Racism and Reparation - Revisited

The American economy is built on a foundation of genocide, slavery, and racial and gender discrimination. The same has been true of every so-called great economic empire throughout human history. Past empires, on average, have lasted only about 250 years. Economies based on annihilation, extraction, and exploitation are simply not sustainable. The question: Will the fate of the American empire be different from those of the past? If so, what must we do to make it so?


In previous posts, I have referred to the denial of basic human rights to Native Americans, African-Americans, and women as the original sins of the nation. The unalienable, God-given rights of all, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were proclaimed by the Founders in the American Declaration of Independence. None of these sins of the past can be undone or fully atoned by acts of the U.S. Congress or the American people. But, neither can the legacy of discrimination continue to be denied, ignored, or excused. My justification for these conclusions is posted in “The American Covenant” series on this website.


Over the past few months, I have watched several documentaries about the continued oppression of African Americans, including the history of Slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Tulsa Massacre, and the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements. “The 1619 Project,” for example, traces the history of African Americans from the landing of the first ship bringing African slaves to what is now the United States in 1619. Virtually all of these documentaries conclude with a call for economic reparations to compensate descendants of African slaves for the continuing economic legacy of slavery.


One expert on reparation interviewed in the 1619 series estimated that each African-American—meaning each descendent of African slaves—should be given at least $300,000 as reparation for past denial of economic rights. That would amount to several trillion dollars but would be well worth it if it would atone for the original sin of slavery. But it wouldn’t. A $300,000 grant to millions of Americans—black, brown, or white—would be seen as a golden opportunity for every conman, cheat, rip-off artist, and unethical businessman in the country, and the world. Some recipients would gain lasting benefits, but most people learn to manage wealth in the process of acquiring wealth.


The historic denial of basic human rights has left millions of Americans—black, brown, and white—without the ability to take advantage of even the economic opportunities that have been available to them. The legacy of annihilation, slavery, and discrimination has deprived millions of Americans of an equal opportunity to gain the “ability” to earn income or manage wealth. A lack of physical health, mental health, education, job training, motivation, and hope are all impediments to economic success. Furthermore, those who have been denied equal economic opportunities include not only African Americans but also other Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women, and yes, even many white men. If the government makes $300,000 reparation payments to African Americans, how do we ensure equal opportunities for others suffering from a legacy of exploitation and discrimination?


As I have suggested in previous blog pieces, the only way I see to fairly compensate all who are suffering from the legacy of discrimination is to fulfill the promises of the American Declaration of Independence. The Founders stated that the fundamental purpose of government is to secure the basic unalienable, God-given, human rights of all people. The U.S. Constitution also includes “to establish justice, promote the common good, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity” among the basic functions of government. Today, the rights essential to promote the common good include universal access to a decent place to live, warm clothing, nutritious food, basic health care, and enough education to participate fully in the economy and in society.


The Founders understood that the government they were able to create at that time would not ensure the unalienable rights of all, but they laid the foundation for a government that would. They built the means for future generations to create a “more perfect union” into the U.S. Constitution.


We as a nation today have the economic means of ensuring the economic rights of all. Those of us who have been able to escape from a legacy of poverty or discrimination doesn’t need to be compensated. We were given not only an opportunity but also the “ability” to succeed economically, in spite of our legacy. If we are able to meet our basic economic needs, we have all the income or wealth we need. We may not be wealthy, but we have all we need to be happy. Our children, grandchildren, and their children may not be so fortunate. As I wrote in my previous posts, those who have benefited most from the legacy of discrimination, meaning the wealthiest one percent or maybe even ten percent, have the economic ability and logical responsibility to pay the economic cost of reparation—through taxes.


If someone wants to label me a socialist, communist, or un-American for asking the U.S. government to fulfill the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, then so be it! I believe we can still fulfill the promises of the Founders of the democratic Republic of the United States of America. If we fail to do so, the American empire will suffer the same fate as those of the past. An economy rooted in extraction, exploitation, and discrimination is simply not sustainable.


John Ikerd