A couple of months ago I was invited to give a guest lecture in a class on colonialism at Evergreen. My topic was North-South relations, and after I had finished, several students asked me what I thought about the concept of reparations. I expressed some doubts, and this resulted in quite a bit of angry response. As a white male, wasn’t I morally compelled to give reparations to those who had been oppressed?
My answers must not have been very convincing. I’ve continued to think about the question and have come up with these two general thoughts.
First, the feasibility of reparations depends on how much time has passed and how diffuse the relations of exploitation or dispossession have become. I think, for instance, that the United States certainly owed reparations to Vietnam at the conclusion of the war, and that reparations are still warranted today. If we delay for several generations, however, this imperative will diminish, and the rights and obligations of future Americans and Vietnamese will be more difficult to sort out. We saw this process at work in the various attempts to compensate families whose property had been seized in Eastern Europe with the installation of Communism after WWII. Those who benefitted from restitution often had tenuous connections to those who were dispossessed. Worse, it turned out that some of the properties returned to them had even earlier been taken from Jewish owners: stolen goods were being returned to thieves. On the other hand, America as a nation continues to owe reparations to the Indian tribes whose land and livelihood were taken by force. In part this is because the tribes are still relatively well-defined entities (although fuzzy around the edges), but mostly because the dispossession is ongoing.
Reparations for slavery are more complicated. There is a general duty of everyone in the US to combat racism and poverty, but what about monetary reparations in particular? Some students told me I had a personal responsibility because of my “ancestors”. Now, it happens that my particular forebears were in Europe until the late 19th century, but does that change anything? Do I have any more or less responsibility than anyone else in my social position? Here I think the ravages of time do matter. It is true that the effects of racism—advantages for some, hardships for others—linger on, but they are impossible to parse at an individual level. In fact, many of the descendants of slaves are now also in ways beneficiaries of slavery; think of a black student at Brown University, for instance. I have absolutely no doubt that white America owed the newly freed slaves enormous reparations after the Civil War, and the failure of Reconstruction to take even the smallest steps in this direction cast a dark shadow over our subsequent history. But there is no going back to that moment, and who owes whom how much is no longer discernable.
The second point is one I made at the time, but which didn’t seem to register. The rhetoric of reparations centers on the responsibility of those who benefitted at the expense of others. It summons a sense of guilt and offers an opportunity for expiation. This is certainly better than apathy, cynicism or callous neglect. But it still suffers from the defect of focusing attention on the duties of the well-off rather than the needs of those who were harmed. To put it bluntly, it measures performance by how much is paid and not by how much benefit is actually produced. What I wanted to tell the students is that this is not about you. It’s good that you feel a sense of obligation, but your feelings are ultimately not very important; what matters are the lives and well-being of those who lack the essential resources they need to survive. For this the moral principle of human solidarity is foundation enough.