Thomas Sowell, a career beneficiary of white benevolence once authored a fractured refutation against the case for reparations. The article, posted below, captures some of the weaker opposing arguments framed against claims put forth by United States citizens of African ancestry. Before moving forward, I feel it is important to make a few statements – even though these statements are wholly unrelated to the merits of Sowell’s arugment.
- Thomas Sowell’s prominence as an economist is attributable to one feature: his persistent advocacy of theoretical and practical positions which have undermined the efforts to ameliorate the collective condition of United States citizens of African ancestry.
- While Sowell was a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University, and has held “prestigious” posts in the houses of his masters, he has not established himself as an academic economist. There are no brilliant or innovative theoretical approaches to which he claims authorship. There is no Sowellian School of economic disciples who carry his banner forward. He has made no independent impact on public policy, save as a conduit for masking virulent white supremacist messages.
- Sowell has only recently altered his principal thesis. In recent publications, he has begun to blame the culture of white Southern rednecks (his language) for the cultural malaise of a segment of United States citizens of African ancestry. His central thesis (arguably one evolved only four decades after the point of relevance) is that the forced exposure of Africans to an uneducated, crude, violent majority has created the observable phenomena so long attributed to those very Africans.
Sowell is too late. His relevance as a scholar and as a man is inextricably woven to his irreversible decision to suckle at the breast of white supremacy. When mediocre men rise to great heights on the wind of mythical contributions, it is time for a reality check. Again, I cannot say this firmly enough – though Thomas Sowell reflects the worst of the human condition (self-hating submission to intellectual terrorism), his actions do not suggest the illogic of his points. Nonetheless, his arguments can suggest the source of his errors.
Let’s continue. My comments are in RED and YELLOW.
Reparations for slavery solve nothing
By Thomas Sowell
The premise of reparations is not that compensation for coerced servitude is a panacea. The premise is that payment of reparations is the basis for an authentic dialogue and a precursor to the formation of a just society. The title is an attempt to confuse the issues – and constitutes the logical fallacy of the perfect solution. Does this mean that Sowell’s statement is false? Not at all. It is important to note that this is a fallacy because uncritical acceptance of this statement may lead one to accept conclusions based on alignment with irrelevant premises. Sowell misstates the premise for the purpose of misleading uninformed readers about his conclusion.
The first thing to understand about the issue of reparations for slavery is that no money is going to be paid. The very people who are demanding reparations know it is not going to happen. The premise here is that since reparations are not likely to be granted, this argument need not be taken seriously – and moreover, that the argument is being driven by individuals with ulterior motives. The two fallacies in evidence here are the appeal to probability and the ad hominem attack. There can be little doubt that the prospect of desegregating the military looked like a fool’s mission in 1940, but A. Philip Randolph did not succumb to the appeal of probability and pressed his case. The appeal to probability, with respect to politics, is best used to reaffirm the status quo; to affirm the merits of existing positions; to assure the comfort of beneficiaries of that status quo. Once again, Sowell’s descent into this form of argumentation does not make his argument false, but it should raise questions in the critical reader about what valid points will sustain his argument.
Why then are they demanding something that they know they are not going to get? Because the demagogues themselves will benefit, even if nobody else does. Stirring up historic grievances pays off in publicity and votes. Here, Sowell is simply sliding deeper down the hole of his initial ad hominem attack. “The very people” pursuing repayment for involuntary servitude have now been labeled as demagogues without the submission of any evidence. The persons are demonized by accusation. In addition, these persons are accused of “stirring up historic grievances.” There are several implications here. One, in order for a grievance to be stirred up, there must have been some settling of the grievance. I won’t go into detail here, but there are few United States citizens of African ancestry who believe that any table of accounts has been settled. In fact, there are probably fewer “white” citizens who believe “we’re all squared.” Sowell makes appeals to his audience and seeks to mask the tyranny of the majority by placing a spotlight on political opportunism. The implicit argument here is as follows:
- Historic grievances have been settled.
- There are no parties to the grievance of reparations for slavery.
- All persons calling for reparations are making false claims.
- Persons making false claims are opportunists seeking a payoff in publicity and votes.
- Opportunists are bad.
- Reparations are bad.
That is not sound reasoning. Moreover, it is factually inaccurate. The petitioners for reparations to the United States citizens of African ancestry have come from all classes, shades, hues and interests. And even that does not change the fundamental merit of the appeal for repayment.
The question the reader must ask is, “What is the writer’s standing, if any, to make this accusation?” Here is where the personal history of the writer can be informative, if not definitive. Sowell’s standing in this discussion does not proceed from anything other than his vested interest in what he later refers to as, “a multi-ethnic society like the United States.” He does not have standing in this conversation because he is a United States citizen of African ancestry. He does not have standing in this argument because he is an economist. In other words, Thomas Sowell’s “race” and credentials are irrelevant. Neither “race” nor academic discipline define positions on this question. Still, his vested interest is clearly stated. We’ll come to that later – because it is precisely this interest which informs his position.
Some are saying that Congress should at least issue an official apology for slavery. But slavery is not something you apologize for, any more than you apologize for murder. You apologize for accidentally stepping on someone’s toes or for playing your TV too loud at night. But, if you have ever enslaved anybody, an apology is not going to cut it. And if you never enslaved anybody, then what are you apologizing for? Sowell appropriately frames the issue as having considerable importance. I believe he rightly establishes the triviality of an apology. Nonetheless, the consequences of apologies (or even admissions of culpability) are far different for institutions than for individuals. Here, Sowell’s standing as a citizen and not as an attorney is an issue. His argument masks an appeal to authority which could further undermine the logic of his argument.
The very idea of apologizing for what somebody else did is meaningless, however fashionable it has become. A scholar once said that the great economist David Ricardo “was above the unctuous phrases that cost so little and yield such ample returns.” Apparently many others are not. Calls for apologies for slavery and reparations are not the same thing. In point of fact, persons seeking one do not always seek the other. There are four options here – and people find themselves divided on along a spectrum of interests. (Pro reparations, pro apology, anti-both, or some combination thereof.) The bottom line is that the apology is not an inseparable part of the quest for reparations.
The decision to quote David Ricardo is clearly an appeal to authority. Perhaps Thomas Sowell is attempting to embarrass people by referencing an economist with a greater reputation. Ricardo, too, would have had an interest in this question. After all, he amassed his personal fortune working on the London Stock Exchange. There is no doubt that Sowell’s guide and moral compass benefited on some level from the commerce in African humanity. Does this mean Ricardo’s single quotation is wrong? Of course not. It does not mean, though, that Sowell might just as well quote Nazis is his positions opposing reparations for Jews. It means that Sowell’s willingness to consort with the established enemies of peoples of African ancestry must frame an interpretive lens. Again, these personal decisions are not definitive of his arguments, but they provide context.
The only thing that would give the idea of reparations for slavery even the appearance of rationality is an assumption of collective guilt, passed down from generation to generation. But, if we start operating on the principle that people alive today are responsible for what their ancestors did in centuries past, we will be adopting a principle that can tear any society apart especially a multi-ethnic society like the United States. Sowell has pressed the argument further. Now, the case lacks “rationality.” The basis for determining the case lacks “rationality” is the assumption of collective guilt, passed down from generation to generation. There are several problems with Sowell’s formulation here. First, is “guilt” the only thing that is passed down from generation to generation? In the United States, laws, wealth, institutional access, privilege, rights and obligations are also passed from generation to generation. It would be instructive for an economist to apply the tools of that trade to a rigorous analysis of the extent to which benefits have passed from the dead to the living over the past four centuries. Guilt is an intangible emotion which is beside the point. Academic rigor and integrity suggest a solid accounting could be done without pandering to emotion on either side of the argument.
And now we come to the payoff…
“if we start operating on the principle that people alive today are responsible for what their ancestors did in centuries past, we will be adopting a principle that can tear any society apart especially a multi-ethnic society like the United States.”
This is the crux of Thomas Sowell’s opposition to reparations for the involuntary servitude of Africans. Sowell has reframed the argument. He has demonized nameless, faceless advocates for compensation to the descendants of Africans enslaved by this democracy. He has used the moral guidance of a Jew turned Quaker whose financial fortunes hinged in part of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. He has done all of this to ultimately argue that we are on a SLIPPERY SLOPE.
This is the argument of the plantation owner. It is the argument of the segregationist. It is an argument which rests not on logic, but on negroes gone wild. This line of defense is a kissing cousin of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation precisely because it posits the calamity of justice for Africans.
Even if we were willing to go down that dangerous road, the facts of history do not square with the demand for reparations. Millions of immigrants arrived in this country from Europe, Asia and Latin America after slavery was over. Are their descendants guilty, too, and expected to pay out hard cash to redeem themselves? Sowell is seeking to blur the issue here. The question of guilt, here, is putting the cart before the horse. There is no question that a substantial and meaningful accounting could be done involving the appropriate parties. Here, the author is seeking to enliven the vested interests of immigrants to reject this call to justice. Neither Sowell nor his mythical “demagogues” have framed the reparations issue as one of cash payments from immigrants to United States citizens of African ancestry. This is little more than a subterfuge.
Nevertheless, it is fairly obvious that the enslavement of Africans and appropriation of indigenous land made the Americas attractive to Europeans for centuries. Asians, particularly Chinese and Indian labor, were often used as a buffer against Africans throughout the Diaspora. Prosperous Asian merchant classes in the Caribbean, South America and Africa were a direct result of a positioning by imperialists. To suggest otherwise is to ignore the historical record. As for Latin American immigrants, I can only imagine that Sowell is referring to those who would self-identify as “white.” Clearly those Africans and Indians born in Spanish-speaking countries would be able to make similar claims in the nation of their birth and would not be party to an action within the United States. It is unclear if Sowell is merely ignorant here or if he plans to mislead. In any event, his meanderings are irrelevant.
Even during the era of slavery, most white people owned no slaves. Are their descendants supposed to pay for the descendants of those who did? Sowell is bordering on being childish here. Again, I maintain that there is no doubt a substantial and meaningful accounting can be done. This need not be a sloppy process. If it could be done in Western and Eastern Europe, it can be done here. The question of widespread ownership of Africans is not the point. Moreover, those Africans provided benefits to non-slaveowners as well. Does Sowell believe that a clear accounting should not weigh the assets of ship builders and auctioneers and traders and financiers and industrialists who did not own Africans, but sought profits from their labor? Should the fifth generation shareholders of a bank whose fortunes were built by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade be exempted from this calculus?
What about the effect of all this on today’s black population? Is anyone made better off by being supplied with resentments and distractions from the task of developing the capabilities that pay off in a booming economy and a high-tech world? Whites may experience a passing annoyance over the reparations issue, but blacks – especially young blacks – can sustain more lasting damage from misallocating their time, attention and efforts. Does anyone seriously suggest that blacks in America today would be better off if they were in Africa? If not, then what is the compensation for? Sowell’s feigned concern for “today’s black population” will sail beneath the radar. The question with respect to Africa is immaterial. The reparations to be paid are not for the opportunity cost of foregoing a life in Africa. The payments are for compensation for involuntary servitude rendered to citizens and firms of the United States of America. The question of how life might have progressed on the continent is as germane as the question of how Europeans would have fared in America without Africans. Clearly “white Americans” have fared better than their European counterparts. Perhaps the difference in their relative successes is attributable to Africans – and that can be a quick and dirty accounting (tongue planted firmly in cheek).
Sometimes it is claimed that slavery made a great contribution to the development of the American economy, from which other Americans benefited, so that reparations would be like back pay. Although slave owners benefited from slavery, it is by no means obvious that there were net benefits to the economy as a whole, especially when you subtract the staggering cost of the Civil War. An economist should be able to make a single empirical statement in support of this premise – but we’ve already established that Sowell is not much of an economist. Still, that is beside the point. Sowell questions whether or not there were “net benefits to the economy as a whole.” Frankly, that’s a “white man’s question.” It is wholly irrelevant. The question is compensation for involuntary servitude. The question is not about the effectiveness and efficiency with which “whites” were able to organize and profit from Black labor, per se. The question is squarely on compensation for involuntary servitude. Reparations is not a retroactive tax on efficiency. Finally, without enslaved African labor, the Confederate States would have been unable to wage a war in the first place, much less defend themselves for more than a few months. The very idea of deducting the costs of war from the charge account of Africans is as close to Satanic as one can come without donning hoods and pitch forks.
Should the immoral gains of dead people be repaid by living people who are no better off than if slavery had never existed? The poorest region of the United States has long been the region in which slavery was concentrated. The same is true of Brazil – and was true of the 18th century Europe. The worldwide track record of slavery as an economic system is bad. Slave owners benefited, but that is not saying that the economy as a whole benefited. How has Thomas Sowell ascertained that today’s Americans are no better off than if slavery had never existed – and if sustained poverty is a result of regional stratification, what difference does it make? Again, the issue is not about the capacity of West Virginians or Alabamans to sustain intergenerational wealth. The question is compensation for involuntary servitude.
A sound economic analysis here would be useful. Sowell notes that slave-holding regions have remained poor. He should also note that slavery was only modified after its abolition; that the penury and subjugation of Blacks continued well into the 20th century – and that many labor restrictions STILL have not been removed in practice.
The last desperate argument for reparations is that blacks have lower incomes and occupations than whites today because of the legacy of slavery. Do the people who say this seriously believe that black and white incomes and occupations would be the same if Africans had immigrated voluntarily to this country? This is not the argument of many people petitioning for reparations. In fact, many persons would assert that Jim Crow segregation and the colonization of Black communities after 1865 is the principal reason why Black incomes and wealth is lower than that of whites. Sowell’s next question, however, does not follow logically from his first – and from the look of today’s African immigrants, the answer to that question is “possibly.” Africans emigrating to the US have shirts on their back, education and the means to sustain communities. Academic, professional and commercial achievement by Africans is notable in Houston, Washington, DC and New York. It is a story that he might have missed, given his immersion at the breast.
Slavery itself was not unique to Africans. The very word slave derives from the name of a European people – the Slavs, who were enslaved for centuries before the first African was brought to the Western Hemisphere. The tragic fact is that slavery existed all over the world, for thousands of years. Unfortunately, irresponsible demagogues have also existed for thousands of years. This is also immaterial. If we were in another nation state, we could enjoin the conversation there. We’re here. This is where the conversation begins – and ends…and that is why Sowell’s fundamental argument is about the threat that this measure of African justice poses to this nation state.
This article was published July 16, 2000 on the editorial page in The Birmingham News.
Whether or not reparations are granted is immaterial. It is certain that they will not be granted until United States citizens of African ancestry wield a great deal more political clout. The question before those who would pursue this issue is clear – and should not be clouded by the works of Thomas Sowell, or others with different priorities. [Jim Crow reparations is another article for another time.]