In recent months there has been a good deal of talk about reparations owed to African-Americans and, perhaps and to Native Americans. Advocates point to reparations paid to Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II and had to sell their land and businesses, homes and belongings at bargain basement prices as they were hustled into the camps. Reparations, advocates point out, are not an unheard of event.
But many Americans regard the idea of reparations as completely ridiculous. They cannot understand how anybody in their right mind would ask white Americans to provide reparations to anyone. Last June, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader, was quoted as saying: “none of us currently living are responsible” for what he called America’s “original sin.” Slavery, he said, ended 150 years ago. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African American president.” At the same time various news outlets reported that genealogical research showed two of McConnell’s grandfathers to be slave owners who owned 14 slaves, primarily women. That suggests that the family wealth of the McConnell clan derives in part from the unpaid labor of these 14 slaves. If that is the case, if McConnell’s family has not in the meantime squandered the wealth derived from these slaves’ labor, it is hard to see how McConnell can disclaim any responsibility for the suffering of slaves. At the very least, he has received a significant and unearned benefit for the brutality they endured.
This story is instructive because it points us in the direction of looking at historical responsibilities. There are many Americans who want to claim innocence of slavery whose property and wealth and the accompanying well-being derives in part from the slaves their ancestors owned.
What is more, many American families who did not in fact own slaves nevertheless profited from the institution. Slaves were mainly employed in the cotton fields. Cotton was a precious product that needed to be transported and traded, that required cleaning and transformation into cotton thread to be then woven into cotton material and tailored into shirts and dresses, sheets and curtains, and many other products. Slaves produced the raw material for a large and complex textile industry.
The textile industry was founded in England and grew rapidly thanks to a number of industrial inventions that made it possible to transform cotton into cloth in large factories. Around 1800, some of these techniques were brought to the United States and very soon textiles were the largest industry. A significant number of whites found work and sometimes became very wealthy thanks to the unpaid labor of black slaves in the southern states. Not having owned slaves does not get any families in the United States or in Great Britain for that matter off the hook as far as responsibility for the exploitation of slaves goes.
What happened to African-Americans once the Civil War Amendments to the Constitution were passed? Many Americans do not know the answer to that question. The older among them experienced the civil rights movement. Younger ones are most likely growing up in cities and towns that have a Martin Luther King Boulevard somewhere or some other commemoration of Martin Luther King. But why did those participating in the Civil Rights Movement demonstrate and expose themselves to the violence of Southern sheriffs and attacks by racist gangs?
The answer to that question is complex. Here are some of the pieces. The 13th Amendment outlaws slavery “except as punishment for crime.” The Civil War and Reconstruction were barely over when former slave owners used this exception to the 13th amendment. They passed a number of laws, most of which applied only to black Americans. Among other things, these laws required all African-American men to have a job. If they were not employed they could be convicted of vagrancy. Black persons could not assemble without a white person present. Preaching or speaking to groups of people was not allowed. African-Americans needed to be employed by a white person or a “former owner”; they were not allowed to rent a home in the town where they worked. It went on and on. It gave sheriffs plenty of leeway for arresting and imprisoning black persons. Black prisoners once again were made to work for nothing. Frequently states rented out groups of prisoners to private companies—a practice that still continues in prisons today. Once again black people were virtual slaves.
In the years after the Civil War thousands and thousands of African-Americans were tortured by white mobs and then lynched. The local sheriff or police looked on and perhaps participated. No one was ever arrested for what was clearly brutal murder. There was a deliberate campaign of intimidating and subjugating black persons.
Only against the background of this deliberate campaign of terrorism—because that is what it was, an intentional process of putting the fear into the hearts and minds of persons of color—can one understand what happened to the sharecroppers. They worked their land all year and at the end of the year they brought the bales of cotton that they produced to the proprietor of the land; of course a white man. They might have brought in six bales and the proprietor counted only four and paid them a small price for them. Year-by-year white people stole from the black farmers and they were too scared of being lynched or their family being harmed to object. Once again black labor was not compensated.
White people became well to-do by consistently stealing from persons of color. Those practices did not end until the 1900s, and there are many respects in which they continue. Many white people are relatively well off today because their grandparents cheated sharecroppers; all rented black convicts from the local jail. Thoroughly fed up, millions of African-Americans fled the South to move to Northern cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Life up north was still very difficult and remains so to this day. I will cite two brief examples.
At the end of World War II, a grateful nation passed legislation which promised low cost mortgages to veterans and offered to pay the cost of the education. When black veterans took their offer of a government backed mortgage to the new suburbs and Levittowns, they were turned down. No one was going to sell them a house in a white suburb and black suburbs did not exist. Banks would not lend to black applicants; real estate agents would sell houses to Blacks only in specific, mostly urban and decaying neighborhoods—a practice known as “red-lining.” When black veterans applied to college, southern colleges and universities would refuse to admit them. Schools that would have them mostly lacked any advanced engineering or doctoral programs.
Their unpaid labor built the Capitol in Washington DC. It built a thriving industrial nation. But they were excluded from sharing the wealth they produced. The Civil War did not bring them freedom or citizenship. The struggle for black liberation still remains to be won. There are no white Americans who are not complicit in the oppression of African-Americans. Supposed innocence is not a good reason to deny reparations.