Reparations for slavery: Just more symbolism over substance

Unlike the case of the Holocaust, an American reparations program would necessarily be amorphous, there being few if any specific legal relationships by which eligibility and liability could be established. There is no Confederate treasury to seize or extant antebellum plantations to appropriate. The few corporate relationships that endure are now at many degrees of removal from slavery. There is the United States government, the record of which is not spotless on the question of slavery; the people represented by that government overwhelmingly oppose reparations (more than two-thirds report against in most polls), in part because many of them believe that their government justified itself at Gettysburg, and paid its debt.

But it is more complicated than that. White Americans are the most strongly opposed to reparations, and not without reason. It is not obvious that an American whose ancestors arrived here from Ireland or Poland after the Civil War has sins of the father to bear and atone for on this score. And, without diminishing the evil of slavery, Americans of Jewish, Catholic, Southern European, Eastern European, and other historically denigrated ancestries can point to discrimination and exclusion, too. To ask white Americans with no personal connection to slavery to accept guilt for it by virtue of their being white is to ask them to accept an idea that is fundamentally alien to our political culture.

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