REPARATIONS FOR American slavery are a misbegotten idea, unworkable and unjust, but every now and then they come back into vogue as a political talking point.
In 1969, the radical civil rights activist James Forman made headlines when he seized the pulpit of New York's Riverside Church and issued a "black manifesto" demanding $500 million in reparations for African enslavement. Thirty years later, Randall Robinson, founder of the black social-justice organization TransAfrica, revived the reparations movement with his bestselling book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks.
Now progressive Democrats, or at least some of the ones running for their party's 2020 presidential nomination, are going through another such phase. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, California Senator Kamala Harris, and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro have all indicated in recent weeks that they support some form of reparations to benefit the descendants of American slaves.
"I believe it's time to start the national, full-blown conversation about reparations," Warren said at a CNN event in Mississippi, where she endorsed legislation to create a commission of experts to propose a system of compensation for slavery. Castro, interviewed on MSNBC, likened reparations to payments made when property is seized through eminent domain. Under the Constitution, he said, "we compensate people if we take their property. Shouldn't we compensate people if they were property sanctioned by the state?"
Slavery was a toxic evil, and its bitter impact didn't end with emancipation. But any attempt to discharge the moral crimes of the 18th and 19th centuries with monetary payments in the 21st century is doomed to fail. The logistical and definitional obstacles alone would be a nightmare. The majority of white Americans have no ancestral link to antebellum slavery — they are descendants of the millions of immigrants who came to the United States after slavery had been abolished. Of the remainder, few had any slaveholding forbears: Slavery was abolished in most Northeastern states within 15 years of the American Revolution, while in most of the West it never existed at all. Even in the South at the peak of its "slaveocracy," at least 75 percent of whites never owned slaves.
That's just where the complications start. . . .