On car trips, Sirius-XM satellite radio is
a blessing. I roll through a lot of radio talk.
The topic of reparations for slavery appears
to be a frequent one on an African-American
talk-show channel called, “The Power,” one I’ll
catch every now and again.
It’s an interesting case, this notion of paying
millions of black Americans for the forced labor
of their forefathers. Some estimate that slaves
pumped $8 billion into the U.S. economy and
received none of it when they were freed.
During these debates on The Power I can’t help
but think of Union soldiers, the ones who died
or were injured in freeing the slaves. Shouldn’t
they get in on this?
After all, what’s worse, being a slave and seeing
the shackles cut, or fighting against slavery
and having your head blown off?
There are many angles in this reparations debate.
And there are precedents of sorts, too.
A few years ago, the German Parliament passed
legislation to govern a $5-billion fund for
Nazi-era slave workers and other Holocaust victims.
Here in the United States, we provided reparations
in 1988 for the Japanese-Americans who were
interred during World War II. Native Americans
haven’t been provided with the best deal, but
at least they have legal gambling houses to
recoup a fraction of the continent that was
So what about the descendants of slaves? Shouldn’t
they be compensated?
Following the Civil War, the U.S. government
promised slaves a settlement of “40 acres and
Congress passed a reparations bill, but President
Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, vetoed
Then there’s the question of whether the U.S.
government should be the sole target of those
in the reparations movement.
Several German companies paid reparations to
Holocaust victims and their families for the
forced labor Jews performed under the Nazis.
Why should American companies who profited from
slavery get a pass card?
States successfully have sought billions in
“health reparations” from tobacco companies,
which many believe plotted to “hook” people
If companies can be linked to slavery, that
is a sin far worse than anything the tobacco
companies have done, and the slave-connected
businesses should be held responsible.
But the government?
Taxpayers in general?
That’s another story.
So many Americans did not play a role in the
horror of slavery.
Take Carroll County, where I live, for instance.
Many of the initial settlers came from Germany
after the Civil War, and if they were here in
the 1860s, they were fighting for the Union,
putting their lives on the line for the freedom
Why should any Carroll County tax dollars go
to pay for the sins of others?
About 75,000 Iowans served in the Civil War
or 54.7 percent of the male population of “military
age.” Teenagers and senior citizens served in
the war. Of those Iowans who served the Union
cause, 13,000 died.
There are other problems with government reparations,
How would people prove their lineage? Are we
going to have a nation of Alex Haleys running
around spending thousands to authenticate their
And most troubling is this question: If you
say you support reparations for the descendants
of slaves, then how much are you going to shell
out? How much is one life worth? Do you base
it on how much a free black man would have made
sharecropping in the South or as a doctor in
the North? Do you base it on how much an Irish
immigrant made hacking it out in some sweat
shop in New York?
That would surely be an ugly debate.
And once the descendants of slaves were paid,
it would quickly spark resentment among other
races, while providing an easy excuse to avoid
tackling diversity issues. You can hear the
arguments ringing from the suburbs now, “Hey,
we paid you. You don’t need affirmative action.
Now you blacks can quit complaining about all
those random police searches in New York City.
It’s not racism. We paid you for that.”
Moreover, African-Americans weren’t the only
“immigrants” mistreated by American industry.
What about the West Virginia coal miners or
the Chinese who built the railroads?
What about the children U.S.-based multi-national
corporations exploit today?
America’s past and present are littered with
victims who have strong claims to financial
relief — and everybody wants to get paid.
There is no statute of limitations on the slavery
issue. To be sure, we still aren’t right with
But if the descendants of slaves get to go to
the financial well, they should, in my mind
at least, be second in line, behind the families
of Union soldiers who lost life and limb. CV
Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa
newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily
Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.