In recent weeks there are renewed talks on slave reparations. Over the years, I’ve considered two scenarios for this idea. The figures used are for illustration purposes, and likely many would argue too low. However, for math and point illustrations, these numbers serve their purpose.
Division By Descendants
For each slave, a value is placed on that person – be it a generic number (demonstrated below) or the person’s known value (if known) adjusted for inflation.
In this example, Slave A is worth $1,000 in 1865. He had two children with his wife. By 1885 their two children had two children each. By 1900 each of these two children now had two children each. By 1920 these had two children each. 1940 another two each followed by 1960, 1980, and 2000 each having two children who have two children. That means in 2019 in this simplified family there are now 246 descendants from Slave A. So, if each of these 21st-century children, that is $4.06 per person. If the wife of slave A was also a slave, then $8.12 per person claiming both. Consider Slave A’s father was Slave Z and his mother was Slave Y. Should their value be set, and the descendants recalculated then if given the two children model from Slave Y and Z having two children their value would be divided among 456 people (or $2.03 per person)? Using the estimate of 3.2 million slaves in 1850 at $1,000 each would cost $3,200,000,000 total. Using the 1860 slave census, there were over 3.9 million would be approximately $3,900,000,000 – again spread out to even more descendants.
Multiplication of Ancestors
The case of another scenario, we have Slave A again but assigned no value. Instead, each of the 246 descendants can claim a slave at $100 per ancestor. With the presented seven generations, each of the 246 can claim $200 (remember the wife was a slave too). However, in addition to that, the two children of the second generation both married a slave descendant thus another $100 for them ($300). Although potentially the next generations could add to this, for the argument the 21st-century descendants can claim $500 for their ancestors’ slave status. The total for these 456 descendants would be $228,000. Using the 3.9 million in 1860 times $500 would total $1,950,000,000 as a base does not account for the multiplication of population.
Rancourt’s Value Calculation
A third concept is laid out in The Black Agenda Report’s reprinted article by Denis Rancourt, who calculated each descendant is owed $1.5 million. He used a figure of 70 years working 2 million slaves year-round at $7.25/hour (minimum wage when written) adding compound interest since 2000 for a total of $59.2 Trillion and dividing it by 40 million (his number) living descendants today.
Would a family that has four descendants (father, mother, two kids) would each of the four get the allotted credit for each ancestor by any of the rates. Under Rancourt’s plan, that is $6 million for the family.
Issues of Calculation, Relationships, Government Supervision
The problem with all of these, beyond the taxes on all citizens for the wealth redistribution, is determining who qualifies for such reparations. What is the sufficient level of proof to a slave? Just connecting to the slave or a certain percentage of slave blood (much like many Native American tribes use to determine tribal membership). Particularly under a Rancourt plan, verification to prevent fraud would be essential. What new government agency will retain all these records and verify the lines? How much would an agency cost to open and manage? How long would it exist? Maybe the duties would fall under the National Archives, or with the financial ties, the IRS?
The Genealogists: Likely the Only Winner
One group that will make out will be the genealogists who can sort this out. Would they have to be certified to provide the lineages from one or both of the two organizations that certify genealogists? Genealogists charge $25 to $50 an hour plus expenses such as copies of birth, death, marriage, and other records – all things that are required when joining a lineage society.
How far back, beyond the practical tracing of genealogy, would be allowed? When the US seceded from England in 1776? When the Peace Treaty occurred in 1783? Only to those slaves alive in 1865? What about the Spanish and French slavery in their colonies that became the future United States?
The Slave Owner’s Claim
Coleman Hughes, a black writer and New York student, pointed out blacks “Reparations, by definition, are only given to victims. So the moment you give me reparations, you’ve made me into a victim without my consent.”
The argument is that slaves were property, and if their descendants should be reimbursed for their labor. If this is the case, then the case is open that the descendants of slave owners to come forth to claim the value of their ancestor’s property in both terms of slaves and taken land – both well documented.
In a real twist of history, some freed slaves owned slaves — William Ellison (born as a slave April Ellison). As a cotton gin maker and blacksmith, he bought his freedom then eventually owned 53 slaves on his plantation – the largest slave owner in South Carolina. He and his sons, also slave owners, were the only free blacks in Sumter County. Would his descendants be eligible as descendants of a slave? Could his descendants argue for both slave reparations then claim slave owner reparations?
The broader question is should a national financial appropriation be even considered? There are no living persons who were a legal slave freed under the 13th Amendment, and no living person was an owner of slaves
The Offended and Offenders Are Dead and Repatriation is Divisive
All the participants of the 17th through 19th centuries of legal slavery are dead. They cannot apologize for their actions (even if they understood 21st-century thinking of the subject), recover their property, or collect for their labors. We the living cannot offer serious apologies for the dead or to the dead as the offender and offended are dead – and gone along with the family fortunes of labor and property.
Expanding the argument, as cited in some places, to the “Jim Crow” where adjustments are already in place for roughly 50 years in terms of Affirmative Action and other programs. Some argue that ceasing these programs will do more to racial harmony of a color-blind society as they are constant reminders there was one time a color difference.
Hughes went on to illustrate a common thought that reparations and even a commission on the matter “we would only divide the country further. Making it harder to build the political coalitions required to solve the problems facing black people today.” Independent thinking has lead Hughes and I to the same conclusion: repatriations will not further American interests and will divide the nation along racial lines instead of healing relationships, and I’ve illustrated only a few aspects of the impracticable issues of cutting checks.