This is an extremely polarizing yet extremely important question. Considering the limitations of a Quora platform I’ll do as much justice as I can to such an important question. First I need to put slavery into its proper context.
If prostitution is the world’s oldest profession slavery has to be the world’s oldest economic institution. The institution of slavery is as much a part of the human experience as illness, war, and death.
When the first African slaves were brought here in 1618 they were not brought here because of racism or white supremacist ideology. They were brought here because they were available. They were available because Africans sold other Africans to Africans and European slave traders located on the African coast.
Subsequent ideas about equality and individual liberty in England and the New World brought into serious debate the morality of the institution of slavery for the first time in the history of mankind. However, by the time anyone African, European or Asian cared enough to make a fuss about the conflict between the institution of slavery and individual liberty the Southern States’ economies were far too dependent on slavery as an economic institution as a means to uphold its society. This novel threat to the old institution of slavery brought about the necessity of tools to protect the society’s economic engine. These tools are the idea of white supremacy and the political tool of racism.
From the aforementioned, it should be clear that slavery is not dependent upon the existence of racism or white supremacy. If it’s not, I offer the following: when whites enslaved whites, or blacks enslaved blacks or Asians enslaved Asians there was no need for racism. Until naval technology advanced enough to carry one race to the shores populated by another race there was no necessity for the idea of white superiority or racism. This leads to the following facts: White Americans are not synonymous with Confederate slave owning soldiers and blacks are not synonymous with slave.
Back to the question:
If descendants of slaves in America should get reparations who should pay?
This issue cannot be seriously talked about without mentioning the culpability of Africans who caught and enslaved other Africans to be sold in the slave trade. Some African nations have officially apologized for their role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Some argue that all white Americans should be responsible for the payment of reparations. Even a white immigrant naturalized yesterday. This is so ridiculous I cannot take it seriously.
Some say that since slavery was not condoned or legal in every state, an arguably better class of payers would seem to be all of the white people in the states that subsequently became the Confederate states. So we have our class of payees: Africans and whites in the Confederate states.
However, according to The Impending Crisis of the South by Hinton Rowan Helper published in 1851, in 1850 at the hight of slavery 346,048 people owned slaves with 174,503 holding less than five and 68,821 holding one. That’s a pretty small pool. (This was less than 11% of all Americans at the time.)
Furthermore according to Helper’s book and other books written during that time and subsequent books like Eric Forner’s book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, historically, poor landless whites in the South had very little legislative influence, meaning they had very little influence in the laws that were passed.
In fact, the last Southern State to grant the franchise to non-property-holding white males (the majority of the population) was North Carolina in 1857 just 7 years before the newly emancipated got the right to vote.
Although blacks were by far without question the worst victims of the institution of slavery in America they were not the only victims of the institution. Therefore, a discussion must also include the devastating economic effects the institution of slavery had on non-slave holding whites in the South and free blacks.
As Helper so passionately articulated in his book, the institution of slavery that the slave oligarchy directly benefited from and passed laws to uphold and perpetuate was the enemy of the poor whites of the South. In fact, Helper, a former slave-holder, came up with a plan to suit this oligarchy. Surprise, not for the benefit of the poor slaves but for the perpetually destitute poor whites of the South which made up the majority of the Southern population.
This begs the following question: If slave labor constantly kept poor whites in the South poor why did they not only champion slavery but fight a war to ensure their individual states had the right to keep the institution?
The answer: Educated and savvy politicians at the behest of the slave oligarchy pedaling the idea of white supremacy with a political tool called racism to the uneducated and unsophisticated masses.
Antebellum Southern society, where manual labor performed by any human was looked down upon, was in stark contrast with the Northern attitude of labor being close to Godliness. The Slave oligarchy influenced the creation of a racist society in the Antebellum South to protect their economic interest. A society in which a person’s race was his primary attribute. In other words, a society based on collectivism.
“Their influence on Southern society was so strong that the idea of bringing northern factories south to be filled with slave laborers to the detriment of free whites in the South met little resistance. Northern factory owners were not pleased with the notion of competing with slave labor either, nor were those of the white yeoman class of what is now called West Virginia interested in fighting a war for a slave oligarchy.” Paraphrasing from the book Poor Whites of the Antebellum South by Charles C. Colton.
West Virginia is proof that not all Southerners fell for the tricks of the slave oligarchy.
Thankfully, the Northern States remained a free market society in which a person’s individual skills, values, and social behaviors were a person’s primary attribute. In other words, a society based on individualism.
So taking all this into consideration we should follow Helper’s lead and sue the members of that slave oligarchy. Oh, we can’t. They are dead. Even if they were not dead they headed the Confederate States and lost it all in the Civil war to representatives of a free market society in the Northern States.
That should end the debate. But it doesn’t. Why?
Although the institution of slavery, an institution as common to the human experience as war, illness, love, and death, no longer exists in America, and the idea of white supremacy has been debunked, the political tool of racism used to perpetuate those things in the Antebellum South still remains in America today.
The following is an excerpt concerning a conversation between Montgomery Blair, Postmaster General under President Lyndon B. Johnson and President Johnson. “The key to postwar (civil war) politics, they believed, lay in changing the focus of debate from slavery (the institution not the slave) to race….”As Montgomery Blair put it “Race makes good politics.” Reconstruction America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner.
Collectivism vs individual is where the conflict truly lies, politics live, and the politicians make their living.
This question boils down to: individual white Americans can’t agree with paying for the sins of their fathers if in fact their fathers actually sinned. Blacks perpetually portrayed and perceived by ourselves and others as a collective of victims demand compensation not for our individual pain and suffering but for the collective’s pain and suffering.
You can look at this conundrum as a chronic disease. The politicians are big-pharma not selling you a cure for the disease but selling you medication to keep you buying their medicine in perpetuity.
Those who shed blood and treasure to end the institution along with those who fought for equality before the law has provided the cure. It is the opportunity to acquire skills, values and social behaviors that lead to individual success in a free market society.
So, should descendants of slaves be able to get reparations?
For those who may equate reparations as a form of revenge, I’d say success is the best revenge. Obtain the skills, values and social behaviors that lead to individual success in a free market society. If you still feel guilty about your ancestor’s role in slavery help someone obtain the skills, values and social behaviors that lead to individual success in a free market society.