No, Descendants of Slaves Do Not Deserve Reparations

Charlie McKenna | July 28, 2016
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Michael Daly, a writer for the Daily Beast, added his own take on Michelle Obama’s DNC comment that the White House was “built on the backs of slaves.” According to Daly, government ought to pay the descendants of slaves the just wage that was denied to their ancestors for their labor.

Daly's calculations bring the reparations owed to the slaves to $83 million, basing that figure off the wage paid to the slave owners for the project at the time and adjusting for inflation. However, Daly admits it's probably impossible to find these descendants.  

It’s a fair thought: everyone deserves to be paid what they are owed. However, unless Daly wants to throw the money into the slaves’ graves, it’s not exactly just. None of the descendants of slaves lifted a finger to the effort of building the White House, so it isn't justified for the money to go to them.

But what about systematic opression? If they had been given the fair wage, the descendants of slaves would be benefiting from the compensation even today. But even with that fair assumption, it would certainly be unjust to simply saddle the entire U.S. population with this responsibility, especially when the vast majority are not descended from slave owners.

So it would be better to make the direct descendants of the exploiters pay the debts, right? After all, they actually benefit from the work of their ancestors, unlike the descendants of slaves.

But when put into context, it also seems a little simplistic. First of all, the passage of time has made the window to gain and lose wealth so long that it is unclear how much this particular transaction really effects the wealth of the descendants. Those who actually worked on the project died generations ago. The current generation’s connection to this event is highly indirect and the exact dollar amount that they benefit from or are robbed of by this event is impossible to quantify.

Secondly, the individuals who are actually alive must be considered. It is vital to reiterate that the descendants of slaves and slave owners had absolutely no part of slavery hundreds of years ago. They were in no way involved with the event. At all. The descendants of slave owners cannot justly be saddled with the debt of a crime they did not commit. That would simply add injustice to injustice.

Finally, it's worth considering the wider implications such reparations would have. If these reparations were paid, what would stop every group from demanding reparations from every other group for every historical wrong? Where would the cutoff point be? Who would determine the justice of the claims? It would be a mess.

So, no, Daly, you are wrong to simply presume the justice of paying reparations, and your argument only furthers the racial tensions that have existed for far too long.