Americans are hearing a lot about reparations, that is, repayment to blacks for their suffering caused by America’s slavery past.
The enslavement of blacks in the US is a horrific chapter in our national history. Period. Full stop. End of story.
Assuming modern Americans should pay for the sins of our fathers, however, even if reparations seem to be a part of the solution, is a classic Gordian knot.
What algorithm is capable of determining equitable payment for such loss to a modern black person? Down to, say, the third generation away from any slaveholder?
What about the black who has absolutely no sense of such pain, because in their specific context, they did not suffer?
If it is impossible—as is often said, as a predicate for reparations—for a white person to understand the burden of a person of color in America, it is also impossible for a person of color to understand how it feels to be born with a white skin and being held guilty for a crime in which he had absolutely no involvement. (That would obviously include the non-black American whose forbears immigrated to America after 1865, and who, therefore, had no relationship to slavery. Does he pay up? If so, why, and, again, how would his debt be equitably determined?)
And then there are the descendants of the hundreds of thousands of whites who lost their lives in the Civil War to free black slaves. Reparations from their descendants?
What is to be done about the descendants of black slavers/slaveholders, including blacks who captured slaves in west Africa and sold them to slavers, black and white?
What about the slaveholders, and their descendants, who treated their slaves with kindness and gentility, as fellow human beings, who saw that they received an education, and freed them of their own will? Maybe a ten percent break on the fine?
Interestingly, I have never heard any call for modern slaveholders in various mid-eastern countries to free their slaves and pony up. (Check the web, and various histories of the middle east. See, especially, the acknowledged guru on the subject, the late Bernard Lewis’ “What Went Wrong?”)
Perhaps the best way forward is to understand that all individuals and all collections of individuals, skin-color aside, are actual sinners. And maybe it is time for all well-meaning people to admit our sins and move on: Catholics for Torquemada, Protestants for Calvin’s Geneva (and Servetus), Muslims for their sixth-century ravages across the mid-east (and modern jihadism), Anglicans for King Henry VIII, American southern evangelicals for serious anti-black sentiment (I pastored a church in the south which for its first 118 years had never received a person of color into its membership!), Mexicans for what they did to the Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs, et al., early Americans for what they did to aboriginal peoples in the western hemisphere, blacks for white-prejudice/mistreatment and whites for black-prejudice/mistreatment, and much else (!)and get on with doing the best to pursue justice and opportunity for everybody.
America’s curse is that our founders set such a high standard for us and our failure to achieve their ideals. That curse is, at the same time, our glory. America has lifted more people out of poverty, has raised the living standards for more disenfranchised people, liberated more people, and accepted more immigrants than any nation in human history, but we—like every other nation on earth—have much to regret and a long way to go toward acceptable behavior.
The whiny tit-for-tat “who-owes-who-for-what-and-for-how-much” game could easily go nuclear and destroy us. Like MAD, the Mutual Assured Destruction of the Cold War days.
Nothing must prevent us—today—from doing what is right about injustices of any serious sort, but one can hope we will soon tire of dragging corpses about and move on to a better future. Now. The impetus? Just this: it is better to fail in a grand cause then to succeed in a debased one.