Why we need a statute of limitations against the past

The case against (most) reparations

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series The Victim Cult

The following is an excerpt from The Victim Cult: How The Grievance Culture Hurts Everyone And Wrecks Civilizations by Mark Milke. In this excerpt, Milke details how the “new” definition of racism from Ibram X. Kendi and others hollow out hard facts and reasoned analyses when a monocausal explanation – racism – is offered up for all observed disparities between cohorts.

Mark MilkeIn his 2014 essay, The Case for Reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates offered up examples for why Americans should not only recall the historic treatment of black Americans but why slavery, the Jim Crow era, and multiple other evils might at least partly explain some present-day social and economic problems within black communities.

The essay set off a new round of calls for reparations, and Coates argued America could never be whole until his fellow Americans dealt with the “compounding moral debts” from 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of “separate but equal,” and 35 years of racist housing policy.

For Coates, the differences between black and white America result from the effect of that unpaid balance, with “interest accruing daily, are all around us.” He asserted that reparations would at least seek to close that gap and act as a sort of moral disinfectant for the republic: “Reparations – by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences,” he writes, “is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.”

For Coates, the way forward is intimately tied to reparations, for the “healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.”

Coates offered up a partial economic argument about slavery and other past evils and the claimed effect upon modern-day black Americans: “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill,” he writes, “and having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear.”

The-Victim-CultUsing a 1973 figure of the difference between black and white per-capita income, $34 billion that year, Coates argues that “Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap,” and muses that “reparations would seek to close this chasm.”

The economic argument from Ta-Nehisi Coates is inadequate to the hoped-for end. With any reparation and compensation claims, one first must deconstruct that math and then plunge into the deeper assertion in grievance narratives that animate them – the question of justice. However, on the first element, the $34-billion statistic, the claim suffers from the flawed assumption that direct links can be made to incomes and wealth today – not just harm that occurred two decades ago – but 200 years previous. That ignores how continual waves of immigrants and those already present in a country added to its growth in spite of prejudice, while those who engaged in deadly harm in ages past are dead.

But economies, even ones where discrimination has occurred, are not static. It is why at the end of the Civil War in 1865, United States GDP was $119 billion (or $3,394 per capita) but was $18.7 trillion in 2018 (or $55,335 per person in 2018 with inflation factored in). Every American generation since the Civil War, native-born or immigrant, black or white, Hungarian or Hispanic, contributed to that growth. The economic tides long ago removed any direct cause-and-effect link between the distant past and outcomes now.

Another argument for reparations is that slavery led to the modern capitalist economy, but that too is also unsupportable. As economist Thomas Sowell notes in his analysis of the slave trade in Great Britain, “…if all the profits from slavery had been invested in British industry, this would have come to less than two per cent of Britain’s domestic investment during that era.” And, he added, when such profits are tallied against later British efforts to suppress and end the slave trade, i.e., the pounds spent on its navy and military to such an end, such expenditures are comparable to the earlier profits. Similarly, in the United States, the cost of the Civil War was over $60 billion (in 2008 dollars), according to the U.S. Navy Department, with three-quarters of that cost, $45 billion, borne by the anti-slavery Union.

Beyond specific charges that can be asserted as true, debated, or dismissed as false, it is a mistake to ignore the charges from the past against the present on the grounds that historical wrongs happen but “winners win” and “losers lose,” so that should be the end of it. Liberal democracies do, internally, attempt to redress individual injustices by means of restoration – of property, for example – and other forms of restitution. The issue of compensation is legitimate to not only ponder but, on occasion, to act upon.

But there is a problem: Coates’s own examples undermine his argument for general reparation payments from today’s generation for the sins of centuries past: payments in 1782 from Quakers to their own 78 freed slaves (350 acres, a school, and provision for their education) and in 1783, by order of the Massachusetts legislature and out of the estate of Colonel Isaac Royall (15 pounds and 12 shillings). In neither case did compensation come from the public at large.

Where a government or institution did pay – Coates’s examples include West German reparations to Israel in 1952 ($7 billion), the Bank of America and Wells Fargo in their settled discrimination suits ($355 million and $175 million, respectively – some victims were still alive. In such cases, the same entity directly responsible for the harms – the slave-owners or their estates, the (West) German government, and banks – made reparations within living memory of the most egregious acts.

That some past harmful acts can affect subsequent generations is appropriately acknowledged. In such examples, the link between injustice and compensation soon, or even decades, after, is tight, straightforward, and provable. When a direct link exists between past prejudicial actions or, even worse, harms to a person or family still alive today, a useful case can be made for restitution.

Here is what is also obvious: Other banks not guilty of redlining and religious institutions not involved in slaveholding did not provide reparations. Critically, nor should they have been expected to, given how others in that same era fought slavery. To offer a general indictment of a generation is inaccurate, politicized history and makes no moral distinction between those who fought for reforms and those who fought reforms. The suggestion that governments today should be tasked to compensate for slaveholders’ evil of two centuries ago also assigns guilt to the very people who fought such evils, the abolitionists. Such present-day judgments are a slur because they are issued in general terms against the very people who gave their own lives to dismantle prejudice, racism, and slavery.

Next: Early Asian Americans succeeded despite discrimination

Mark Milke, Ph.D., is a public policy analyst, keynote speaker, author, and columnist with six books and dozens of studies published across Canada and internationally in the last two decades. Visit www.victimcult.com for more information.

Mark is a Troy Media Thought Leader. For interview requests, click here.


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