Phi Beta Cons

Re: Gates

While I agree that it’s refreshing to see a prominent left-wing academic tell the truth about slavery, I’m a little bit troubled by the actual argument he seems to be advancing.

To me, the fact that Africans were key players in the slave trade illustrates that slavery was a near-universal part of the human condition for centuries, and that Britons and (later) Americans stood out not for participating in it, but rather for ending it. It’s evidence that the notion of slavery reparations is silly — every person in the world would have to tally what they’re owed, who owes them, what they owe, and to whom they should send payments. By modern standards of morality, the entire human race was scum for most of its existence; we should be glad we live in modern times rather than sorting out grievances between our ancestors and settling them between ourselves.

To Gates, though, this fact is a difficult but surmountable obstacle to reparations (a policy that, to be fair, he doesn’t come right out and endorse):

Through the work of Professors Thornton and Heywood, we also know that the victims of the slave trade were predominantly members of as few as 50 ethnic groups. This data, along with the tracing of blacks’ ancestry through DNA tests, is giving us a fuller understanding of the identities of both the victims and the facilitators of the African slave trade. . . .

Given this remarkably messy history, the problem with reparations may not be so much whether they are a good idea or deciding who would get them; the larger question just might be from whom they would be extracted.

So how could President Obama untangle the knot? In David Remnick’s new book “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama,” one of the president’s former students at the University of Chicago comments on Mr. Obama’s mixed feelings about the reparations movement: “He told us what he thought about reparations. He agreed entirely with the theory of reparations. But in practice he didn’t think it was really workable.”

About the practicalities, Professor Obama may have been more right than he knew. Fortunately, in President Obama, the child of an African and an American, we finally have a leader who is uniquely positioned to bridge the great reparations divide. He is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. And reaching that understanding is a vital precursor to any just and lasting agreement on the divisive issue of slavery reparations

First of all, the U.S. can’t “extract” reparations from African countries that don’t want to pay without violating their sovereignty. And second: Would black Americans really accept reparations payments from poor African countries? Angola, home of the Mbundu tribe, which Gates mentions as former slave-sellers, has a GDP per capita of about $4,000. Isn’t living on the world’s poorest continent punishment enough for being born to someone who was born to someone, and so on, who sold slaves?

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