I just read a chapter about slave reparations by my colleague David
Boonin. David presents an interesting and surprisingly strong argument
in favor of reparations. (This argument apparently has been advanced
before, but this is the first time I heard it.) Here’s an abstract of
how it goes:
(1) The United States federal government (hereafter, the govt) performed unjust, harmful actions pertaining to slavery.
E.g., not only failing to stop slavery but legally protecting and enforcing slave ownership.
(2) These past actions are a cause of certain harms suffered by many present-day black Americans.
E.g., blacks have much lower socioeconomic status, higher rates of incarceration, illegitimacy, and a host of social problems. It’s plausible to think that this is at least partly a consequence of slavery, and of the govt’s unjust slavery-related acts.
(3) If someone performs an unjust action that causes harm to someone else, then the perpetrator normally has an obligation (prima facie) to compensate the victim.
(4) The principle in (3) also applies to organizations such as governments.
E.g., suppose a company illegally buried some toxic waste in a populated area 40 years ago, and the waste is now causing current residents to suffer from cancer. Then the company would owe compensation to the current residents, even if the leadership of the company has changed during the last 40 years. A similar point applies to governments. (This case also illustrates that the victims of the unjust action need not have existed at the time of the action.)
(5) So it looks like the govt owes compensation to present-day black Americans, for its earlier slavery-related actions.
I’m not using this argument, only mentioning it. Previously, I thought the Reparationist position was crazy and illogical. But now it seems to me less crazy. Is this a good argument?
I can’t do justice here to all the subtleties and the careful responses to objections in Boonin’s discussion. The full version of the argument can be found in the chapters posted on Boonin’s web site:
I’ve only read the reparations chapters, which I think are excellent, but there are a few more chapters there. I recommend it to anyone interested in race issues.