Policy Documents

July 2004: Apologizing for Slavery

Joseph Bast –
July 1, 2004

On May 19, I spoke against reparations for slavery at a meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists. The lively and often emotional encounter changed my mind about the wisdom of a formal apology for slavery.

The Case Against Reparations

I began my presentation by paraphrasing David Horowitz’s widely debated “10 reasons why reparations for blacks is a bad idea for blacks--and racist, too.” I don’t necessarily agree with all of his points, I said, but it is valuable to “get them on the table.” Horowitz’s most persuasive points include:

  • No one racial group is responsible for the crime of slavery. Slavery predated the arrival of white Europeans in Africa; blacks in Africa and even in the U.S. participated in the slave trade.
  • Only a tiny minority of antebellum white Americans--about 5 percent of Southern whites--ever owned slaves.
  • Most Americans today arrived in the U.S. after 1860 or are descended from immigrants who arrived after 1860, and so have no connection, direct or indirect, to slavery.
  • Reparations paid to other oppressed groups are not valid precedents for making reparations for slavery, because in those cases the survivors or their immediate families were still living, or there were treaties involved.
  • Not all black American descendants of slaves suffer from slavery’s consequences; most are now solidly middle income or higher.
  • Reparations is another case of blaming whites for the problems afflicting the black community, which fuels a “victim” mentality.
  • Reparations to black Americans already have been paid through trillions of dollars spent on social welfare and racial preference programs.

What’s Wrong with Horowitz

I admitted Horowitz’s critique has flaws and gaps. First, if reparations for slavery are owed by anyone, they are owed by governments and not individuals or businesses, since slavery was legal at the time. The number of whites who actually owned slaves is irrelevant.

Second, reparations from governments probably were legally owed and due when slavery ended in 1865. Had racism not prevented justice from being done, real victims could have been named, and “forty acres and a mule” or some other measure of restitution would have been awarded.

Third, the moral weight of the case for reparations stands regardless of the race or color of its perpetrators and victims. We talk in shorthand about “what America owes blacks” because virtually all slaves in America were black and nearly all slaveowners were white. Saying the award cannot be fairly divided is not the same as saying an award isn’t merited.

Fourth, to claim reparations would fuel the victim mentality is cheap rhetoric that overlooks how favoritism is widespread in American society. We don’t think twice before extending a helping hand to people in our social networks. The impact of such special treatment on the psyche of its beneficiaries isn’t different just because the beneficiary is black.

Finally, the notion that reparations already have been paid to African-Americans is insulting to the large majority of African-Americans who rely on welfare programs no more than white Americans do, or not at all. They suffered from the legacy of slavery and still face discrimination today. They have not been paid.

Reparations Not the Solution

Still, I agree with Horowitz that reparations are not the solution. Saying today’s white Americans owe a specific monetary debt to today’s black Americans ignores the heterogeneity of class and race that existed during slavery and today. Who is entitled and who should pay are, in principle, unsolvable puzzles because of the passage of time and countless individual choices made by whites and blacks since the end of slavery.

Suing governments rather than individuals solves some parts of the problem but not others. Governments do not create wealth, they redistribute it. Asking today’s taxpayers to pay for government acts that occurred more than 150 years ago just puts the pea under a different shell. What is immoral for individuals to do is also immoral for governments to do.

The U.S. government has been trying to make amends for slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional discrimination for 40 years, since passage of civil rights legislation and the Great Society programs. Horowitz is right to say the trillions in taxpayer dollars spent trying to help the disadvantaged--black as well as white--climb the ladder of social and economic success is exculpatory.

Demand for an Apology

The reaction to my remarks from the all-black audience was spirited. The first point made was that most knowledgeable advocates of reparations do not believe legal action, even against governments, will be successful. The goal is to get white Americans to admit reparations for slavery were owed in 1865, and perhaps again in 1965 for Jim Crow laws in the South and other forms of institutional discrimination in the North.

Once the President of the United States formally apologizes for slavery and racial discrimination, perhaps backed by a unanimous declaration of Congress, debate can begin over what should be done to make amends. My fellow panelist Warner Saunders, a black anchor for Channel 5 News in Chicago, said “you have to apologize for what you’ve done” before reconciliation and forgiveness can begin.

I confessed that the idea of an apology made on behalf of an entire race--whether by me, the President, or even a unanimous declaration of Congress--is so steeped in collectivism as to be completely foreign to me. “Why,” I asked, “do you want me to apologize for something I didn’t do? And why would you settle for an apology from politicians?”

I believe it is skepticism similar to my own that leads many whites to view demands for an apology for slavery as merely a tactic used by black advocates who really seek a taxpayer-financed settlement of racial grievances. Apologizing amounts to little more than appeasement, we believe, and it would legitimize more militant demands for cash reparations.

Saunders and members of the audience disagreed vigorously. Saunders said, to applause, that the apology is more important than any amount of money reparations might deliver. He said money generated by reparations would probably not be spent any better than the trillions spent so unsuccessfully on Great Society programs since the 1960s. He said the debate over reparations, even if it produced no money or legislation, was necessary to bring closure to the black community and to educate both whites and blacks about the great crime of American slavery.

Hope for Agreement, Progress

I came away from the debate agreeing an official apology for slavery would be a positive step forward for race relations. Older black Americans carry deep scars from memories of officially sanctioned racial discrimination, and their collectivist moral principles mean nothing less than an apology from the President of the United States will lift the anger and resentment that haunts them. Who am I, or any white American who doesn’t bear that burden, to say they are wrong?

I also now believe the debate over reparations is healthy. Sure, some blacks use it as a platform from which to blame whites for their problems, and some whites find in it new evidence that blacks seek entitlement rather than equality and opportunity. But with effective public education and less-heated rhetoric from both sides, most people would understand the real goal is a better understanding of history and a new step toward improving race relations.

Financial reparations for slavery is neither good law nor good public policy, and a formal apology for slavery will not satisfy the most vocal advocates of reparations. Nor would everything done by governments or corporations out of guilt or shame help advance race relations.

But the more important truth is that justice and reconciliation demand things be said and done that would genuinely help those who must cope with the legacy of one of history’s great crimes and tragedies.

And that is all of us.

Joseph L. Bast is president of The Heartland Institute. His email address is jbast@heartland.org.