The Case Against “Reparations for Slavery”

by | Jun 16, 2014

Dr. William's explains why slavery is not the "blame whitey" issue that race hustlers make it out to be.

Dr. William’s explains why slavery is not the “blame whitey” issue that race hustlers make it out to be.

Attribution: Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT)

Photo: Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT)

Calls for slavery reparations have returned with the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic magazine (May 21, 2014). In making his argument, Coates goes through the horrors of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and gross racial discrimination.

First off, let me say that I agree with reparations advocates that slavery was a horrible, despicable violation of basic human rights. The gross discrimination that followed emancipation made a mockery of the guarantees of the U.S. Constitution. I also agree that slave owners and slave traders should make reparations to those whom they enslaved. The problem, of course, is that slaves, slave owners and slave traders are all dead. Thus, punishing perpetrators and compensating victims is out of the hands of the living.

Punishing perpetrators and compensating victims is not what reparations advocates want. They want government to compensate today’s blacks for the bondage suffered by our ancestors. But there’s a problem. Government has no resources of its very own. The only way for government to give one American a dollar is to first — through intimidation, threats and coercion — confiscate that dollar from some other American. Therefore, if anybody cares, a moral question arises. What moral principle justifies punishing a white of today to compensate a black of today for what a white of yesterday did to a black of yesterday?

There’s another moral or fairness issue. A large percentage, if not most, of today’s Americans — be they of European, Asian, African or Latin ancestry — don’t even go back three or four generations as American citizens. Their ancestors arrived on our shores long after slavery. What standard of justice justifies their being taxed to compensate blacks for slavery? For example, in 1956, thousands of Hungarians fled the brutality of the USSR to settle in the U.S. What do Hungarians owe blacks for slavery?

There’s another thorny issue. During slavery, some free blacks purchased other blacks as a means to free family members. But other blacks owned slaves for the same reason whites owned slaves — to work farms or plantations. Are descendants of these slaveholding blacks eligible for and deserving of reparations?

When African slavery began, there was no way Europeans could have enslaved millions of Africans. They had no immunity from diseases that flourished in tropical Africa. Capturing Africans to sell into slavery was done by Arabs and black Africans. Would reparations advocates demand that citizens of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Kenya and several Muslim states tax themselves to make reparation payments to progeny of people whom their ancestors helped to enslave?

Reparations advocates make the foolish unchallenged argument that the United States became rich on the backs of free black labor. That’s nonsense that cannot be supported by fact. Slavery doesn’t have a very good record of producing wealth. Slavery was all over the South, and it was outlawed in most of the North. Buying into the reparations argument about the riches of slavery, one would conclude that the antebellum South was rich and the slave-starved North was poor. The truth of the matter is just the opposite. In fact, the poorest states and regions of our nation were places where slavery flourished — Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia — while the richest states and regions were those where slavery was absent: Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts.

One of the most ignored facts about slavery’s tragic history — and it’s virtually a secret today — is that slavery was a worldwide institution for thousands of years. It did not become a moral issue until the 18th century. Plus, the moral crusade against slavery started in the West, most notably England.

I think the call for slavery reparations is simply another hustle. Advocates are not demanding that government send checks to individual black people. They want taxpayer money to be put into some kind of reparations fund from which black leaders decide who receives how much and for what purpose.


Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. In 1980, he joined the faculty of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and is currently the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics. He is also the author of Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination? and Up from the Projects: An Autobiography. Williams participates in many debates and conferences, is a frequent public speaker and often gives testimony before both houses of Congress. This editorial was made available through Creator's Syndicate.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.


  1. Very nice article. This idea has been floating a around for a while, and it certainly doesn’t help the left when a black man opposes it for philosophical reasons. Personally, I don’t skin color means anything or has any value, but the “antiracist” left sure thinks so.

  2. Call this the secular version of the doctrine of Original Sin.

    Re: Slavery was a poor man’s business. Let’s not just make an assertion about “the facts.” Let go to a reliable source:

    “I found that even the laboring classes lived in better houses … than … many who owned slaves on the Eastern Shore” (208).

    “This was true not only of the white people … but [also] of my [black] friend … [who also owned] … more books … [read] … more news-papers, was more conversant with the moral, social, and political conditions of the country and the world than nine-tenths of the slave-holders of Talbot county” (Ibid).

    “I saw there industry … honest, earnest and exhaustive, with-out the whip” (Ibid).

    “Main Strength — human muscle — unassisted by intelligent skill, was slavery’s method of labor” (Ibid).

    “I found everything managed with a much more scrupulous regard to economy, both of men and things, time and strength … ” (209).

    “Here were … a hundred … contrivances for saving time and money” (Ibid).

    “I saw in New Bedford the nearest approach to freedom and equality that I had ever seen” (Ibid).

    ” … nothing in the laws … would prevent a colored man from being governor … black … children attended the same public schools with the white man’s” (Ibid).

    Douglass, Fredrick. Life and Times of Fredrick Douglass: His Early Life As A Slave; His Escape From Bondage; His History Complete. Citadel Press: New York; 1983. (Originally: Park Publishing Co.: Hartford, Conn; 1881.)


    Read online for free:

    And what did Douglass think of those who took from him, based on his color, money he’d earned?

    “My pay was “rightfully my own … He (Master Hugh) did not earn it; he had no hand in earning it; why then should he have it? I owed him nothing … [His] right to my earnings was the right of a robber” (187).

    There’s everyone’s response to Congress and this racist bill for reparations.

    And how did he react to being a free man earning his keep in the capitalist city of New Bedford?

    “I was not long in accomplishing the job, when the dear lady put into my hand two silver half dollars. To understand the emotion which swelled my heart as I clasped the money, realizing that I had no master who could take it from me — that it was mine — that my hands were my own … one must have been in some sense himself a slave” [emphasis added] (210).

    Too bad none of us, black or white, can earn those silver half-dollars today, the government having corrupted the monetary system into slugs & fancy printed up trash paper. If one wishes to seek reparations, one ought begin there.

    None of this covers, moreover, the one historical fact that proves reparations have already been paid by the slavers themselves:

    The Southern slaver’s property was reduced to rubble, their wealth wiped out from the Civil War. In addition, slaver’s property was seized by elected Reconstruction politicians for unpaid taxes levied on the slavers’ plantations.

    I’d say this nation–both black and white–have paid the full bill by means of the Civil War and Reconstruction on any sort of “reparation.”

    Finally, here’s what Douglass said was the greatest ally to a slaver:

    “To make a contented slave you must make him a thoughtless one. It is necessary to … annihilate his power of reason” (187).

    Indeed, this is precisely what is intended by those raising the issue of reparations, whether white pols or so called black “leaders” (demagogues would be a better term): To make contented slaves out of black individuals with a select few blacks, along with their white partners, as slave masters.

    Those who’ve eaten the bread (& taken the bribes (reparations)) of the master will indeed do his bidding.

  3. Speaking of black slavery, little or no mention is ever made of the millions of white Europeans who were enslaved by marauding Muslims who raided the coastal towns of Italy, England, Ireland, and as far away as Iceland for about a thousand years. The men were sent to work themselves to death in Muslim quarries and in building the palaces of Muslim rulers. Most of the women were sent to harems. Escapes were few and far between. Most died in captivity. Many Christian men captured in battle against the Turks and other Muslims were forced into military service, the Janissaries. If they weren’t first beheaded or otherwise executed.

  4. In 1830, the U.S. Census Office counted 3,775 free blacks who owned 12,740 black slaves.

    Many of which weren’t purchased to then be set free.

  5. Many advocates claim that reparations will help “repair” the legacy costs of slavery. That legacy being the period of widespread racial discrimination that followed slavery until the late 60’s. While I certainly do not endorse slavery it is worth pointing out that American descendents of slaves from Africa live far better in the United States than the descendents of Africans who were not enslaved and currently reside in Africa. It is likely that everyone on Earth can point to some episode in history where the society of their ancestors was brutalized, enslaved, attacked or otherwise suffered under the rule of a tyrant.

  6. Excellent article. You speak sooth at a time when doing so is often considered politically incorrect.
    One additional point on slavery in the US which most people don’t realize is that slavery was not limited to blacks. Nearly half of those arriving on the Mayflower were “strangers.” These were people purchased by the Pilgrims from English debtors prisons. One of our most beloved founding fathers, Ben Franklin, was sold as a boy by his father to an older brother and was enslaved for several years before he escaped and stowed away on a merchant vessel that then landed in Philadelphia.
    This reparations noise is just another scam and those pushing it are no different from any other con men.

  7. Read: Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa by Keith B. Richburg, at the time the Hong Kong bureau chief for the Washington Post.

    Mr. Richburg states in the book that he is glad his ancestors were forced to come to America.

    The book would rock the worlds of the Sharptons, Jacksons and the like–as well as most American black individuals–if any of them chose to read it.

  8. Indentured servitude was indeed a form of slavery.

    We may thank guild socialism for that one, as we may thank feudalism for slavery in the South.

    Mmmm, might there be a connection between the “progressive” politics of socialism and the Dark Age politics of feudalism?

  9. I hope our society isn’t so far gone due to the attempt by govt to render our youth unable to think that your brilliant simple words cannot be understood.

  10. The slave owners and slaves are dead, however, their families still survive. For the Slave owners, their property still exists and are usually still within their families. The decedents of those slaves still survive as well, how do you track them? Last names..That should suffice.

  11. Don’t forget that thousands of White Irish and English were also pressed ito slavery and brought to the New World. Read the good book WHITE CARGO to learn how many White slaves were captured and brought to America against their will – and were treated worse than the Africans.

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