Repairing the Past
By Patrick F. Cannon
I’ve been rereading Barbara Tuchman’s wonderful book about the opening battles of World War I, The Guns of August. In this classic litany of mischance and human folly, the activities of the German government and army stand out above the other combatants for their sheer brutality and arrogance.
Here’s an example. By treaty among neighboring nations, including Germany, Belgium was guaranteed her neutrality. Nevertheless, the German plan of battle in August, 1914 included invading France through Belgium. When that small country refused to permit the German army to transit Belgium without a fight, the German were so incensed at their resistance that they demanded they pay reparations for the inconvenience they had caused them! The arrogance of this was breathtaking, so it is no wonder that when they ultimately lost the war, they were required to pay substantial reparations to the victors.
In essence, reparations are payments to “repair” damages to individuals or property. Recent Congressional hearings have again raised the question of reparations for the descendants of Africans sold into slavery and brought to this country to be sold again as laborers, primarily in the South. Even after they were freed in 1863, Jim Crow laws in Southern states drastically curtailed their rights, including their right to vote. The insult was compounded when the Supreme Court upheld separation of the races in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which established the “separate but equal” concept.
Beginning in 1948 when President Truman signed an order desegregating the armed services, African-Americans have slowly regained their civil rights. While there is now no statutory limit on their freedoms, it would be naïve to think that racism and discrimination is a thing of the past in America. But it is primarily to redress past wrongs that many African-Americans and others believe that financial reparations are due to the descendants of Africans brought to this country against their will.
Not everyone remembers or is even aware that in 1988 Congress passed and President Reagan signed a bill that paid $20,000 in reparations to each surviving Japanese-American who had been interned during World War II. It was finally done after more than 40 years because the blame for interning American citizens (it was common for enemy aliens to be interned) was easy to place – it was done by the US Government through executive order.
The blame for enslaving Africans is more complicated. In our case, it was Great Britain who largely delivered slaves to Southern ports. But they were the traders, not the original enslavers. That distinction goes to their fellow Africans, who either captured them during battles, or rounded them up during raids, before shipping them to West African ports. Slave trading was part of the triangular system: Britain shipped manufactured goods to Africa, exchanged them for slaves, who were then sent to ports in America – New Orleans, Charleston, etc. – and exchanged for commodities like tobacco and cotton destined for Great Britain. Then the commodities were – well, you get the idea.
Great Britain didn’t abolish the slave trade until 1807 or abolish slavery until 1833, only 30 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Our Founders, mostly Englishmen after all, wrestled with the question when drafting the Constitution, but failed to abolish slavery, many believing wrongly that it would die out naturally. They obviously share the blame for the persistence of slavery, along with the approximately 25-percent of Southerners who held slaves, and the perpetrators of the Jim Crow laws that replaced it.
But what of the majority of Americans, who neither trace to the Founders nor whose ancestors owned slaves? What of the people whose family were abolitionists? Or arrived here after 1863? The promoters of reparations argue that there is a kind of collective guilt or the stain of original sin that we all share regardless of these mitigating factors. It is the same theory of collective guilt that persuaded the Germans to massacre Belgium civilians in August, 1914.
While it’s unlikely that reparations will ever be paid, that doesn’t mean that white Americans must not continue to try to redress the pattern of discrimination that our African-American citizens have and continue to suffer. After acknowledging our past sins, isn’t it better by far to concentrate on the future? What good did obsessing about the past do in Northern Ireland or the former Yugoslavia?
For the many Americans who feel guilty about our past, I would suggest they consider investing in the future by donating to organizations that invest in education, like the United Negro College Fund (www.uncf.com), or any of the many other organizations that focus on what can happen rather than a past that can’t be changed. Why do so many instead insist on resurrecting the likes of Richard Russell and James O. Eastland and throwing them in poor Joe Biden’s face? Is it because they’ve made a living at it so long they can’t afford to stop?
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon