American society, American whites, non-black minorities, and even some African Americans, have not fully absorbed the fact that American slavery was a long story of atrocities. It was also an endeavor of mass rape, as the light skin color of many African Americans demonstrates. (It was rape by definition; human “property” does not have the ability to give consent.) Soon after the abolition of slavery, incapacitating legally defined inferior treatment of black Americans descended on much of the country. In the South – the historical home of slavery – extra-judicial murder was frequent enough to keep many blacks timid and in partial subjection; sometimes, the resort to intimidation rose to mass murder. Incidentally, this forgetfulness is why I am glad that National Geographic, first, and Pres. Biden second, recently chose to showcase the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Whatever the latter’s real motivation, that may be the first good thing he did.
Of course, the question should arise, must arise, of responsibility regarding both slavery and segregation. This for two reasons. First, long lasting acts of inhumanity should not go un-described lest ignorance do harm in the next generations. Second, the treatment of African Americans was, for centuries so spectacularly at variance with long standing Anglo-American tradition that some sort of explanation is required. But there can be no explanation, of course without a recognition of who the actors were, of their identification. In fact, there are voices among the pushers of Wokeness claiming that all whites are guilty by definition. (I choose my words with here care.) “It wasn’t me; I wasn’t even here,” reply many white conservatives. Below is an examination of the white case I know best, mine,
I am immigrant. I landed in the US as an adult for good in 1963. It was too late to contribute much to racial segregation. If one of my approximately 30 family antecedents since 1865 had made it to American shores before me, I think the news would have reached me through family lore. So, I am almost certainly innocent on the account of aiding segregation, including trans-generationally innocent. Slavery is another issue.
Assessing my antecedents’ possible contributions to slavery is more dicey because of the greater remoteness in time but, especially, because of the multiplicity of family lines one would have to follow. (I think that to arrive even at 1800, one would have to research up to 64 linkages.) It seems that both sides of my family going back to my great-great-grandparents at least come from eastern and northern France, hundreds of mile from the western coast slaving ports. This does not exclude the possibility that one young man or other among those who sired me found his way there and signed up for a slaving voyage or two without leaving a record worthy of notice. There is also no obvious record of anyone with my last name, or my mother’s maiden name being a slave owner in America. This leaves open the possibility that some of the other branches with different surnames reached here and held slaves. As they say, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Still, on the whole, my antecedents are less likely to have profited from slavery than many, many people of coastal African descent, for example. Late into the 19th century, for example, the economy of the west African kingdom of Benin was centered on slave trading, including feeding the remaining cross-Atlantic trade. It would be surprising if some descendants of American slaves or some recent Nigerian immigrants were not also descendants of Benin slavers. Also, take the Kenyan Obamas, for example, with their Arabized first names… (“Barack” means “blessed,” in Arabic, a pious way to say “luck,” or “lucky;” and the aunt the president would not acknowledge was named “Zeituna,” Arabic for “Olive.” No olives grow in Kenya, I am sure. So, why “Olive”?) How did these names happen given that they are not Muslims? Could it be that the older Obamas were involved with the Arab slave traders of Africa’s east coast (who plied their trade much longer than anyone based in America)?
This mindless genealogical excursion is coming to an end, finally. There was a point to it though. It is this: It’s easy enough for many, possibly for most white Americans to argue that they should not be held to account either for slavery or for racial segregation because they were not here, in America, when those happened. What’s more, it’s likely that none of their ancestors were. The immigrant (legal, I hope) who landed yesterday from Russia certainly can make that claim, same as I do. It seems to me that the claim is largely irrelevant. In fact, and thinking realistically and cynically, if we looked for culpability through blood lines, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the average African American of today is more related to slave owners of the past than is the average white American. (This speculation is based on the pretty good assumption that most of today’s white Americans trace all their American ancestry to post-1863 immigration.)
Thus my point here is not that American conservatives should wallow forever in useless guilt (like a liberal wimpette) because of some supposed culpability based on race. Neither do I think that they should help feed – by supporting this claim – a sense of impunity among black criminals preying mostly on innocent African Americans. Nor do I suggest that my fellow conservatives should yield to any of the endless, diffuse race-based blackmails filling our media today (in 2021). My point rather is that we, Americans, including, and especially American conservatives, should fix what we can. I explain the ethical reason why we must do so below.
Yesterday’s immigrant, and I, and most Americans probably, live, exist, some thrive, in part thanks to the existence of a federal state that guarantees our safety from exterior threats. It’s the same federal state that makes possible a certain peacefulness, a degree of predictability of daily life without which we couldn’t even contemplate the pursuit of happiness. The fact that it does so with a heavy hand and at a high cost that I often deplore, does not change the basic fact that it does. If your libertarian beliefs make it difficult to think of this, look at Nigeria for the past ten years and at Mexico during its current elections (June 2021). However, the same federal state, in a straight historical line again, the very same federal state, engaged without discontinuity, in slave catching for fifty or one hundred years. It went on until the very eve of the Civil War. I don’t mean that the Federal Government went hunting for slaves in Africa but that it cooperated in returning runaway slaves to their owners. The practice was thunderously re-affirmed as late as 1857 in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision. For all, we know, slavery as a regional economic system might have collapsed early if the long boundary between free and slave states had been one great big open door devoid of federal interference.
It seems to me that there is no way to affirm honestly: Yes, I am appreciative for the benefits I derive from the Federal Government but I am in no way responsible for any of its past actions. Rather, I think, the following conservative principle must prevail:
The Federal Government is my servant; I am responsible to repair what my servant damaged.
I hasten to say that I don’t know how to compensate anyone for the great physical and emotional damage slavery and then, segregation inflicted on their ancestors. I confess this while noting that financial compensation for pain and suffering stands right in the middle of the mainstream of Anglo-American legal tradition. I want to focus instead on something more tangible: income.
Money often comes down through the generations. It also often fails to so come down, it’s true. This is a complicated matter. What is sure is that if the ancestor has not money, the descendant will not inherit his money. If the ancestor has no money to transmit because he is lazy, a drunkard, a whore-monger, or even simply handicapped, it’s not really any of my business as a citizen of this federal state. If, on the other hand, the descendant inherits nothing because of something my servant did to his ancestor, it’s clearly my responsibility to try and do something about it.
An unresolved concrete matter from both slavery and segregation is one of unpaid wages, and of income that could not be realized in part because of the actions of the Federal Government. I mean, my Federal Government, yesterday’s immigrant’s Federal Government, and also my Hispanic neighbors’ Federal Government. I think we all owe some compensation to our fellow citizens who have slave ancestors. (I am also ignoring here the possibility that segregation adversely affected black immigrants, people with no US slave background, because, I think, there were hardly any until recently. In general, I am skeptical of immigrants’ claims, as I indicated earlier.)
Forty-five years ago, economists Fogel and Engerman showed in Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery that slavery could fairly rigorously be subjected to conventional quantitative economic analysis, including if memory is correct, that of wage equivalencies. (The fact that the book soon became controversial only means to me that many readers don’t know how to read figures, or don’t care to.) It shouldn’t be beyond the power of modern economists to give us a rough estimate of the wages slaves would have been paid if they had not been slaves. The figure might seem surprisingly low, incidentally, because slaves were housed and fed, after a fashion, and housing and food constituted the two main recurring expenses of unskilled free workers.
Whatever the case may be, Americans in general, or just conservatives, could announce an overall amount of wages owed to slaves and, separately, of potential income black citizens lost to segregation, both augmented by accumulated interest. Proposals for discharging this collective debt should be submitted to broad public discussion. Ideally, personally, I would prefer a single payment or partial payments spread over how long it would take all made to those contemporary citizens who can show slave ancestry in the US. Since I have no illusion that any method of direct payment to individuals would have any chance of being accepted because of ambient puritanism, my fallback position would be educational/ training grants awarded to any descendant of slaves upon reaching legal maturity. I like this solution because there is good evidence that education is a reliable income and wealth multiplier. Enhanced education/training thus creates -however slight – the possibility that American society might leave that particular portion of a more general problem behind forever. Help with down payment on real estate would also probably be favored by many and for the same reason. (It seems that owning a house is the main mean of saving for most Americans.) There are many other possibilities.
Ideally, the funds for this historical compensation would come from a voluntary levy, from a subscription (a method for financing public goods not tried often enough in my view). African Americans with slave ancestors and ancestors hurt by segregation number no more than 45 million. My back-of-the envelop suggests that if everyone else reserved 1 % of his income for slavery and segregation reparation that particular debt might be extinguished in less than a lifetime. (Just a general idea; my calculations are not to be trusted literally, of course) Failing a voluntary levy, a new dedicated federal tax could accomplish the same end, of course.
Do I hope that this kind of limited compensation to the descendants of slaves could be managed in a fair, organized, decent way? Not really. I think though that it could put a damper on the present liberal temptation to replay the whole long, disastrous War on Poverty of Pres. Johnson. It would point to another way to deal with a festering wound. In any case, the inability to describe how a mission ought to be conducted should never stop us from admitting openly, even announcing, that the mission is necessary. The main virtue of this proposal would be to free to some extent those who contribute from the moral servitude resulting form our having servitude imposed on others with the help of our servant, the federal state. Acting in good faith toward other individuals is its own reward. It may even inspire others.
Beyond this, I think the Woke culture is going to collapse soon under the weight of its own ridiculousness. In the meantime, it will have ruined the careers of a few important people, including highly visible liberals who did not have sufficient alertness to duck in good time and to offer proof of their virtuousness without being asked. Even academia will regain its senses eventually though it will take some time because it’s so well protected from reality. I am betting that what will be left of this (2020-2021) societal frisson of righteousness will be the empty and therefore poisonous word “equity.” It will no doubt be used and used again until it ends exhibited in the pantheon where the Left keeps the equally empty and equally poisonous terms: the “rich,” and “fair share.” We may not prevent this but we, conservatives can keep the voice of sanity alive.
I conclude by affirming to my possibly scandalized conservative friends that nothing in this three-part essay alters my view of the broader American political context of today (2021). Pres. Biden’s administration is the worst in my long lifetime. Like everything that dampens economic growth, its policies will turn out to be especially noxious for African Americans. And liberals and progressives will blame our “selfishness,” of course.