The crimes of the past present a difficult challenge to academics, politicians and society at large. Recently several prominent Harvard faculty, including Du Bois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr., have declared their support for providing monetary reparations to the descendants of American slaves. Although the desire to come to terms with mistakes of the past is commendable, monetary reparations for slavery would be fundamentally unsound, with insurmountable problems of implementation as well as deep moral and philosophical flaws.
Some advocates of reparations for slavery find precedent in the compensation paid by companies that employed forced laborers in Nazi Germany or the U.S. government's payments to Japanese Americans who were wrongly interned and deprived of property during World War II. But these cases, in which payments were made directly to the victims of injustice or to their immediate families by the exact agent who harmed them, are different enough from that of American slavery to highlight why reparations for slavery are infeasible.
In the debate over slavery reparations, the link between "oppressed" and "oppressor" is obscured. It is hard to identify who among the current population has been wronged, or to define what level of reparations would be fair. A gap of more than three generations separates today's Americans and the slaves or slaveholders. Nor were all slaves the same. Would reparations differ for the descendants of slaves manumitted in 1800 and those of slaves freed only after the Civil War? The growing population of biracial Americans further complicates the question. Would someone with one grandparent descended from slaves receive one quarter of the payment received by another whose ancestors were all slaves? How would reparations affect a person descended equally from slaves and slaveowners?
Defining those who bear the guilt of slavery, those who would pay for reparations, would be even more difficult. Well under half of the U.S. population at the time of the Civil War lived in states where slavery was legal, and many in those states did not own slaves. A large proportion of the current American population is descended from immigrants who settled here generations after slavery was abolished. Should Britain pay the reparations for descendants of slaves freed before America gained its independence? As Winthrop Professor of History Stephen A. Thernstrom has said, blame for slavery (and responsibility to pay reparations) could even be extended to the African countries whose rulers once helped capture slaves and organize slave trading.
Slavery was a remarkably cruel, vicious and unjust system. But in the world's history, it is one among many injustices that might deserve reparations. When there are so many ancient crimes that could be grounds for compensation, how does one decide which victims to reimburse, and on what scale? Paying monetary reparations for crimes many generations after the fact places governments in the morally awkward position of deciding which groups have suffered more than others and thereby deserve larger cash payments.
Creating a system of monetary reparations for slavery would damage America's public spirit. It would exalt the merits and benefits of digging through history for political or financial gain. Although the crimes of the past must always be remembered, an acute political interest in historical misdeeds usually accompanies and fuels the rise of divisive, sectarian politics--one remembers Slobodan Milosevic boosting his power by exploiting the 600-year anniversary of a Serb defeat. Rather than looking to the past to gain wisdom, such approaches rub the public's wounds with the salt of past misdeeds, breeding mutual antagonism and hostility. While politics and race relations are thus contaminated, little progress can be made; cooperation to solve present problems is neglected in favor of zero-sum battles to exact compensation for yesterday's crimes.
Instead of reparations, it would be better for America's leaders and academics to approach the heritage of slavery by making moral, not monetary, amends. One approach would be to return to clear examples of injustice and set them right, albeit symbolically. For example, a court in Chattanooga, Tenn. recently overturned the Jim Crow-era rape conviction of Ed Johnson, who is believed to have been innocent. By reversing the verdict of a trial Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Class of 1861, described as a "shameful attempt at justice," the city demonstrated its contrition regarding a specific example of injustice through a strong symbolic stance. These gestures have a powerful impact in showing that America has come to terms with its past and is willing to move forward on a new foundation.