10 Reasons: A Response to David Horowitz
David Horowitz’s article, “Ten Reasons
Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea and Racist Too,” recently
achieved circulation in a handful of college newspapers throughout the
United States as a paid advertisement sponsored by the Center for the
Study of Popular Culture. While Horowitz’s article pretends to
address the issues of reparations, it is not about reparations at all.
It is, rather, a well-heeled, coordinated attack on Black Americans which
is calculated to elicit division and strife. Horowitz reportedly attempted
to place his article in some 50 student newspapers at universities and
colleges across the country, and was successful in purchasing space in
such newspapers at Brown, Duke, Arizona, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, University
of Chicago, and University of Wisconsin, paying an average of $700 per
paper. His campaign has succeeded in fomenting outrage, dissension, and
grief wherever it has appeared. Unfortunately, both its supporters and
its foes too often have categorized the issue as one centering on “free
speech.” The sale and purchase of advertising space is not a matter
of free speech, however, but involves an exchange of commodities. Professor
Lewis Gordon of Brown University put it very well, saying that “what
concerned me was that the ad was both hate speech and a solicitation
for financial support to develop antiblack ad space. I was concerned
that it would embolden white supremacists and antiblack racists.” At
a March 15 panel held at UC Berkeley, Horowitz also conceded that his
paid advertisement did not constitute a free speech issue.
I : There Is
No Single Group Clearly Responsible For The Crime Of Slavery
Horowitz’s first argument, relativist in structure, can only lead to two conclusions: 1) societies are not responsible for their actions and 2) since “everyone” was responsible for slavery, no one was responsible. While diverse groups on different continents certainly participated in the trade, the principal responsibility for internationalization of that trade and the institutionalization of slavery in the so-called New World rests with European and American individuals and institutions. The transatlantic slave trade began with the importation of African slaves into Hispaniola by Spain in the early 1500s. Nationals of France, England, Portugal, and the Netherlands, supported by their respective governments and powerful religious institutions, quickly entered the trade and extracted their pieces of silver as well. By conservative estimates, 14 million enslaved Africans survived the horror of the Middle Passage for the purpose of producing wealth for Europeans and Euro-Americans in the New World.
While there is some evidence of blacks owning slaves for
profit purposes—most notably the creole caste in Louisiana—the
numbers were small. As historian James Oakes noted, “By 1830 there
were some 3,775 free black slaveholders across the South. . . . The evidence
is overwhelming that the vast majority of black slaveholders were free
men who purchased members of their families or who acted out of benevolence.” (Oakes,
II: There Is
No One Group That Benefited Exclusively From Its Fruits
Horowitz’s second point, which is also a relativist one, seeks to dismiss the argument that white Americans benefited as a group from slavery, contending that the material benefits of slavery could not accrue in an exclusive way to a single group. But such sophistry evades the basic issue: who benefited primarily from slavery? Those who were responsible for the institutionalized enslavement of people of African descent also received the primary benefits from such actions. New England slave traders, merchants, bankers, and insurance companies all profited from the slave trade, which required a wide variety of commodities ranging from sails, chandlery, foodstuffs, and guns, to cloth goods and other items for trading purposes. Both prior to and after the American Revolution, slaveholding was a principal path for white upward mobility in the South. The white native-born as well as immigrant groups such as Germans, Scots-Irish, and the like participated. In 1860, cotton was the country’s largest single export. As Eric Williams and C.L.R. James have demonstrated, the free labor provided by slavery was central to the growth of industry in western Europe and the United States; simultaneously, as Walter Rodney has argued, slavery depressed and destabilized the economies of African states. Slaveholders benefited primarily from the institution, of course, and generally in proportion to the number of slaves which they held. But the sharing of the proceeds of slave exploitation spilled across class lines within white communities as well.
As historian John Hope Franklin recently affirmed in a rebuttal to Horowitz’s claims:
“All whites and no slaves benefited from American slavery. All blacks had no rights that they could claim as their own. All whites, including the vast majority who had no slaves, were not only encouraged but authorized to exercise dominion over all slaves, thereby adding strength to the system of control.
“If David Horowitz had read James D. DeBow’s “The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-slaveholder,” he would not have blundered into the fantasy of claiming that no single group benefited from slavery. Planters did, of course. New York merchants did, of course. Even poor whites benefited from the legal advantage they enjoyed over all blacks as well as from the psychological advantage of having a group beneath them.”
The context of the African-American argument for reparations is confined to the practice and consequences of slavery within the United States, from the colonial period on through final abolition and the aftermath, circa 1619-1865. Contrary to Horowitz’s assertion, there is no record of institutionalized white enslavement in colonial America. Horowitz is confusing the indenture of white labor, which usually lasted seven years or so during the early colonial period, with enslavement. African slavery was expanded, in fact, to replace the inefficient and unenforceable white indenture system. (Smith)
Seeking to claim that African Americans, too, have benefited
from slavery, Horowitz points to the relative prosperity of African Americans
in comparison to their counterparts on the African continent. However,
his argument that, “the GNP of black America makes the African-American
community the 10th most prosperous “nation” in the world
is based upon a false analogy. GNP is defined as “the total market
value of all the goods and services produced by a nation during a specified
period.” Black Americans are not a nation and have no GNP. Horowitz
confuses disposable income and “consumer power” with the
generation of wealth.
III: Only A
Tiny Minority Of White Americans Ever Owned Slaves, And Others Gave
Their Lives To Free Them
Most white union troops were drafted into the union army in a war which the federal government initially defined as a “war to preserve the union.” In large part because they feared that freed slaves would flee the South and “take their jobs” while they themselves were engaged in warfare with Confederate troops, recently drafted white conscripts in New York City and elsewhere rioted during the summer of 1863, taking a heavy toll on black civilian life and property. Too many instances can be cited where white northern troops plundered the personal property of slaves, appropriating their bedding, chickens, pigs, and foodstuffs as they swept through the South. On the other hand, it is certainly true that there also existed principled white commanders and troops who were committed abolitionists.
However, Horowitz’s focus on what he mistakenly considers to be the overriding, benevolent aim of white union troops in the Civil War obscures the role that blacks themselves played in their own liberation. African Americans were initially forbidden by the Union to fight in the Civil War, and black leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany demanded the right to fight for their freedom. When racist doctrine finally conceded to military necessity, blacks were recruited into the Union Army in 1862 at approximately half the pay of white soldiers—a situation which was partially rectified by an act of Congress in mid-1864. Some 170,000 blacks served in the Civil War, representing nearly one third of the free black population.
By 1860, four million blacks in the U.S. were enslaved;
some 500,000 were nominally free. Because of slavery, racist laws, and
racist policies, blacks were denied the chance to compete for the opportunities
and resources of America that were available to native whites and immigrants:
labor opportunities, free enterprise, and land. The promise of “forty
acres and a mule” to former slaves was effectively nullified by
the actions of President Andrew Johnson. And because the best land offered
by the Homestead Act of 1862 and its subsequent revisions quickly fell
under the sway of white homesteaders and speculators, most former slaves
were unable to take advantage of its provisions.
IV: America Today Is A Multi-Ethnic Nation and Most Americans Have No Connection (Direct Or Indirect) To Slavery
The two great waves of American immigration occurred after 1880 and then after 1960. What rationale would require Vietnamese boat people, Russian refuseniks, Iranian refugees, and Armenian victims of the Turkish persecution, Jews, Mexicans Greeks, or Polish, Hungarian, Cambodian and Korean victims of Communism, to pay reparations to American blacks?
As Joseph Anderson, member of the National Council of African American Men, observed, “the arguments for reparations aren’t made on the basis of whether every white person directly gained from slavery. The arguments are made on the basis that slavery was institutionalized and protected by law in the United States. As the government is an entity that survives generations, its debts and obligations survive the lifespan of any particular individuals. . . . Governments make restitution to victims as a group or class.” (San Francisco Chronicle, March 26, 2001, p. A21.)
Most Americans today were not alive during World War II. Yet reparations to Japanese Americans for their internment in concentration camps during the war was paid out of current government sources contributed to by contemporary Americans. Passage of time does not negate the responsibility of government in crimes against humanity. Similarly, German corporations are not the “same” corporations that supported the Holocaust; their personnel and policies today belong to generations removed from their earlier criminal behavior. Yet, these corporations are being successfully sued by Jews for their past actions. In the same vein, the U.S. government is not the same government as it was in the pre-civil war era, yet its debts and obligations from the past are no less relevant today.
As noted in our response to “Reason 4,” the historical precedents for the reparations claims of African Americans are fully consistent with restitution accorded other historical groups for atrocities committed against them. Second, the injury in question—that of slavery—was inflicted upon a people designated as a race. The descendants of that people—still socially constructed as a race today—continue to suffer the institutional legacies of slavery some one hundred thirty-five years after its demise. To attempt to separate the issue of so-called race from that of injury in this instance is pure sophistry. For example, the criminal (in)justice system today largely continues to operate as it did under slavery—for the protection of white citizens against black “outsiders.” Although no longer inscribed in law, this very attitude is implicit to processes of law enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration, guiding the behavior of police, prosecutors, judges, juries, wardens, and parole boards. Hence, African Americans continue to experience higher rates of incarceration than do whites charged with similar crimes, endure longer sentences for the same classes of crimes perpetrated by whites, and, compared to white inmates, receive far less consideration by parole boards when being considered for release.
Slavery was an institution sanctioned by the highest laws of the land with a degree of support from the Constitution itself. The institution of slavery established the idea and the practice that American democracy was “for whites only.” There are many white Americans whose actions (or lack thereof) reveal such sentiments today—witness the response of the media and the general populace to the blatant disfranchisement of African Americans in Florida during the last presidential election. Would such complacency exist if African Americans were considered “real citizens”? And despite the dramatic successes of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, the majority of black Americans do not enjoy the same rights as white Americans in the economic sphere. (We continue this argument in the following section.)
VI: The Reparations
Argument Is Based On The Unfounded Claim That All African-American
Most blacks suffered and continue to suffer the economic consequences of slavery and its aftermath. As of 1998, median white family income in the U.S. was $49,023; median black family income was $29,404, just 60% of white income. (2001 New York Times Almanac, p. 319) Further, the costs of living within the United States far exceed those of African nations. The present poverty level for an American family of four is $17,029. Twenty-three and three-fifths percent (23.6%) of all black families live below the poverty level.
When one examines net financial worth, which reflects, in part, the wealth handed down within families from generation to generation, the figures appear much starker. Recently, sociologists Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro found that just a little over a decade ago, the net financial worth of white American families with zero or negative net financial worth stood at around 25%; that of Hispanic households at 54%; and that of black American households at almost 61%. (Oliver & Shapiro, p. 87) The inability to accrue net financial worth is also directly related to hiring practices in which black Americans are “last hired” when the economy experiences an upturn, and “first fired” when it falls on hard times.
And as historian John Hope Franklin remarked on the legacy of slavery for black education: “laws enacted by states forbade the teaching of blacks any means of acquiring knowledge-including the alphabet-which is the legacy of disadvantage of educational privatization and discrimination experienced by African Americans in 2001.”
Horowitz’s comparison of African Americans with Jamaicans is a false analogy, ignoring the different historical contexts of the two populations. The British government ended slavery in Jamaica and its other West Indian territories in 1836, paying West Indian slaveholders $20,000,000 pounds ($100,000,000 U.S. dollars) to free the slaves, and leaving the black Jamaicans, who comprised 90% of that island’s population, relatively free. Though still facing racist obstacles, Jamaicans come to the U.S. as voluntary immigrants, with greater opportunity to weigh, choose, and develop their options.
VII: The Reparations
Claim Is One More Attempt To Turn African-Americans Into Victims.
What is a victim? Black people have certainly been victimized,
but acknowledgment of that fact is not a case of “playing the victim” but
of seeking justice. There is no validity to Horowitz’s comparison
between black Americans and victims of oppressive regimes who have voluntary
immigrated to these shores. Further, many members of those populations,
such as Chileans and Salvadorans, direct their energies for redress toward
the governments of their own oppressive nations—which is precisely
what black Americans are doing. Horowitz’s racism is expressed
in his contemptuous characterization of reparations as “an extravagant
new handout that is only necessary because some blacks can’t seem
to locate the ladder of opportunity within reach of others, many of whom
are less privileged than themselves.” What Horowitz fails to acknowledge
is that racism continues as an ideology and a material force within the
U.S., providing blacks with no ladder that reaches the top. The damage
lies in the systematic treatment of black people in the U.S., not their
claims against those who initiated this damage and their spiritual descendants
who continue its perpetuation.
To African-Americans Have Already Been Paid
The nearest the U.S. government came to full and permanent restitution of African Americans was the spontaneous redistribution of land brought about by General William Sherman’s Field Order 15 in January, 1865, which empowered Union commanders to make land grants and give other material assistance to newly liberated blacks. But that order was rescinded by President Andrew Johnson later in the year. Efforts by Representative Thaddeus Stevens and other radical Republicans to provide the proverbial “40 acres and a mule” which would have carved up huge plantations of the defeated Confederacy into modest land grants for blacks and poor whites never got out of the House of Representatives. The debt has not been paid.
“Welfare benefits and racial preferences” are not reparations. The welfare system was set in place in the 1930s to alleviate the poverty of the Great Depression, and more whites than blacks received welfare. So-called “racial preferences” come not from benevolence but from lawsuits by blacks against white businesses, government agencies, and municipalities which practice racial discrimination.
Horowitz’s assertion that “in the thousand years of slavery’s existence, there never was an anti-slavery movement until white Anglo-Saxon Christians created one,” only demonstrates his ignorance concerning the formidable efforts of blacks to free themselves. Led by black Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian revolution of 1793 overthrew the French slave system, created the first black republic in the world, and intensified the activities of black and white anti-slavery movements in the U.S. Slave insurrections and conspiracies such as those of Gabriel (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822), and Nat Turner (1831) were potent sources of black resistance; black abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Richard Allen, Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany, David Walker, and Henry Highland Garnet waged an incessant struggle against slavery through agencies such as the press, notably Douglass’s North Star and its variants, which ran from 1847 to 1863 (blacks, moreover, constituted some 75 % of the subscribers to William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator newspaper in its first four years); the Underground Railroad, the Negro Convention Movement, local, state, and national anti-slavery societies, and the slave narrative. Black Americans were in no ways the passive recipients of freedom from anyone, whether viewed from the perspective of black participation in the abolitionist movement, the flight of slaves from plantations and farms during the Civil War, or the enlistment of black troops in the Union army.
The idea of black debt to U.S. society is a rehash of the Christian missionary argument of the 17th and 18th centuries: because Africans were considered heathens, it was therefore legitimate to enslave them and drag them in chains to a Christian nation. Following their partial conversion, their moral and material lot were improved, for which black folk should be eternally grateful. Slave ideologues John Calhoun and George Fitzhugh updated this idea in the 19th century, arguing that blacks were better off under slavery than whites in the North who received wages, due to the paternalism and benevolence of the plantation system which assured perpetual employment, shelter, and board. Please excuse the analogy, but if someone chops off your fingers and then hands them back to you, should you be “grateful” for having received your mangled fingers, or enraged that they were chopped off in the first place?
X: The Reparations
Claim Is A Separatist Idea That Sets African-Americans Against The
Nation That Gave Them Freedom
Again, Horowitz reverses matters. Blacks are already separated from white America in fundamental matters such as income, family wealth, housing, legal treatment, education, and political representation. Andrew Hacker, for example, has argued the case persuasively in his book Two Nations. To ignore such divisions, and then charge those who raise valid claims against society with promoting divisiveness, offers a classic example of “blaming the victim.” And we have already refuted the spurious point that African Americans were the passive recipients of benevolent white individuals or institutions which “gave” them freedom.
Too many Americans tend to view history as “something that happened in the past,” something that is “over and done,” and thus has no bearing upon the present. Especially in the case of slavery, nothing could be further from the truth. As historian John Hope Franklin noted in his response to Horowitz:
“Most living Americans do have a connection with slavery. They have inherited the preferential advantage, if they are white, or the loathsome disadvantage, if they are black; and those positions are virtually as alive today as they were in the 19th century. The pattern of housing, the discrimination in employment, the resistance to equal opportunity in education, the racial profiling, the inequities in the administration of justice, the low expectation of blacks in the discharge of duties assigned to them, the widespread belief that blacks have physical prowess but little intellectual capacities and the widespread opposition to affirmative action, as if that had not been enjoyed by whites for three centuries, all indicate that the vestiges of slavery are still with us.”
And as long as there are pro-slavery protagonists among us, hiding behind such absurdities as “we are all in this together” or “it hurts me as much as it hurts you” or “slavery benefited you as much as it benefited me,” we will suffer from the inability to confront the tragic legacies of slavery and deal with them in a forthright and constructive manner.
“Most important, we must never fall victim to some scheme designed to create a controversy among potential allies in order to divide them and, at the same time, exploit them for its own special purpose.”