Should Reparations be Paid to Native Americans and African Americans?
Today, there are approximately 3.4 million Native Americans and 40 million African Americans in the United States (U.S. people, 2019), and virtually all of these individuals have ancestors that unfairly suffered at the hands of the federal and state governments at some point in the nationâ€™s history. The research topic of interest to this paper concerns the issue of reparations for certain American minority groups that have suffered hundreds of years of injustice at the hands of the U.S. government. In this regard, the research question that will guide this analysis is, â€œShould Native Americans and African Americans be paid reparations?â€ The overarching thesis that shaped the answer to this guiding research question as was follows: Historical injustices including genocide, oppression, slavery, and racial discrimination in the United States have caused current economic disparities between racial groups so the call for reparations is quite justified and the various arguments in support and against reparations are examined further below.
Review and Analysis
Type of historical injustices that have caused economic disparities between racial groups today
The historical record is replete with instances of genocide, oppression, slavery, forced relocations, invasions and racial discrimination that have adversely affected or ended the lives of tens of millions of people (Bradford, 2004). This has also been the case with the history of the United States where slavery of African Americans was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and the subsequent Indian Removal Act of 1830 proclaimed in essence that â€œthe only good â€˜injunâ€™ is a dead injun.â€™â€ While it is not possible to precisely calculate the human suffering that has been caused by these and other racially motivated laws and acts, it is possible to â€œmake people wholeâ€ again through the payment of reparations. It is vitally important to point out, though, that making people whole through mere words such as those used by Australiaâ€™s annual â€œSorry Dayâ€ whereupon the mainstream citizens seemingly apologize as a collective nation for the wrongs done to them by their ancestors, regardless of their views about the equity of all humankind at present. These types of initiatives, though, do not serve as a replacement for actual monetary compensation and may be regarded as a cheap substitute that holds not actual meaning for survivors today (Bradford, 2004).
While the depravities that were exacted upon millions of enslaved African Americans during the first two centuries of what would become the United States are also well documented, the United States undertook a mission to rid the continent of its indigenous population by whatever means necessary. For instance, according to Flavin, â€œThe British army distributed smallpox-contaminated blankets to the Indians of Pennsylvania. Many people believe that Jeffery Amherst, a â€˜lobster-backed generalâ€™ who once commanded the British military in colonial America, perpetrated a â€˜genocideâ€™ by ordering the distribution of smallpox [infected] blankets to Native Americans in 1763â€ (p. 2).
Against this backdrop, the case for implementing some type of reparations scheme represents a truly daunting ethical dilemma for 21st century policymakers as discussed further below.
The rationale in support of reparation payments
The arguments in support of reparations are based on the stark historical facts. People in the United States did in fact enslave millions of African Americans for decades, and the efforts to eradicate American Indians are well documented. The wrongs done to these two minority groups in particular can easily be considered as the crux of the reparations arguments today (Forrester, 2019). Indeed, authorities such as Howard-Hassman (2004) maintain that while an apology might be sufficient for a social faux pas, simply saying â€œIâ€™m sorryâ€ is not only inadequate to make up for the centuries of abuse and degradation that minorities in Australia have been subjected to, such gestures actually only exacerbate the notions of distrust and hatred for mainstream governments today (Howard-Hassman, 2004).
It is therefore not surprising that the issue of the payment of reparations has assumed the forefront in modern American politics. For example, according to Lockhart (2019):
For much of the 150 years since the official end of slavery in the United States, talk of the need for reparations has existed. In 2019, that discussion has become a full-blown political debate among politicians, presidential candidates, and academics over what it would look like to apologize and provide restitution to the people harmed by slavery and its legacy. Now that discourse is headed to the halls of Congress. (para. 2)
At first blush, the arguments in support of making some type of reparation payments to African Americans and Native Americans therefore just make good sense according to the principles of restorative justice. In this regard, Nichols and Connolly (2019) report that, â€œThe elements that comprise the retreats are not a new quick fix, but rather are rooted in how humans have, since time immemorial, worked to transform overwhelming traumaâ€ (p. 2). The reparation alternatives to just simply giving cash to the countless descendants of survivors of slavery and forced relocation therefore represent a seemingly viable alternative for modern national governments (Bradford, 2004).
Notwithstanding the complexities that are involved. some advocates of reparation payments maintain that nothing else will suffice (Gilmore & Adams, 2019). These argument are based not only on the human suffering and sacrifices that were made by tens of millions of African American and Native Americans, but the more, strictly pragmatic consideration concerning the wealth that was potentially possible by the efforts of these disenfranchised Americans.
The enormous complexities that are involved in determining who the people that should receive monetary reparations and who should be responsible for these payments make the argument over reparations today highly contentious, For instance, according o Reparations have been heavily opposed by liberals and regarded as practically unrealistic and theoretically sympathetic. They have also been opposed by some on the basis that they propagate â€˜reverse-racism:â€™ They discriminate against Whites who also lost their lives during the Civil War and other wars. It, therefore, follows that other groups are to be given reparations for injustices against them, so will the Whitesâ€ (Forrester, 2019, p. 37). In other words, reparations to African Americans and Native Americans are not only justified, they are demanded according to the basic principles of restorative justice.
There are a number of arguments against making any type of reparations to any minority group in the United States, however, that must be taken into account in this analysis. For example, except for the miniscule percentage of Native Americans in the U.S. today, virtually everyone else can be regarded as immigrants, even if their ancestors came over on the Mayflower. Likewise, many American Indians owned slaves prior to and during the Civil War, while uncountable numbers of African Americans escaped slavery and joined American Indian tribes. Therefore, should Native Americans today be required to pay reparations to African Americans, and if so, which ones should pay and which ones should receive these payments? Further, there were many free blacks prior to, during and after the Civil War that prospered in the United States. While these individuals were the exception rather than the rule, their prosperity must also be taken into account when determining whether wholesale, across-the-board reparations should be paid to this minority group (Loewen, 1999).
Moreover, the complexity in the reparations argument certainly does not end there. Although the United States is no longer characterized by the so-called â€œMelting Potâ€ population that existed throughout much of the 20th century, the nation is still comprised of numerous ethnic groups that append a hyphenated â€œAmericanâ€ to their origins (i.e., â€œItalian-Americans or Chinese-Americansâ€) speaking a polyglot of languages in enormously diverse cultural enclaves across the country.
This demographic evolution therefore begs the question as to whether reparations should be based on citizens today having ancestors that lived in America during the slave era, as well as whether their families actually owned slaves or not. The same conditions could also be applied to the arguments against reparations for American Indians and African Americans. Furthermore, how should any such reparation payments be configured? Should everyone living in the United States today be required to make reparations for crimes against humanity they did not commit? Likewise, what should be the cutoff date for the people held accountable for wrongdoings against blacks and American Indians today? This is an important consideration since many, if not most, of Americans living in the United States today not only did not own slaves or attack American Indians, they are completely innocent of these activities and are only subject to the harms caused by the mainstream society for the countryâ€™s first centuries of existence. In sum, critics or reparations maintain that not only is the formula involved far too complex to make economic reparations a viable solution, anything short of making millionaires out of all of the blacks and Indians in this country will be insufficient given the enormity of the injustices these minority groups have suffered. This does not mean, however, that nothing can be done to address the historical inequities, but determining how best to compensate victims of ethnocentrism and racism is far too difficult to assign a dollar amount.
The research was consistent in showing that the historical record is peppered by numerous instances of genocide, oppression, slavery, forced relocations, invasions and racial discrimination that have ended or otherwise adversely affected the lives of countless people, most especially tens of millions of African Americans and American Indians. The interest of justice compel modern lawmakers to take these wrongdoings into account as the move forward as a nation of like-minded peoples. Indeed, it would be enormously difficult or even impossible to single out living descendants of those responsible for genocidal actions during the Indian Wars. Moreover, if reparations were paid to American Indians, it would leave the door wide open for descendents of Americans, most especially women that were kidnapped and held against their will as veritable slaves by various Native American tribes. In sum, reparations may sound like a great idea which is congruent with the fundamental tenets of restorative justice, but critics argue that the harsh reality is that it is simply impossible to develop a formula that would ensure fair and equitable payments and the statute of limitations must be applied to this issue.
Bradford, W. (2004). Beyond reparations: An American Indian theory of justice. Ohio State Law Journal.
Flavin, F. E. (2002, Winter). A pox on Amherst: Smallpox, Sir Jeffery, and a town named Amherst. Historical Journal of Massachusetts, 30(1), 1-5.
Forrester, K. (2019). Reparations, history and the origins of global justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Gilmore, B. & Adams, H. (2019). The case for a reparations clinic. Michigan State Law Review.
Howard-Hassmann, R. E. (2004). Reparations to Africa and the group of eminent persons. Cahiers dâ€™Ã©tudesafricaines.
Lenzerini, F. (2007). Reparations for indigenous peoples. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lockhart, P. (2019, June 19). The 2020 Democratic primary debate over reparations, explained. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/3/11/18246741/ reparations-democrats-2020-inequality-warren-harris-castro.
Loewen, J. W. (1995). Lies my teacher told me. New York: The New Press.
Nichols, B. & Connolly, M. (2019). Transforming ghosts into ancestors. Antioch.edu.
U.S. people. (2019). CIA world factbook. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/ publications/the-world-factbook/geos/us.html.
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