In 1619, the first slaves in England’s North American colonies were bought by the colonists in Jamestown. The colonists assumed that they had a right to enslave these people, just as they assumed their right to dispossess and kill the Indians. Slavery became the foundation of the plantation economy in the Southern colonies; it was practiced everywhere during colonial times. New England merchants were among the most active in the slave trade.
Colonial authorities had laws to keep the Blacks on the bottom, below every single White person. Slave women were routinely raped by their masters and required to bear children who could then be used or sold for the profit of the slaveholder. Free Blacks could be arbitrarily seized and sold into slavery.
In 1776, the Declaration of Independence asserted that “all Men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain Rights, including the Right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” This did not apply to Blacks.
In the Northern states, even Blacks with property were rarely allowed to vote.
Damage to the spirits of Black people who have experienced nought but oppression their whole lives is literally incalculable.
After the Civil War, under Reconstruction, an attempt was made to empower the freed Blacks, giving them the vote and a constitutional guarantee of citizenship and equal protection. But nothing was done to let them establish a strong economic foundation, so most were reduced to share-cropping and chronic indebtedness.
After Reconstruction ended in 1877, Southern Whites used force, intimidation and election fraud to reimpose White control, preventing most Blacks from voting and imposing rigid segregation in all aspects of life. What schools existed for Blacks were markedly inferior, thus denying them a fair chance to move up economically.
Any Blacks who, through their own enterprise did gain wealth, were frequently despoiled by White violence, as in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 and Tulsa, Oklahomo in 1921. Thousands of Blacks were lynched—not only in the South—as late as the 1960s.
Social Security initially excluded people who were agricultural or household workers, precisely the occupations most Blacks were slotted into by widespread, legal discrimination. Blacks were kept out of decent housing by discriminatory clauses in most deeds, and “red-lining” by banks to deny credit to Black homeowners because they lived in the very Black neighborhoods to which they had been confined by red-lining. As a result, Black families on average have only 10 percent of the wealth that White families have.
Even today, with discrimination outlawed, Blacks are still the poorest, still in segregated housing and schools because most Whites refuse to live near them and refuse to send their children to integrated schools. Although there are a few Blacks with the luck and grit to escape this fate, the vast majority do not.
Some Whites bear some direct responsibility for this situation. Several of my ancestors owned slaves. Some Whites themselves are locked into poverty, but they and their ancestors were not locked in by discrimination as Blacks were. Some Whites come from immigrant stock that arrived long after slavery ended, who worked hard to get ahead. That’s the other half of my ancestry. But every White immigrant benefited from being White: they had a social rank higher than Blacks.
African Americans, then, were kept down by Whites for four hundred years. The very minimum we should do is to work to correct our ongoing racial disparities. Do we indeed owe reparations for the damage that American society has done to Blacks over four centuries?
I agree in principle; the devil is in the details. Damage to the spirits of Black people who have experienced nought but oppression their whole lives is literally incalculable. Even calculating direct economic damage over four centuries would be subject to long disputes.
Since discrimination has prevented Blacks from accumulating wealth, we could provide each family (whether one person or more) with enough to pay cash on a decent home in a desirable location. A single person would need less than a family of five, but all would then have wealth invested in their dwelling, thereby partially rectifying the long-standing imbalance.