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Reparations for sins of the past? Idea is a non-starter

For some candidates, proposal moves from fringe to mainstream

Scott Reeder
Scott Reeder

SPRINGFIELD — Several Democratic candidates for president have endorsed the idea of the government paying reparations to African Americans as compensation for the enslavement of their ancestors.

How on earth did this once fringe idea move into the political mainstream?

I write about this topic with a bit of trepidation.

Whenever I write about the subject of race, I get angry emails from white folks who lack compassion for what black people have suffered in this country. Often, they make excuses for pretty bad conduct.

That said, the idea of reparations is a non-starter.

First, let me say a national conversation on matters of race and discrimination is long overdue, particularly with the re-emergence of white supremacist groups.

Discrimination didn’t vanish a long time ago with the Civil War or with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

There are huge inequalities between blacks and whites, which are documented through a variety of economic and other measures. But the idea of writing checks to correct past wrongs is far more likely to divide the nation than heal it.

Back in 2004, I had a nice lunch with Barack Obama where we discussed a variety of issues about race, religion and slave reparations. As we chowed down on meals from Bentohs, his favorite Springfield restaurant, Malia and Sasha played nearby in the corner of his campaign office.

The then-state senator said he opposed having the federal government cut checks to black people for the wrongs committed against their ancestors. Still, Obama said, perhaps federal investment in impoverished black communities might be a way helping to right the scales of racial injustice.

But now the political discussion has changed.

I’d like to say these presidential wannabes are motivated by a desire to right past wrongs. But I’m cynical enough to believe that hard calculus of African-American voters and winning Democratic primaries plays a role, too.

But haven’t slavery reparations already been paid?

After all, more than 350,000 Americans died on battlefields across this nation to preserve the union and end slavery. Their blood was, at least in part, our nation’s reparations.

As my friend Steven Greenhut noted recently in Reason Magazine: “Advocates for this proposal are far less persuasive at explaining how reparations would permanently level the playing field than they are at detailing some of the ugliest parts of our nation’s history. These folks rarely even tout a specific policy (What type of payment? Who is eligible? How much?).”

So how would the U.S. government allocate out reparations? Would bureaucrats tucked away in cubicles weigh how many drops of blood prove a person’s compensable lineage?

Do recent immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean qualify? Think about the lawsuits over DNA, the bitter feelings and the anger that racists would exploit.

White, Hispanic and Asian people whose families arrived after the slavery and segregation eras will wonder why they must pay for the sins of other people’s ancestors.

I think of my own ancestor Seth Laughlin, who opposed slavery but nonetheless he was drafted into the Confederate Army. When he refused to fight, he was hung by his thumbs, horse whipped, and pierced with bayonets. Does my relationship to such a man make me more or less culpable?

The fact of the matter is, I don’t believe in collective guilt. I don’t believe all Muslims can be blamed for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that all gun owners are to blame for violence in our cities, or that all Americans are responsible for the injustice of slavery.

This push by the Democratic White House hopefuls points to the further importance of race and identity issues within their party.

While some say reparations are needed to address slavery and racist aspects of American history, I can’t help but think the nation would spend billions, even trillions, of dollars without eliminating the underlying problem of racism.

Note to readers: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. Contact him at

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