The conversation about reparations to the descendants of African slaves in America is one that most people who desire unity would rather avoid. The subject cannot be parsed in any way that will avoid division. But it also seems that given the current power structure in the federal government it is a conversation that will be had.
It has been said that when you open a can of worms it will always require a much larger can to get them contained again. That will be true in the subject of reparations. As to who gets, the easy answer is anyone who descended from someone who was held as a slave in the United States. Who gives would be anyone whose non slave ancestors were living in the United States prior to 1865. Simple, right?
But what of the descendants of William Ellison, Jr., one of some 171 black slave owners in South Carolina at the time? He was born a slave and as a young man apprenticed to a cotton gin maker. He made improvements on the design of the cotton gin and was paid for his work. Eventually he saved enough to buy his freedom and went on to become quite wealthy and then bought the freedom of his wife and children. Mr. Ellison became a plantation owner and operated it with slave labor, placing himself on both sides of the reparations debate. Do his descendants get or do they give?
Kamala Harris, our current Vice President and perhaps the most successful anchor baby in the history of the fourteenth amendment, is herself a descendant of a slave owner. In her direct line of ancestry is one Hamilton Brown, a Jamaican and the founder of Brown’s Town. He was also the largest slave owner of his time. If reparations are voted on in the Senate and the vote is tied will she have to recuse herself?
The original attempt at paying reparations was made by General William T. Sherman. He issued Field Order 15 which set aside 400,000 acres of land that had been confiscated from Southern land owners to be given to freed slaves in 40 acre parcels. The former slaves were also to receive one government surplus mule per parcel of land for as long as the supply of animals lasted. Given that at the end of the Civil War there were an estimated 3.9 million freed slaves, this attempt at reparations was woefully inadequate. An equal distribution would have required 3.9 million mules and 156 million acres or 243,750 square miles, a land mass nearly equal to the size of the State of Texas.
The entire exercise became moot with the assassination of President Lincoln. Field Order 15 was rescinded and the land returned to its original owners.
Returning to the here and now, who gets, who gives? Obviously anyone whose family was not in the United States at the end of the Civil War cannot be involved. That would also seem to eliminate using money from general tax revenues to pay reparations. Those later arrivals would not share in the liability of the slave holders and so their taxes should be exempt. And If one’s ancestors included both slaves and slave owners would that not constitute conditions that cancelled each other?
Perhaps we should just abandon the entire reparations argument and simply admit that the best form or reparations has already been given to us. It’s called “Opportunity Zones.” The Federal program that will bring investment, new businesses and jobs into the nation’s underserved communities, without regard to ethnicity or any other characteristic that seeks to divide us as a people, would best serve anyone who feels that he or she has been held back as a result of having descended from African slaves while at the same time improving conditions for all Americans.
Opportunity zones are not only color blind and unifying but also go a long way to fulfilling the dream promised but not delivered by Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Solution, expand on Opportunity Zones and call them “Reparations Plus.”