Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


U.S. government should compensate for atrocities of slavery

When slavery was abolished in 1865, Congress passed a bill promising freed slaves “40 acres and a mule.” It was vetoed.

Almost two centuries have passed since then, but the U.S. government has come no closer to making amends for the atrocities of slavery.

It is time to fix this grievous wrong. It is time for the U.S. government to finally face its ugly past and try to make repairs.

Opponents of reparations often make the mistake of casting reparations in a very individualized light. “I don’t own slaves, and neither did my ancestors,” they say. “So why should I have to pay?” They say the time to deal with the subject of slavery has already come and gone, and question the point of trying to atone for the sins of the dead by paying the living.

Such logic fails to identify the real crux of the problem: the government’s continued failure to uphold the rights of African Americans.

Government, unlike individual people, is timeless and contains a built-in level of continuity. Individual slave owners may be long dead, but the government that supported and directly profited from slavery is very much alive and well. In other words, governments are immortal, and as such, they are liable for their actions even after the fact.

And our government — whose very capitol was built with slave labor — has a lot to be liable for. From a Constitution that once classified African Americans as worth only 3/5 of a person, to racial profiling and discrimination in today’s criminal justice system, our government has failed time and again to give African Americans their Constitutional rights.

The relevance of slavery did not die when the last slave-holding plantation owners passed away. The wide wealth gap between African Americans and whites is one of the most obvious vestiges of the problem.

“African Americans couldn’t even own property; they were property,” wrote reparations advocate and professor Thomas Shapiro. “There was just no way African Americans could accumulate assets that could be passed on from generation to generation.”

This wealth gap, combined with both de facto and institutionalized segregation, is self-perpetuating and has left many African Americans disadvantaged from the outset.

Unfortunately, America has chosen to ignore and deny, for all practical purposes, slavery and its legacy.

Some opponents of reparations even try to downplay the severity of the situation by pointing out that slavery has existed in almost every culture of the world. This argument is ridiculous. Two wrongs never make a right, and America’s responsibility for its crimes is not lessened by the fact that its particular crime happens to be widespread.

These opponents advocate a continuation of the denial and say dwelling on past injustices is unhealthy and breeds a sense of helplessness and victimization.

In the real world, however, problems don’t go away just because you ignore them. This is no exception.

Reparations are necessary not because African Americans are incapable of succeeding without them, but because the government committed a terrible crime against humanity that has yet to be repaired, or even apologized for (lawmakers decided it would be too little, too late).

Reparations are not handouts, they are the obligation of a government that has shirked its responsibility and refused to accept blame. African Americans can — and have — succeeded and thrived without reparations, but this does not negate the fact that the government has an outstanding debt to pay.

The government supports reparations for other wronged nations, so why not for slavery?

In fact, when speaking of a historic agreement to give $5 billion to Holocaust victims, then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright said it is was crucial to compensate, “those whose labor was stolen or coerced during a time of outrage and shame. It is critical to completing the unfinished business of the old century before entering the new.”

Although she probably didn’t even consider it, Albright’s words explain perfectly why reparations are needed in America.

Obviously, a lot has changed since 1865; the idea of “40 acres and mule” is now obsolete. Just as it is impossible to lay all of the blame for slavery upon the shoulders of long dead slave-owners, it is now unfeasible to settle the score by direct financial compensation for victims and their descendents.

Rather, reparations should take the form of social programs, paid for by the government, such as aid for inner-city schools, scholarships, job-training programs, healthcare programs.

Of course, such an initiative could never truly erase the scars of slavery; nothing could ever do that. But such a move would be an excellent first step toward facing a chapter of our country’s past that has long been closed, and repairing the wrongs of slavery.

Kristin Wieben ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in political science and French. She is the Opinion editor of The Badger Herald.

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