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Slavery reparations

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By Walter Williams
Wednesday, June 18, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Calls for slavery reparations have returned with the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates' “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic magazine (May 21). In making his argument, Coates goes through the horrors of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and gross racial discrimination.

I agree that slavery was a horrible, despicable violation of basic human rights. The gross discrimination that followed emancipation made a mockery of the guarantees of the U.S. Constitution. I also agree that slave owners and slave traders should make reparations to those whom they enslaved. The problem, of course, is that slaves, slave owners and slave traders are all dead.

Punishing perpetrators and compensating victims is not what reparations advocates want. They want government to compensate today's blacks for the bondage suffered by our ancestors. But there's a problem. The only way for government to give one American a dollar is to first confiscate that dollar from some other American. Therefore, a moral question arises: What moral principle justifies punishing a white of today to compensate a black of today for what a white of yesterday did to a black of yesterday?

There's another moral issue. A large percentage of today's Americans don't even go back three or four generations as American citizens. Their ancestors arrived on our shores long after slavery. What justifies their being taxed to compensate blacks for slavery?

Also, during slavery, some free blacks purchased other blacks as a means to free family members. But other blacks owned slaves for the same reason whites owned slaves — to work farms or plantations. Are descendants of these slaveholding blacks eligible for and deserving of reparations?

When African slavery began, there was no way Europeans could have enslaved millions of Africans. They had no immunity to diseases that flourished in tropical Africa. Capturing Africans to sell into slavery was done by Arabs and black Africans. Would reparations advocates demand that citizens of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Kenya and several Muslim states make reparation payments to progeny of people whom their ancestors helped to enslave?

Reparations advocates make the foolish argument that the United States became rich on the backs of free black labor. That's nonsense that cannot be supported by fact.

Slavery doesn't have a very good record of producing wealth. Slavery was all over the South and outlawed in most of the North. Buying into the argument about the riches of slavery, one would conclude that the antebellum South was rich and the slave-starved North was poor.

The truth is just the opposite. The poorest states and regions of our nation were places where slavery flourished — Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia — while the richest states and regions were those where slavery was absent: Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts.

One of the most ignored facts about slavery's tragic history is that slavery was a worldwide institution for thousands of years. It did not become a moral issue until the 18th century. Plus, the moral crusade against slavery started in the West, most notably England.

I think the call for slavery reparations is simply another hustle. Advocates are not demanding that government send checks to individual black people. They want taxpayer money to be put into some kind of reparations fund from which black leaders decide who receives how much and for what purpose.

Walter Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

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