Reparations for slavery have gained renewed momentum in recent months as Democratic presidential aspirants have endorsed the idea and a House Judiciary subcommittee conducted hearings on the issue in June. It is not the first time reparations have been proposed. Indeed, the United States might well have been a different — and better — nation had reparations ordered on Jan. 16, 1865, been implemented.
The order, issued by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman under President Abraham Lincoln’s authority, would have redistributed some 400,000 acres of land owned by slaveholders to newly freed slaves and free blacks who had served in the Union Army, with black families eligible to receive a maximum of 40 acres of arable coastal land between Charleston, S.C., and the St. John’s River in Florida.
President Lincoln’s assassination, however, ended any hopes that the actual victims of slavery would be recompensed for their labor and loss of freedom. President Andrew Johnson, a Southern sympathizer who succeeded President Lincoln after his assassination, rescinded the order in the fall of 1865, and the Johnson administration saw the rise of Jim Crow laws in the South and state-sponsored discrimination that lasted for a hundred years, until the next President Johnson — Lyndon Baines Johnson — signed a series of civil rights laws barring racial discrimination.
So if reparations were a good idea in 1865, why not now?
The problem is that reparations today would punish individuals who committed no wrongs while possibly rewarding some who suffered no harm. Justice requires individual culpability, not collective guilt. A people cannot be held accountable for the actions of their forebears—that path leads to endless cycles of violence, even genocide.
But aside from the injustice of punishing offspring for their ancestors’ crimes, properly distributing reparations would be a very messy ordeal. Proponents frequently point to Germany’s payment of more than $70 billion in restitution to Holocaust victims since 1952 — but those victims or their immediate heirs are identifiable, as are the Japanese Americans interned in camps during World War II, whom Congress authorized to receive compensation of $20,000 each in the 1988 Civil Liberties Act.
But as a recent New York Times article suggests, defining who might be eligible and how much compensation would be owed is difficult at best.
America today is not a nation made up primarily of descendants of slave owners and former slaves. Of the 325 million people residing here now, only a fraction can trace their ancestry back to anyone living in the United States in 1860, the last decennial census before the Civil War and Emancipation.
The U.S. population in 2017 included 44.4 million people who were born outside the United States, including 4.2 million blacks (2016) who were foreign-born. In addition, many Americans trace their history in the United States back only a few generations. First- and second-generation Americans today comprise almost 26 percent of the U.S. population; even in 1900 about one third of all people living in the United States were either immigrants or their American-born children — most of whom arrived after slavery ended.
What justification is there to require those whose ancestors came to the United States after slavery was abolished to pay restitution to the descendants of former slaves, much less to give reparations to blacks who arrived in recent years from Africa, the Caribbean, or Europe?
And where would the money come from? All of the plans currently being discussed depend on the federal government funding the effort, which means taxpayers. So should a recent arrival from, say, China, India or Mexico (the three countries from which more than half of all immigrants now come) pay a reparations’ tax — or what about immigrants from Jamaica or Nigeria (who number about one million people)? And if the federal government doesn’t impose a special tax to pay reparations, what programs in the current federal budget will be cut to fund the proposals?
Slavery and its aftermath, especially state-sanctioned racial discrimination, inflicted terrible suffering on millions of Americans. But the nation fought a bloody Civil War to end slavery, in which some 364,000 Union soldiers lost their lives, nearly as many as died during WWII when the U.S. population was more than four times as large.
And while it took far too long for the United States to pass and enforce anti-discrimination laws, we now spend hundreds of millions each year enforcing civil rights laws at the federal, state, and local level, and individuals have received billions of dollars in awards in successful civil rights actions brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission since 2003.
Trying to right past wrongs is an impossible task. The best we can do is to focus on punishing racial discrimination when it occurs and ensuring that all persons — regardless of their race, skin color. or where they come from — have an opportunity to succeed now.
• Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity.