Reparations, Apologies, And Shattering The Founding Myths Of The United States

Challenges To Discussions Of Our Enduring Racist Legacy

By Professor Nick Smith (University of New Hampshire).

September 13, 2016 Picture: Jonathan Ersnt/Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s May/June 2016 Issue “Black Lives Matter (Part II): Understanding The New Movement For Racial Justice”.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” first appeared in The Atlantic in June 2014, and it deservedly continues to be widely shared and discussed.[i] I have found over the years that when someone even mentions reparations for slavery, various fight or flight argumentative responses typically ensue. When Michelle Obama dared to note that slave labor built the White House, Bill O’Reilly countered what he perceived as unpatriotic sacrilege by defending how well masters treated those captives.[ii] If the rather banal phrase “black lives matter” gets people’s dander up, talk of reparations sends them over the edge. In this context, someone like Coates writing on reparations and creating Black Panther comics predictably becomes such a lightning rod that he cannot even move into his two million dollar Brooklyn brownstone home for fear of racially motivated attacks.[iii]

The mildness of Coates’ reparations essay, therefore, might or might not surprise readers. Coates lays out the enduring horrors of slavery and its economic legacy into what must feel to him like milquetoast for The Altlantic readership, and his single request feels so unradical that it underscores just how incapable we are in the United States of even discussing our undeniably racist history. Coates merely argues in support of Congressman John Conyers’ HR 40, titled the “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.” Coates asks us to “support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions.” Conyers has called for such a study—simply a study without any commitment to payment—every year since 1989.

Given that racial tensions seem to be worsening rather than improving in the United States, Coates sees this opportunity to evaluate reparations as a reasonable and non-committal step to think together about our racial history and consider ways forward that remain mindful of the past. “But” he writes, “we are not interested.” In a political climate where many think Michelle Obama “hates America” if she even mentions slavery, Congressman Conyers cannot motivate his peers to even discuss how we might begin to repair the economic injustices central to the founding and rise of the United States. We should therefore be clear that Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” does not argue for paying economic restitution to black people for slavery. He simply supports state sanctioned discussion of the possibility of reparations. But reparations are so politically toxic that you can’t even send the issue to a committee, even if most think it will die there.

As someone who writes on apologies and justice, in this essay I will extend some of Coates’ analyses about the lingering economic impact of slavery and set out a few of the challenges associated with providing redress for such large-scale harms committed in the past but carrying forward to the present.[iv] First, however, we should pause to consider why Coates and Conyers need to work so hard to even bring such issues to the table. One of the most insightful aspects of Coates’ argument lies in his description of how the very mention of reparations strikes a certain kind of nerve in a certain kind of person.

Recent analyses of the Trump campaign locate the gravitational center of his support in white nationalism, and this goes some way towards explaining why we lack political will to even discuss reparations. A prevailing attitude amongst a sizable group of U.S. voters—typically those on the right— suffers from a striking asymmetry: we celebrate our heroes and amplify their role in the foundational stories of the country, while at the same time we minimize and ignore the less flattering and outright appalling aspects of our national heritage. As Coates puts it:

“The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.”

A kind of political mythology entrances many voters: by some foundationalist version of it, the United States in its origins becomes something perfect, infallible, and heroic. From this perspective, criticizing the founding fathers is like criticizing god. Mentioning slavery—again think of Michele Obama’s comment regarding waking up every day in a house built by slaves—therefore sounds like blasphemy to conservatives. But not only to conservatives. Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and even Bernie Sanders all oppose reparations and have not supported Conyer’s commission.[v] The sorts of discussions required to thoroughly investigate reparations within our halls of justice would so undermine the founding narrative of white nationalism that looking into that abyss could precipitate a crisis of faith across the aisles.

The reparations issue allows Coates to point to something deeper: the demythologization of the United States. Coates explains that “black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it.” The many complex problems with reparations that I consider below provide only symptoms of the deeper disease:

“Black nationalists have always perceived something unmentionable about America that integrationists dare not acknowledge—that white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.”

It is not so much the fear of the economics that triggers our allergy to reparations, but rather how it “threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.” The United States was founded, in considerable part, on slavery of Africans and genocide of Native Americans. Thus when we speak of “Making America Great Again,” harkening back to some vague period of dominance conjures all of the ghosts from those conquests. Nostalgia for early muscle cars and ice cream fountains selectively forgets their associations with the era of segregation; idolizing the founders and their writings edits out their abject racism.

Many people prefer not to dwell on the fact that the pillars of the United States were raised on a pediment of white supremacy, which is one reason why athletes refusing to stand for the national anthem causes such a stir: “I’m trying to enjoy the game, and you’re making me think about slavery.” But of course, avoiding thinking about the enduring consequences of slavery is one of the deepest reflexes of white privilege.

“Nostalgia for early muscle cars and ice cream fountains selectively forgets their associations with the era of segregation; idolizing the founders and their writings edits out their abject racism”.

For these reasons I find it especially powerful that Coates defines reparations as “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences” and he considers this “the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.” I imagine that when most people think of reparations, money comes to mind. But Coates speaks primarily of narratives and collective self-knowledge rather than financial redress. He offers the analogy of the recovering alcoholic who,

“may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.”

Coates reminds us that Germans also did not want to swallow the hard medicine of candidly reckoning with the atrocities entwined with their national identity. Nor did they want to provide restitution for the holocaust. But those billions in reparations played a significant role in Israel’s economic development, and it is not unthinkable that the U.S. might make a similar investment redressing slavery.


Apologies and Reparations

If we accepted Conyers’ invitation to study the case for reparations, I imagine many would understand—and also disparage—this process as something like an apology for African slavery. I have written extensively on apologies of this sort, and in the remainder of this paper I would like to identify some challenges common to these kinds of processes.[vi]

Collective apologies raise a range of issues, such as: Who performs the apology for a group, and what authorizes them to do so if they are not personally to blame for the injuries? What should we make of a collective apology if significant factions within the group refuse to apologize or undermine the meaning of the apology, for instance by disseminating competing accounts of the historical record or continuing to engage in the denounced activity? Can we attribute blame for slavery to an abstract collective like the “United States” as such? Does assigning culpability to the collective diminish the personal accountability of individual slave owners? In light of the relation between secular apologies and religious conceptions of repentance, does extending the analogy to collective sin and redemption ring hollow if the United States as a political body has no soul or conscience?

African slavery defined entire periods of history and its legacy continues to structure modern life. It seems difficult to imagine a single apology addressing the multitude of wrongs committed within these campaigns. Can such collective apologies recognize each of the millions of victims of slavery as a moral interlocutor, or would it only recognize the moral standing of the group? How might we understand collectives to experience apologetic emotions or intentions—does anyone feel bad for what they did or what they continue to do with respect to slavery and its legacy? How bad should they feel? Who undergoes reform? Does anything change? Who pays? How much?

Some of these questions are so daunting that one might empathize with a desire to avoid the discussions altogether. But with some careful thinking we can identify various issues and make good progress toward sensible and fair apologies and reparations for African slavery. We cannot take on all of those issues here, but we can flag a few for those eventually working under the Conyers bill.

One of the most important aspects of apologies pertains to what I call “corroborating the faculty record,” where the offenders simply explain what happened with an appropriate degree of specificity. Where would we begin chronicling African slavery? How much detail would we provide, and where would we end? Bill Clinton once noted that “we were wrong” in receiving “the fruits” of the slave trade “before we were even a nation.”[vii] On its face, such a statement says little to establish a record except to note that the United States has a history and prehistory of slavery. It offers no account of who exactly engaged in the slave trade, why they did so, and how this stain on our history continues to taint our nation. This, of course, would be a very long story in which many otherwise celebrated U.S. leaders would play less flattering roles.

For such mass injuries in the distant past, any account would surely omit serious transgressions if only because of inadequate records. This limitation is due to the fact that the names and stories of many victims are lost to history. The slave trade in which early Americans participated harmed and continues to harm hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of people, all of whom suffer because of the acts of individuals, as well as institutional structures that enable these practices. Slavery penetrated every moment of the victims’ and the offenders’ lives. Some of the offenses would be specific to the highest-ranking profiteers from the slave trade and others would relate to the quotidian mistreatment of individual slaves by individual owners. An apology for slavery that accounted for all of its moral failures might document the entire lives of generations of people whose daily thoughts and actions degraded the enslaved. We can only estimate how many African slaves died without even their names finding their way into history, no less the details of their deaths that would allow us to more fully judge their abductors. Here we can combine the desire to recognize victims and their suffering with the realization that the possibilities for some apologetic meanings expire as time passes. Some vectors of significance for apologies and reparations die with particular victims or offenders. We should calibrate our expectations accordingly.

Coates connects the factual dots in the historical record from antebellum slavery to contemporary racial injustices. Many like to think that the abolition of slavery levelled the playing field and therefore the current distribution of wealth results from fair competition since about 1865. After that, the argument goes, capitalist competition ensures that the rich deserve their wealth and the poor deserve their poverty. Even setting aside questions regarding the fairness of economic competition in 2016, such accounts downplay the fact that the confiscation by force of Native American land and the use of African and other slave labor to cultivate and render that land profitable—for example in farming and mining—were major contributors to the rise of U.S. wealth.

Once conquerors and their descendants took the land, set into motion the means of extracting profit from it, and accumulated interest-bearing wealth, only then the slaves could be freed—typically to work that same land for subsistence earnings. With the spoils from genocide and slavery providing a systematic advantage as their fortunes grew in the form of interest, rent, investments, and other wealth, the colonizers could then free the slaves and protect non-white rights to life and property. We don’t need Marx for this point, but he puts it powerfully as he explains the economic ascendance of the colonial Americas:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre”.[viii]

In other words, only after the conquerors had appropriated the land and established an insuperable economic advantage would they promulgate capitalist property rights for all and enforce them as if timeless natural law. These initial conditions where black people begin with less than nothing caused wealth and poverty to concentrate over time, leading to the disparities between rich and poor to grow. Thus even as the United States progresses through the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Brown v. Board of Education of 1954, and the Civil Rights Act of 1965, increasing legal equality does not necessarily correlate with increasing economic equality because of the intergenerational reach of money begetting money.

On this account, the legacy of slavery contributes to the modern condition where white households in the United States are about sixteen times wealthier than black households.[ix] If one color starts the game on third base, colorblind rules will not result in a fair game. One useful role that discussions of reparations could play might be investing government funds in various economic studies that examine the extent to which slavery can be said to cause or correlate with the poverty in contemporary black communities. Too often we simply see conservatives denying such claims as ridiculous denials of personal responsibility while leftists assert the obviousness of the compounding economic disadvantages of slavery.

Coates documents the often ignored history of how various factors such as the leveling of “Black Wall Street,” the racism throughout the New Deal and GI Bill, and shockingly discriminatory and predatory housing markets extended the poverty of the 19th century into the 20th century by preventing black families from accumulating wealth. In an era when white families built stable lives around home ownership as their primary form of investment, lenders denied credit to black families and steered them toward the least desirable communities. When generations of slavery are followed by generations of more economic disadvantage, wealth does not accumulate to pass down and provide a safety net for black families.

“As a rule,” Coates writes, “poor black people do not work their way out of the ghetto—and those who do often face the horror of watching their children and grandchildren tumble back.” Documenting and raising awareness about these issues would help to provide a more accurate retelling of history that helps understand the underpinnings of contemporary race relations. “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and,” explains Coates, “having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.” I find these histories regarding the formal and informal racism of the post-war U.S. especially in need of study and telling, as they help to deflate the argument that slavery’s influence effectively ended long ago.

When addressing apologies and reparations for slavery and its aftermath, we should be mindful of the tenor of those discussions and whether they treat the recipients of the gestures as what I call “moral interlocutors”. Are the victims and their descendants viewed as equal participants in this painful process where we reveal our deepest values, our suffering, and our shame? Or do the proceedings take on a tone that feels more like pandering to political interests or providing a kind of hush money that perpetuates the sentiment that wealthy white people are somehow morally and intellectually superior to black people and the rich offer this payment as further evidence of their grace?

Given the dehumanization inherent in slavery, one should not underestimate the significance of engaging victims as peers and moral interlocutors. But notice some challenges: Must we engage every victim in such moral deliberation, or will a few representatives suffice? Can we and should we at least name all of the victims? Can we describe the dead as interlocutors, or does this just pretend that reparations achieve more meaning than they can? Again, apologies and reparations can only do so much.

The values underlying apologies and reparations for slavery might prove difficult to articulate given that the practice violates so many moral principles. Should we cite racial discrimination, distributive injustice, coercion, exploitation, objectification, deception, greed, the denial of personal and sexual autonomy, the violation of the practical imperative, the infliction of pain, the degradation of god’s children, or some other moral standard? Indeed, it proves difficult to name a credible moral principle that slavery did not violate. Depending on which principles we identify, subsequent reform might shift accordingly.

Similarly, citing deontological principles can change the basic assumptions regarding why collectives apologize. If members of a collective believe that they have a duty to honor a breached value, they might believe that someone is owed an apology of some kind even if insurmountable obstacles make a categorical apology impossible. We might think that those who died on the slave ships deserve an apology even though they are long dead. We might believe they deserve an apology – as they would deserve a proper burial if we discovered their bones in a sunken ship – regardless of the instrumental value of such a gesture for modern race relations. In some cases, we might frame this as a recognition that an apology is owed even if we realize that such a moral debt cannot be fully discharged. It can be important to recognize publicly that some person or group is owed a categorical apology even though this debt can never be paid because the only people with the proper currency have defaulted in death.

Here we find perhaps the most difficult challenges to apologies and reparations as they relate to standing and blame: if I am not personally to blame for slavery and its aftermath, we often hear, why should I be apologizing if I have not done anything wrong? Few dispute that slaves had a direct claim for reparations from those who directly wronged them and profited from those harms. Chains of moral causation become considerably more tenuous when the descendants of masters are asked to compensate the descendants of slaves [See Kershnar for a discussion of this moral complexity].

Matters become still more confusing if we seek reparations from the state rather than from the moral heirs of culpable individuals. Imagine, for example, the complexity of Barack Obama apologizing as president of the United States for African slavery and using tax dollars—part of which is paid by descendants of slaves—to fund reparations. Much has been written about these issues, and let me add a few considerations.

I have argued that an individual must possess “standing” in order to provide the sorts of meanings that flow from a categorical apology. I can only categorically apologize for injuries I cause and for which I can accept blame. Some suggests that issues related to standing can render moot all other considerations regarding whether the U.S. Congress should apologize or provide reparations for slavery. The missing link between the injury and the apologizer can be obvious. If I state that “I apologize for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln,” we immediately notice the limitations of the gesture because I did nothing wrong to cause his death. Similar deficiencies would be evident if I announced that the “United States hereby categorically apologizes for its history of slavery.” Not only did I not trade or own slaves, but I appear to lack authority to speak for slave traders or for the United States. I certainly cannot speak for all Americans, the United States did not grant me authority to express contrition on its behalf, and I cannot claim that those responsible for slavery bequeathed their standing to apologize to me.

I could categorically apologize for any unjust benefits I have received and continue to receive as a white man living in the legacy of racial oppression or for any personal failures related to remedying the legacy of slavery, but I would have standing only to make these narrowly tailored categorical apologies. Such apologies from me could be quite meaningful in their own right, but they would be very different from the United States categorically apologizing for slavery. I therefore lack standing to apologize categorically for either Lincoln’s assassination or the slave trade in two senses: 1) I cannot accept blame for causing the harm; and 2) those who did cause the harm did not delegate the authority to apologize to me in any obvious respect. To the extent possible, I would like to separate these issues when considering how they relate to collective apologies and reparations.

The distinctions between the meanings possible from an apology with standing and one without may clarify some confusion. For many, it generally seems that collectives should do something like apologize for the sins of their predecessors in order to help reconcile rifts between groups: Germany should apologize for the Holocaust, the United States should apologize for slavery, and Australia should apologize for the Stolen Generation. Apologies appeal to a rudimentary sense of justice, if only to the barest intuition that we should somehow right wrongs. Arguing against such apologies appears, at some level, like arguing against reconciliation. Perhaps for this reason, many writing on apologies minimize the importance of standing.[x] Three points merit emphasis here:

First, certain kinds of apologetic meaning are only possible with standing. Considering all of the reasons why we value apologies, it could be deeply meaningful for the U.S. to apologize categorically for the slavery. If we stretch our definition of apology too thin, however, it can no longer bear certain moral weight. Many slave owners went to their graves unrepentant, and the meaning of the apologies they never gave died with them. Gestures from contemporary U.S officials would be meaningful in their own right, but they are incommensurable with a survivor hearing the words “I was wrong” from those who once treated her as an animal unworthy of moral acknowledgment. There are no shortcuts or alternative routes to this particular sort of meaning, regardless of how strongly we may desire it.

Second, notice that these apologies for the wrongs of others come rather easily because the apologizer does not need to admit that she has done anything wrong. Instead of suffering the anguish of admitting that they were personally wrong and confronting uncertain responses from their victims, those who apologize for others enjoy a breezy walk on the moral high road explaining how others failed. C. S. Lewis says of confession without culpability:

“Since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a Government which is called “we” is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, “Let us repent our national sins”; what they mean is, “Let us attribute to our neighbor . . . in the Cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.”[xi]

Presidents have little difficulty apologizing for the sins of the prior administration of an opposing party, if only to emphasize that the inauguration severed chains of causal responsibility. We should therefore be especially suspicious of groups apologizing for their predecessors as a cheap means of currying favor by sacrificing the already dead.[xii]

“Presidents have little difficulty apologizing for the sins of the prior administration of an opposing party, if only to emphasize that the inauguration severed chains of causal responsibility”.

Third, we can achieve many of the social objectives cited for reducing the role of standing in collective apologies without providing anything that we would have considered an apology according to commonsense accounts. It is even possible that reducing the importance of standing to collective apologies risks undermining their legitimacy and impeding transgenerational justice through means other than apologies.

As we reflect on the role of moral causation in categorical apologies, it seems increasingly tenuous for individuals within modern institutions to confess to wrongdoing without standing. To a citizenry, the prospect of collectively apologizing for some historical injustice may come to seem entirely vacuous. If we are not accepting blame, what is the point of dredging up the past? For those who wish to deny any responsibility for past wrongdoing or shirk duties to provide redress, the public’s disenchantment with collective apologies can be a boon.

Unwilling to bear the cost associated with apologizing and providing compensation to victims of the Stolen Generation, conservative Prime Minister John Howard of Australia refused a “formal apology” because he argued that “Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies.”[xiii] Camille Paglia has similarly argued that “an apology can be extended only by persons who committed the original offense,” rendering an apology from the modern United States for slavery “illogical” and an “empty gesture.”[xiv] If I need not accept blame, this argument claims, then I need not take responsibility. Why should my tax dollars fund reparations for the sins of others?

Both Howard and Paglia conflate two notions of responsibility. Even if I did not cause an injury and I do not deserve blame for it, I may still have a moral duty to remedy it. It might be my job to fix a problem even if I did not cause the problem, and presumably this is an important aspect of a politicians’ job description. Although libertarians might object, most would think a politician has a moral and an institutional responsibility to help victims of a natural disaster in her jurisdiction even if she did not cause the harm in any sense. Yet Howard and Paglia suggest that if I am not causally responsible for an injury, then I should not apologize or provide reparations for it. If I have no standing to apologize, I have no obligation to repair.

“Even if I did not cause an injury and I do not deserve blame for it, I may still have a moral duty to remedy it”.

The notion of a categorical apology, however, helps us to understand how we can achieve some kinds of apologetic meaning without others. We might imagine, for instance, an African-American president of the United States who is also the descendant of slaves being asked to apologize for the nation’s history of slavery. The president might fill volumes with declarations documenting the history and future of U.S. racial policy and devote vast economic resources to providing reparations to all victims of slavery as defined in the broadest sense. She could accomplish all of this without describing her actions as an apology, and indeed she might take pains to explain that she herself is a victim rather than an offender.

President Obama’s consistent position on reparations is interesting in this regard. Since his first presidential campaign, he has taken various versions of the following position:

“I fear that reparations would be an excuse for some to say ‘we’ve paid our debt’ and to avoid the much harder work of enforcing our anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing; the much harder work of making sure that our schools are not separate and unequal; the much harder work of providing job training programs and rehabilitating young men coming out of prison every year; and the much harder work of lifting 37 million Americans of all races out of poverty. These challenges will not go away with reparations. So while I applaud and agree with the underlying sentiment of recognizing the continued legacy of slavery, I would prefer to focus on the issues that will directly address these problems – and building a consensus to do just that”.[xv]

Surely Obama knows of the toxicity of reparations as a political issue, and he chooses to look forward and talk of investing rather than looking backward with the language of culpability and moral debt. While one can appreciate why a black president would not want to be associated with the unpopular idea of reparations, we can also appreciate that his refusal to support Conyers’ commission only strengthens the power of the myths of U.S. perfectionism that Coates hopes to shatter.

As Alasdair MacIntyre argues, our collective identities drive our understandings of ourselves and the world:

“The story of my life is always imbedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity.” “I am born with a past,” he continues, “and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships.”[xvi] Because of this, MacIntyre, claims, “I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations.”[xvii]

We can inherit debts and obligations without being blameworthy. This applies to moral debts as well, for example in the case of slavery where our predecessors left us to redress the harms they caused. In this respect, we can speak of moral duties triggered by slavery applying to classes of people, regardless of the blameworthiness of individuals within the group. We can therefore argue that all U.S. citizens have a duty to address racial inequality, including those who are most innocent in this regard, without believing that all of them deserve blame for it. We can also identify situations in which institutions have heightened obligations to those previously wronged. When an institution like the U.S. government recognizes its mistreatment of a group in the past, its leaders may feel a special solicitude toward the interests or values of the victims and take exceptional care not to repeat offenses against the group.

“We can inherit debts and obligations without being blameworthy”.

Most basically, institutions sometimes must respond to injuries for which they may not be situated to categorically apologize and about which they would rather not talk. The current leaders of the United States must say something about African slavery. Modern Germany cannot remain silent about its past even if the causal links to genocide have been forcefully broken. Such breaks are rarely clean, and asserting that one lacks standing to apologize for the deeds of others does not eliminate the duty to care for injured victims and communities. What I describe as “value-declaring apologies”—apologies that explicitly do not accept personal blame— may help palliate the pain of slavery.

Even if they only metaphorically speak for the guilty dead, referring to this perpetual remainder of responsibility may nourish public normative discourse by articulating our values and recognizing their violation. As Coates and Conyers argue, beginning such conversations about shared values steps toward reconciliation. Collectives can stabilize such progress by building solidarity around the declared values and investing reparations in a shared vision of the future. But like Obama, I am not sure that these investment are best described as backward looking reparations or even redress.

At times, the limitations of value-declaring collective apologies can provide an asset, as a community may find that it cannot survive a fine-grained causal analysis that judges so many guilty. As many modern truth and reconciliation tribunals have decided, stability can be more essential to human flourishing than precise moral accounting. The best path for moving together may be the one that avoids trekking too heavily through the past. A commission on reparations for slavery would need to think carefully about its path here. Is the goal precise moral accounting no matter what the short-term consequences for race relations, or would they craft an edited narrative to produce the optimal political outcomes? The goal of paying moral debts of the past is not synonymous with ensuring an optimal future.


How Much?

Difficulties associated with moral causation and responsibility sometimes present such considerable obstacles that we never get to similarly fractious considerations of just how much and what kind of reparations might be appropriate. Even if we limit redress to financial payment, the number can seem unfathomable. Coates cites Yale historian David Blight’s claim that in 1860 “slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy.” At one point Abraham Lincoln considered paying the south $400,000,000 for the loss of their slaves.[xviii]

However we calculate the value and interest of such an economic and moral debt, it will be a lot. Some powerful families could be stripped of all of their wealth. Full economic compensation for the African slave trade might be large enough to shift the balance of global power from the northern to the southern hemisphere. So great is the debt that repaying it just looks impossible and discussing it can seem ridiculous. There might not be enough money in the world, and there certainly is not sufficient political will.

If we were only considering a few scholarships we might find broader support, but the higher the stakes of reparation the fewer buy in. Once people realize that collective responsibility will cost them, we should expect them to revert to more individualist conceptions of responsibility. Even a progressive U.S. taxpayer might support the nation in apologizing for slavery only if it does not cost her anything because, after all, she will claim that she did not own slaves so why should it come out of her entitlements. If the income taxes contributed by descendants of slaves fund the pool from which the U.S. government pays reparations to these very individuals, we can appreciate how failing to track moral causation with some degree of specificity can result in compensatory circularity. It gets messy fast.

“Even a progressive U.S. taxpayer might support the nation in apologizing for slavery only if it does not cost her anything because, after all, she will claim that she did not own slaves so why should it come out of her entitlements”.

All of these considerations support Coates’ and Conyers’ basic argument that we need to publicly think through these issues. Coates explains:

“No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders”.

Here it is worth emphasizing that reparation and apologies are interrelated, but not synonymous. Some will resist discussions of reparations by describing them as apologies, and then argue against the value of certain kinds of apologies. In “The United States Has Already Apologized for Racial Discrimination,” Bernard Siegan argues that an apology for slavery would be “superfluous” because the United States “has already apologized for Jim Crow laws by adopting in recent years a multitude of statutes and judicial rules outlawing discriminatory policies and practices.”[xix] If “the American people have loudly and clearly expressed the deepest regret for past racial discrimination in their contemporary legislation and judicial decisions,” why do we also need an apology? In addition, Siegan notes, apologizing for slavery comes with costs. The debates may prove expensive, time consuming, and may worsen racial relations by opening old wounds. Perhaps a better use of national resources, as Obama seems to think, would address forward-looking racial programs with palpable benefits.

In one respect, I am sympathetic to this argument. Conservatives, as I have explained elsewhere, have a strong dislike for apologies from the government and tend to view them as an unpatriotic sign of weakness. As G.H.W. Bush stated after a U.S. cruiser shot down an Iranian plane and killed 290 civilians: “I will never apologize for the United States of America, I don’t care what the facts are.”[xx]

The ritual and pageantry of collective apologies often serve as a superficial alternative to substantive reform. Instead of wringing our hands over the barbarity of our ancestors, perhaps we should roll up our sleeves and address the inhumane conditions that so many of the great grandchildren of slavery endure in our public schools and elsewhere. Yet, of course, we need not choose between apologies, reforms, and reparations. We need all of these interrelated gestures.

Coates seeks an “airing of family secrets,” and in the current political climate I have some trouble imagining that a tribunal for reparations would produce “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” It would, however, begin to lift the political taboo of questioning the moral perfection of the United States and could lead to the sorts of efforts that appreciate the extent of racial injustices in our past, how those wrongs reach into the present, and the massive efforts required to even begin to take practical responsibility for such horrific crimes. There are some things apologies and reparations cannot accomplish. Some losses we can only mourn. But we must not seize into fear that by discussing these issues we will open a racial Pandora’s Box. We can discuss our shameful shared history just as we celebrate our shared national achievements, and we can identify which sorts of redress offer the most productive responses for creating communities working together to prevent the injustices of the past from poisoning the future.

Footnotes & References

[i] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014. Available via

[ii] Daniel Victor, “Bill O’Reilly Defends Comments about ‘Well-Fed” White House Slaves,” The New York Times, July 26, 2016. Available via

[iii] Liam Stack, “Ta-Nehisi Coates Won’t Move into Brooklyn Brownstone, After Media Attention,” The New York Times, May 11, 2016. Available via

[iv] For an excellent overview of the issues, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on “Black Reparations” by Bernard Boxhill available via

[v] See Linda Qui, “What Bernie Sander, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton Have Said about Reparations for Slavery,” Politifact, January 26, 2016. Available via See also Amber Philips, “A Top House Democrat Just Floated the Idea of Reparations for Slavery,” The Washington Post, March 11, 2016. Available via

[vi] For my full theory of apologies, see I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008). For extensive application of this theory to legal contexts, see Justice through Apologies: Remorse, Reform, and Punishment (Cambridge University Press, 2014). This paper develops themes in and reproduces portions of those books. Please also note that both I Was Wrong and Justice through Apologies contain extensive references to interdisciplinary scholarship on apologies and justice. Rather than reproducing those very lengthy citations here, I refer readers to those volumes.

[vii] R. W. Apple, Jr., “Clinton’s Contrition,” The New York Times, April 1, 1998.

[viii] Karl Marx, Capital: Volume I, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling and ed. Frederick Engels (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1906), 775.

[ix] See Laura Sullivan, Tatjana Meschede, Lars Dietrich, and Thomas Shapiro, “The Racial Wealth Gap,” Demos, 2015. Available via

See also Rakesh Kochar, Richard Fry, and Paul Taylor, “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics,” Pew Social and Demographic Trends, July 26, 2001, available via

[x] See discussion and notes in I Was Wrong, pp. 208-11.

[xi] C. S. Lewis, “The Dangers of National Repentance,” Guardian, March 15, 1940. Glen Pettigrove brought this passage to my attention in “Apology, Reparations and the Question of Inherited Guilt,” Public Affairs Quarterly 17-4 (2004): 327.

[xii] See Alexander Chancellor, “Guide to Age,” Guardian, October 16, 2004: “Such breast-beating over complex historical episodes for which subsequent generations can bear no responsibility has been widely ridiculed, but it is precisely because they are clearly blameless that governments find it so easy to say sorry for ancient injustices. And they hope thereby to curry favour with the descendants of the victims at no cost to themselves.”

[xiii] Clyde Farnsworth, “Australians Resist Facing up to Legacy of Parting Aborigines from Families,” The New York Times, June 8, 1997.

[xiv] Camille Paglia, “Who is Really to Blame for the Historical Scar of Black Slavery,” in When Sorry Isn’t Enough: The Controversy over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice, ed. Roy Brooks (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 352–54.

[xv] Qui, “What Bernie Sander, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton Have Said about Reparations for Slavery.”

[xvi] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (London: Duckworth, 1985), 220–21.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] See Boxhill, “Black Reparations.”

[xix] Bernard Siegan, “The United States has Already Apologized for Racial Discrimination,” in When Sorry Isn’t Enough, ed. Roy Brooks, 413–16.]

[xx] Jonathan Atler, “High Stakes in New Orleans,” Newsweek, August 22, 1988, 15.

Nick Smith
Nick Smith
Dr. Nick Smith is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire. His areas of scholarly interests are apologies and forgiveness; philosophy of law, politics, and society, particularly as considered through contemporary continental philosophy; as well as aesthetics. He has published two books: “I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies” (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and “Justice through Apologies: Remorse, Reform, and Punishment” (Cambridge University Press, 2014). You can learn more about Nick Smith’s work here:

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

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