for the poor way in which the American government helped them assimilate into society.
Next, Horowitz claims that reparations have already been paid through the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and welfare benefits. Horowitz does not recognize, however, that the giving of civil rights to the descendants of slaves is completely different than paying reparations. Recognizing the blacks’ civil rights helped bring the African-American community into the fold but did not right the wrongs of centuries of slavery in the past. Horowitz also fails to realize that welfare benefits do not go only to blacks but to all who qualify for them and are not adequate restitution for the slaves’ oppression nor does it account for the wages the slaves lost by working without pay.
Finally, Horowitz closes his argument with two shortsighted and heartless points about the state of African-Americans in today’s society. First, Horowitz claims that African-Americans owe a debt of gratitude for being brought to America and for the whites who spearheaded the abolitionist movement to free blacks from slavery. Secondly, Horowitz writes that reparations places African-Americans against the nation that gave them freedom and that they should be more appreciative of being part of such a prosperous nation. In these two points, Horowitz becomes the supreme judge as to what is good and evil and that blacks are better off in America than in their homelands. Horowitz does not consider that economic power might not be an appropriate measure of whether one should be happy in his or her country. Also, Horowitz believes that blacks should be grateful to live in the United States rather than upset that they were raped of their free will to choose where to live their lives.
One point Horowitz misses in this debate is the effect reparations would likely play on race relations today. Since the lines are drawn fairly clearly as far as who is in favor of reparations and who is opposed — and often in heated fashion with such a controversial issue — it is likely that reparations would perpetuate racial division in American society. Whites who did not want to pay reparations, for instance, would likely resent blacks for taking money that they did not deserve. Blacks also might be indicted in this process because it might bring to the surface new feelings of resentment in the black community toward whites for slavery. Moreover, many whites would likely feel no further need to help blacks to get a foot up in [their] society if reparations were paid. Reparations, then, is not a starting point for reconciling this issue but a distinct end in which whites feel there is not further need to help blacks.
Guilt plays a major role in the issue of paying reparations for slavery. Advocates of reparations play on the guilt of the descendants of slave owners and the American government by asking them to own up to their responsibility. Opponents of reparations, such as David Horowitz, do not feel guilty for the state of blacks in today’s society and place the blame on their own failure to realize opportunities for success.
Karl Rahner addresses the issue of guilt and sin in his systematic theology The Content of Faith, which is particularly relevant to the issue of reparations for slavery. Rahner believes that sin is not only a part of the past but recognizes that the present and the future are built upon that past.
“ . . . sin is not a contingent act which I performed in the past and whose effect is no longer with me,” writes Rahner. “It is certainly not like breaking a window which falls into a thousand pieces, but afterward I remained personally unaffected by it. Sin determines the human being in a definite way: he has not only sinned, but he himself is a sinner. He is a sinner not only by a formal, juridical imputation of a former act, but also in an existential way, so that in looking back on our past actions we always find ourselves to be sinners.”
This understanding of sin, and guilt regarding past sin, should make one cautious to pay reparations for slavery. If reparations would indeed become an end to the white community’s willingness to help the black community, it seems that reparations would become a way of a people trying to wipe the slate clean of their past actions. The government might then believe that it no longer has an obligation to help blacks succeed in American society, because they have paid them reparations; no longer does the government have to take responsibility for its past sin, since reparations have already been paid and wiped the slate clean. This is one of the greatest reasons that reparations could be a very unhelpful choice for American society.
According to Rahner, true guilt is only understood through God’s revelation and grace. Rahner would likely say then that the guilt that Alexander Pires is trying to get the United States government to admit to can only come through God’s grace.
[…] Instead of paying reparations for slavery, the government and those opposing reparations like David Horowitz are only making the problem worse by not admitting their guilt and facing their responsibility.
The debate over reparations for slavery is a difficult and controversial one with many theological implications. Advocates of reparations point to a strong link between slavery and the current state of the African-American socio-economic class and a need for the government to own up to its responsibility regarding slavery. The opponents should not, however, all be classified into one group, since the camp that David Horowitz represents opposes reparations on often venomous, frivolous claims. While recognizing the good that reparations could do, one must also acknowledge the problems that such a occurrence would be sure to instigate. Increased racial tension, the resurfacing of the guilt regarding slavery, and the chance that reparations could put an end to other types of support given the African-American community, reparations for slavery is not worth the trouble it would cause. Without regard to the stress it would put on the American economy, reparations are simply worth the trouble. Social programs for the whole American public that target certain aspects of society known to be of concern to African-Americans would be a step in the right direction.
SECTION III: Redemption: The Case for Reparations
[…] The most basic question arises from an apparent absurdity in the proposition of reparations. Why should anyone today benefit from the suffering of their ancestors, and why should anyone be compelled to compensate for past wrongs? The fact is that if the reparations are intended as a redress for American slavery than neither American slavery nor any of its perpetrators or victims exists today.
Thus the question is raised as to the nature of an individual and that person’s relationship to history. Are human beings fundamentally independent units of value, meaning, and purpose, relating only incidentally to each other; is community an abstraction from individual goals and needs; is existence an act of individual reason or will rather than a gift, and is individual life an entity which is primarily responsible only to itself? If this classically liberal definition of the individual is accepted, than the argument for reparations is moot. No individuals exist who are responsible for slavery, and there is no possible object of the reparations.
[…] From the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, several critiques can be made. […] What are the responsibilities of an individual from the orthodox perspective? The context of creation vastly widens the scope of human possibility and responsibility. God as the creator, endowing humans with the freedom of creaturely relationality, suggests the possibility of a meaning for human life beyond the leveling of universal laws of nature. This meaning is the meaning of relationship; God is the thing (or the equality of thingness) that every other thing has in common. This awareness of a grand intention binds the universe together, and reveals itself to human beings as the gift of history.
As specifically created beings, humans receive the conditions not just of universal existence but of a particular place and time. Each person exists not just in general but in particular, in a precise moment in history. This means that each individual is constantly receiving the present as an effect of the past. This insight is what has traditionally been called by Christians the communion of saints. Every person receives the past into his or her experience of the present; for Christians, this past is blessed, hallowed, and filled with grace by the completed lives of the ancestors who in turn received it from their own historical past. Each past moment has been forgiven and redeemed by the God who is revealed in history; therefore, each past moment is a bearer of grace and meaning for the present. In biblical narrative, the continuity between generations is organic. The cycle of Abraham contains within itself all of the patterns of Israelite history: ethnic conflicts, stupendous acts of faith, dialogues with divinity, struggles with election, and inter-family wars are all prefigured in the life of the one ancestor.
[…] How does this affect the question of reparations for slavery? Because humans are in our depths created, historical beings, to the extent that the conditions of our existence are determined by the past, we bear a deep responsibility for the past as it is revealed in each aspect of present existence. Completed actions which refused the grace of God, contributed to injustice, and denied the relational nature of human life continue to impact the present in profoundly destructive ways.
The institution of slavery, a monstrous action only completed at the cost of tremendous suffering, has exerted an enormous impact on the present. Randall Robinson has memorably described this suffering and its continuing effects:
“Through keloids of suffering, through coarse veils of damaged self-belief, lost direction, misplaced compass, shit-faced resignation, racial transmutation, black people worked long, hard, killing days, years, centuries, and they were never paid…hundreds of millions of black people endured unimaginable cruelties – kidnapping, sale as livestock, deaths in the millions during terror-filled sea voyages, backbreaking toil, beatings, rapes, castrations, maimings, murders – left behind to gasp for self-regard – in the vicious psychological wake of slavery are history’s orphans played by the brave black shells of their ancient forebears, people so badly damaged that they cannot see the damage – it is a human rights crime without parallel in the modern world. For it produces its victims ad infinitum, long after the active stage of the crime has ended” (The Debt, Randall Robinson, pp. 207-208, 216).
Robinson’s argument for reparations rests on the notion that the evil passed on to the present by slavery is so enormous that no length of time will ever cause it to dissipate; instead, its effects will continue to be received by future generations, growing worse rather than better with time. An equally powerful good, Robinson argues, must be generated in order to counter the evil.
What might be the nature of this good action, bequeathed to the future by means of the present? Redemptive action can take two forms: symbolic and practical. To perform a symbolic act of redemption is to restore by means of reinterpretation, to demonstrate the hidden relationships between actions, to acknowledge the falsehood of past interpretations, and to ask for forgiveness, whether on behalf of one’s own actions or those completed actions to which we remain responsible.
Symbolic actions are an active transformation of present reality. Symbolic redemption can be expressed artistically, liturgically, or politically, it can be both public and private, and it can involve individuals or institutions. Robinson argues that symbolic redemption is the first step that individuals ought to take in response to slavery:
“Clearly, how blacks respond to the challenge surrounding the simple demand for restitution will say a lot more about us and do a lot more for us than the demand itself would suggest – we would begin a healing of our psyches were the most public case made that whole peoples lost religions, languages, customs, histories, cultures, children, mothers, fathers. It would make us more forgiving of ourselves, more self-approving, more self-understanding to see, really see, that on three continents” (The Debt, Robinson, pp. 208).
One argument against reparations is that any such reparations would necessarily be a one-time event, by which presumably the complicit present could wash its hands of its historical past and forever absolve itself of blame. However, the kind of symbolic redemption advocated by Robinson is not a payoff but a transformation, with effects necessarily flowing forward into the future. The transformation would be first personal, as individuals repent of their prejudices, commit their resources towards the cause of justice, and work actively towards there-establishment of truly relational identities, and secondly institutional, as governments, businesses, and churches all strive to repair past injustices and ongoing institutional biases. All of this could happen as part of a deliberate and public acknowledgement by institutions of their role in both the past and present effects of slavery, taking the form of a request for forgiveness and a pledge of restitution.
With this confession in place, it would not be out of place for governments to call businesses to account for profits gained at the expense of slaves, to commit financial resources towards redeeming those individuals and communities who continue to be affected by slavery, and to seek to dismantle all institutions which continue to perpetuate the effects of slavery.
The concept of a war on poverty is not new, but the understanding of racial poverty as both arising from within a historical context and potentially redeemed by that context provides an interpretive resource which is often lacking from programs of institutional reform. What is the responsibility of an individual affected by racial poverty? Do their circumstances absolve them of the responsibility and the dignity that comes with being truly free? Or are they wholly responsible for their conditions and for every negative consequence which results from them?
Individuals affected by racial poverty are not limited by their historical circumstances, but they are conditioned by them [Conditioning sets a limit.]; the conditions of their existence arise out of those circumstances and thus the consequences of their actions can never be understood apart from them. Like every other created being, they are both free and bound, determined by history and yet finding freedom in the midst of that determination. Thus, the response to the problem of racial poverty must account for both of these realities, engaging the individual as a free being and yet always discerning the continuing effects of the past as a present reality.
[…] From this perspective, making reparations for slavery is not a case of overcoming a special evil but rather part of an ongoing responsibility both to the past – the ancestors from whom we come – and to the future, the generations who will rely on us for grace and for the hope of glory.