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This is my personal website. My professional website is https://www.engineering.purdue.edu/~milind. The views and opinions on this blog are my own and do not reflect those of my employer.

June 3, 2005

Salient Point or Godwin’s Law. You Decide.

Filed under: Journal — Milind Kulkarni @ 1:42 am

Today, Wachovia apologized because a couple of banks that eventually became part of the company used to own slaves. Leaving aside whether or not an apology was appropriate (I’d have to say it is: your company accepted slaves as collateral. That’s some sick stuff), it actually set me to thinking, as I am wont to do, on a bit of a tangent.

An issue that comes up from time to time is slavery reparations. Basically, the government, or perhaps companies that dealt with slaves, would pay money to black Americans by way of apologizing for, you know, treating their ancestors as chattel. I’d wager that most people in the country think this is a bad idea. Sins of the father, and whatnot. And to some extent, they’re right. Why should Americans now, the majority of whose ancestors didn’t own slaves, pay? But what about companies? Would it be appropriate for Wachovia, for example, to pay reparations? They, after all, did directly profit from slavery, and just because those profits were realized long ago doesn’t mean that Wachovia isn’t still responsible. I’d still lean towards “no.” I’m not as sure as I was, however.

I don’t think many but the staunchest Holocaust deniers have any problem with Swiss banks and businesses who dealt with the Nazis paying money to people who had their livelihoods stolen from them during World War II. But there also is not much debate about paying reparations to descendants of Holocaust victims, and families of the survivors; it just seems to be the right thing to do.

Here is where I potentially run off the rails and over a cliff, though. What’s the difference between Swiss banks’ paying reparations to Holocaust survivors and Wachovia’s paying reparations to descendants of slaves?

Lets leave aside the logistical issues for now (how would you know who to give the money to, etc), since if that’s the sticking point, then the main point (the justice of reparations) is already conceded. Is the only difference between slavery reparations and Holocaust reparations time? When the Civil War ended, there were plans to provide reparations (40 acres and a mule), but I believe that ended with the end of Reconstruction (so the ending of reparations was a purely political ploy, which unabashedly pandered to the former slave owners). Why would it be ok to provide slavery reparations then, but not now? Why is it ok to give the relatives of Anne Frank reparations, but not the great-great-great-great-grandchildren of Nat Turner or Harriet Tubman? Is it just because the Holocaust happened in many people’s living memory? And the Civil War has become essentially romanticized national mythology?

I’d hate to think that the reason slavery reparations aren’t being given is simply because nobody had the chutzpah or political will to propose it and push it through 60, 70 or 80 years ago (which leads, if one continues down that garden path, to the conclusion that there are no slavery reparations because of continuing racism in the US – at least up until Civil Rights Act). I’d certainly hate to think that the reason there aren’t reparations now has similar roots. But maybe there are other reasons for not providing reparations. I don’t know of any principled ones, though. Mine, at least, do center on the cast-aside logistical issues, which perhaps isn’t principled, but is pragmatic. Not such a great liberal, am I?

Anyway, just more of Milind’s everyday ramblings.

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