Pay Up, Yankees! We Want Greenbacks

Under the terms of the Slave Reparations Act, the American government has agreed to send payments to people “of the black ethnic race” born before 1928. At least, that is the claim made in a recent scam that targeted elderly black residents of Arkansas and North Carolina. Earnest Brown, President of the Arkansas National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has referred to the scam – that asked targets for their Social Security numbers and other personal data – as a “form of taking someone’s life savings.”

It is difficult to feel unalloyed sympathy for people caught up in this private scam when, in responding to it, they were trying to take advantage of a far greater political grab at the life savings of other innocent people. There is no Slave Reparations Act but Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) has introduced a bill to create a federal commission to study reparations issue. H.R. 40 acknowledges “the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865.” It seeks “to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.” Local government has also picked up the banner of slave reparations. For example, In June of this year, the City Council of Chicago passed a resolution that urged Congress to consider reparations to the descendants of slaves.

Perhaps the foremost spokesman in the growing slave reparations movement is Randall Robinson, author of “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks,” who seems determined to start a movement. (Baseball caps, T-shirts and sweatshirts sporting the message “The Debt” can be purchased at his site.) Robinson states, “This question of reparations has [been] demonized only where African Americans are concerned. Jews, quite rightly, have received billions of dollars in reparations for World War II, as have Korean women who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese.” A group called the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) has taken up Robinson’s cry. N’COBRA’s mission is clear. “We want our just inheritance: the trillions of dollars due us for the labor of our ancestors who worked for hundreds of years without pay.” The method of reparations advocated is clear as well,”Payment may include all of the following: land, equipment, factories, licenses, banks, ships, airplanes, various forms of tax relief, education & training, to name a few. A good academic exercise would be to develop a plan for how reparations could be used collectively to enable the African community to become independent from racist institutions and economically self-sufficient for at least seven generations.”

The only manner in which such a massive redistribution of wealth can be accomplished is by taxing the current and potential life savings of an extremely large base of people. But those who bear personal responsibility for the institution of slavery are dead. Thus, in order to establish a base broad enough for the money-grab to work, tax dollars would have to be used. The majority of Americans who had nothing to do with slavery would have to be impoverished to support the minority whose ancestors were slaves Many of those bearing the tax penalty would be the descendants of immigrants who fled their own lands because of severe oppression, both political and economic.

I am an example. Although I am a Canadian, if the nineteenth century cargo ships carrying my Irish ancestors had landed a few miles to the south, I would be American. The Irish who landed in the mid-1800s onward were not slaveholders. They were the type of laborers that slaveholders sent to clear the Southern swamps because they did not wish to expose valuable property (black slaves) to high-risk work. For them, life in America was nasty, brutish and short – but, at least, it wasn’t British and short. Now N’COBRA wants the descendants of people who were less valuable than slaves to impoverish their families in order to enrich strangers whose skins happen to be black. If there is a formula for creating racism in America, this may be it.

The idea that government should assume the role of a remedial historian who corrects past wrongs through inflicting current ones is so bizarre that I was initially at a loss to reply. Then I recalled advice offered by Ayn Rand. When an audience member at a lecture asked her how he should respond to the proponent of a blatantly absurd position, she suggested that he should take the person seriously and walk away.

Too much is politically at stake to walk away from the slave reparation issue, but I am willing to take its proponents seriously. Indeed, I will take them more seriously than they take themselves. Granting – for the purpose of this article – that it is a proper role of the state to correct centuries old historical wrongs, let’s do so in an orderly fashion. The first massive historical wrong committed against a class of people by the United States government – first because it was simultaneous with very nascence of that government – was the persecution of the Loyalists. The Loyalists were American colonists who retained their basic loyalty to the crown of Great Britain during the American Revolution.

More than 80,000 Americans were forced to flee to the safety of Canada where their descendants now number approximately 3,000,000, Since genealogy is a Canadian hobby, many – if not most – of the descendants can trace their roots directly back to a plot of land Stateside.

The United States government itself officially recognized a moral obligation to pay reparations to the first class of victims it created. The Treaty of Paris between England and the United States (1783) – signed on the American side by Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams, then ratified by the U.S. Congress – ended the War for Independence and granted certain rights to the United States in consideration for those signatures. Article 5 of the Treaty not only recommended to Congress that “all estates, rights, and properties” of British citizens and loyalists who did not bear arms during the American Revolution be restituted. (Many loyalists did not bear arms but were simply citizens who disagreed with the rebels and refused willing co-operation.) Article 5 concluded, “And it is agreed that all persons who have any interest in confiscated lands, either by debts, marriage settlements, or otherwise, shall meet with no lawful impediment in the prosecution of their just rights.”

The United States government never lived up to its moral and stated commitment to facilitate restitution to loyalists. Its weaseling out can not blamed on a lack of claimants. As recently as 1996, loyalists attempted to regain their confiscated property through the Godfrey-Milliken Bill. MP John Godfrey and MP Peter Milliken both of whom trace their roots to loyalists introduced this private members bill to the Canadian House of Commons. Godfrey has requested the return of his family home in Carter’s Grove, Virginia. Milliken wants a slice of the Mohawk Valley in New York State. They have requested that the U.S. live up to the Treaty of Paris and provide justice to some 3,000,000 Canadians.

(And, yes, the Godfrey-Milliken Bill is a satire – though it was introduced into the House of Commons. The proximate cause of the parody was the Helms-Burton Act (U.S., 1996) which stated that the U.S. government had a right to seek restitution from Cuba for lands confiscated from US citizens. In pursuit of this policy, the United States outraged Canadian opinion by exerting great pressure on Canada to break its own relations with Cuba.)

In short, in 1783, the United States affirmed its obligation to facilitate reparations or restitution to the loyalists. In 1996, it further validated the right of a nation to pursue the property of its citizens that has been confiscated by other nations. The slave reparations movement, by the logic of its own arguments, should support the documented claims of loyalist descendants – the first class of people who were systematically victimized by the U.S. Government. Indeed, the Loyalists clearly have the better legal claim and they might set a precedent from which N’COBRA could benefit. Of course, no such support from that quarter will be forthcoming.

Instead, I will be accused of racism for making the satirical suggestion that the descendants of slaves – that is, innocent black American taxpayers – contribute to the prosperity of white Canadians. Yet this is what proponents of slave reparations are demanding in reverse. They want Americans who have done them no wrong, whites, Asians, Hispanics, etc. to have their “life savings” diverted into their own pockets. And they are not engaging in satire.

October 3, 2000

Wendy McElroy is author of The Reasonable Woman. See more of her work at and at her personal website.

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