50 – Should We Have Slave Reparations?

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As I write this in mid-June of 2019, there are twenty-three Democrats vying for the honor of losing to Donald Trump in November of 2020. They’re piling on so fast, though, that by the time this Commentary is published the number may be approaching thirty.

As I look at the field, I can’t help wondering how the Democrat primary voters are going to tell the difference between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. I made the point in Commentary No. 45 that they’re all advocating the same things—Medicare for all, a free education, a guaranteed job, a guaranteed income, abolish ICE, repeal the Trump tax cuts, yada, yada, yada.

The latest bandwagon they’ve all jumped on is the issue of reparations for slavery. Personally, I think they’re just pandering to the black vote, more and more of which is going to the Republicans, but I’ll admit I could be wrong. I am, after all, a cynical old curmudgeon.

The basic concept of slave reparations is simple. The federal government (which is to say We the People) will pay to each currently-living black U.S. citizen a sum of money. At that point it starts to get complicated, though. For example, should the recipient of the money have to prove he actually had ancestors who were slaves? What about the person who just had one slave ancestor—should he get the same amount as the person who can prove a dozen or more slave ancestors?

Then there’s the question of who should get the money.  Since the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, there have been more than six generations born in the U.S. If we assume a surviving population of 2.1 progeny per generation (a statistically accurate number, by the way), each slave in 1863 has 102 descendants living today. Do we split the money between them?

I can foresee the creation of a huge new government bureaucracy, the Federal Bureau of Slave Reparations, to oversee all of this confusion. I also anticipate a whole new field of law for attorneys to specialize in—Reparations Law, and probably a whole new court system to hear the claims and appeals.

But none of that is what I want to talk about today. I don’t want to get caught up in the legalities or politics of the reparations question. I want to consider the issue of right and wrong, and the question of what is fair.


Here in the early days of the Twenty-first Century I doubt that any Christian American would argue that it’s right or moral for one human being to “own” another, and to make that person work from sunup to sundown, six days a week, without compensation.

So the first question we need to address is. . .what would fair compensation have been? A little research turns up that the average wage for unskilled labor in the middle of the Nineteenth Century was about seventy-five or eighty cents a day—say, twenty dollars a month, or $240 a year.

But there are other considerations. The slaves weren’t paid a wage, but they received other benefits. They were given a place to live. They were furnished with food and clothing. They had whatever medical care they needed.

When they got too old or too infirm to work, they continued receiving the basics of food, clothing, and shelter until they died. In modern terms, they were furnished with a secure retirement.

How much were those benefits worth? The best guess we can make is to consider that today, the average unskilled worker working for the national minimum wage would spend at least half his income on those things. I suspect it’s a lot more than half, but let’s be generous. Let’s say the slave received ten dollars a month in benefits, so he’s still owed ten dollars a month in wages.

If we guess that the average slave worked for. . .oh, let’s pick a number out of the air and say twenty years. . .that would mean he earned, let’s see—carry the seven, divide by the square root of three–$2,400 in uncompensated wages over his working years. I’ll leave it up to the Federal Bureau of Slave Reparations to decide how the money is to be split.


But wait. I said in the opening paragraphs that I wanted to consider the issue of fairness. So in fairness, if we’re going to consider this question along racial lines—currently-living white people reimbursing currently-living black people for the wages their ancestors should have received—we need to consider the benefits those six generations of black people have continued to receive from white people.

As I look at history, I find that every major invention or development, without exception, was made by white people.

  • Transportation: the locomotive, the steamboat, the automobile, the motorcycle, the helicopter, the airplane.
  • Industry: the production line, the steam engine, the internal-combustion engine, the jet engine, machines that replicated human effort but did it faster, cheaper, and without mistakes.
  • Agriculture: the tractor, and a wide variety of attachments like plows, mowers, and diskers; a plethora of specialized harvesting machines; fertilizers to increase the crop yield; insecticides to kill the bugs that fed on the crops.
  • Communications: the telegraph, the telephone, radio, television, email.
  • Technology: vacuum tubes, transistors, integrated circuits, recorders, computers, calculators, telephones small enough to drop in your pocket and take anywhere.
  • Entertainment: the still camera, the movie camera, the video camera, portable radios, compact disks, video tape, digital video disks, cable television.
  • Medical science: vaccines and antibiotics that wiped out some of the worst diseases in history, such as measles, smallpox, polio, and the Bubonic plague; surgical procedures that allow replacement of almost all human organs including the heart and lungs.

The list goes on and on.


So am I suggesting that black people should compensate white people for all the times they’ve traveled in a car or airplane, talked on a telephone, watched television, or used a computer?

No. I’m suggesting that we let history be history. Let’s recognize that black people and white people, sometimes working separately, sometimes working together, have made important contributions to the national and world economies and improved the living standards of the entire world.

I’m suggesting that instead of looking for ways to divide us and set one race against the other, we recognize that we’re all Americans and find ways to work together. The entire world will benefit if we can do that.