Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for the ‘Slavery’ Category

On Slave Reparations: A response to Boonin: 2. Recipients and beneficiaries

In Philosophy, Racism, Slavery on August 15, 2014 at 3:51 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place July 30th 2014, 11:55 am

This is the second post in a series of three responding to the arguments made in favour of reparations for slavery by David Boonin in his book, Should Race Matter? Unusual Answers to the Usual Questions. The first post can be seen here.

As I commented in my last post, Boonin argues that “the U.S government has a moral obligation to benefit the current generation of African Americans because of the wrongful harms that were inflicted on past generations of Africans and African Americans by the institution of slavery and its aftermath.” One of David Horowitz’s objections to slave reparations is that “Most Living Americans Have No Connection (Direct or Indirect) to Slavery.” He explains “The two great waves of American Immigration occurred after 1880 and then after 1960. What logic would require Vietnamese boat people, Russian refuseniks, Iranian refugees, Armenian victims of Turkish persecution, Jews, Mexicans[,] Greeks, or Polish, Hungarian, Cambodian and Korean victims to Communism, to pay reparations to American blacks?”  Boonin answers this question with a valid point:

When you freely choose to become a citizen of a country, that is, you incur a duty to help your country fulfil all of its obligations, including those obligations that it occurred before you arrived. This includes having some of your tax money go to paying off a national debt that you had nothing to do with generating, paying to fund programmes that were adopted before you were born, and so on.

One could compare the idea of immigrating to a country to that of becoming a new shareholder of a corporation. When someone buys shares in a company he takes on, in his stake, his share of the liabilities of the company. If the company borrowed money for thirty years by issuing a bond five years earlier, the new shareholder cannot simply write off that debt: he takes on the obligation. This is a reasonable argument. If the US government does owe a debt to its black population then Boonin’s response to Horowitz’s objection as it stands seems valid. But Boonin creates a new problem for his argument.

I will assume that some immigrants into the United States since the end of slavery have not simply been the groups that Horowitz mentioned, but has also included, either in or out of those groups, some black people. By Boonin’s argument these new black immigrants should also pay their share of “the national debt.”  This is not a problem. What is the problem is that Boonin argues that “compensation is owed not to the biological offspring of particular victims of previous injustices, but rather to black Americans who continue to suffer the lingering effects of slavery and its aftermath.” Because Boonin argues this, he would have it that, as an example, a new black immigrant to America whose family had lived, as an example, in the United Kingdom for generations is due compensation. But this is a nonsense: not only is this black immigrant not descended from American slaves, neither he nor his family have suffered the effects of American slavery or racial separation – for the simple reason that they never lived in America.  In order for Boonin’s argument to hold water, he must explain why such an immigrant is entitled to reparations. He has not done so.

In my final post on this matter I shall discuss what I will call the individual rights based objection – the idea that an African American should not be treated as part of a collective of African Americans but as an individual.

On Slave Reparations: A response to Boonin: 1. Causation

In Philosophy, Racism, Slavery on August 15, 2014 at 3:40 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on July 29th 2014, 1:48 pm

In 2011 Cambridge University Press published philosopher David Boonin’s book, Should Race Matter? Unusual Answers to the Usual Questions. Chapters 2 and 3 of the book deal with the idea that America owes slave reparations to its black population. In 2001 the conservative commentator David Horowitz wrote Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks – and Racist Too. Horowitz’s points were published as a one page advertisement. In chapter 2 of his book, extending over some 53 pages, Boonin responds to Horowitz critically arguing against each of them.  In chapter 3, at 58 pages in length, Boonin extends Horowitz’s points and comes up with further arguments in favour reparations only to knock them down, too.  His position is that “the U.S. government has a moral obligation to benefit the current generation of African Americans because of the wrongful harms that were inflicted on past generations of Africans and African Americans by the institution of slavery and its aftermath.”

Boonin believes his argument is both “coherent and defensible.” This is the first of a series of three blog posts to attack points of Boonin’s arguments. In this post I deal with the causal claim. In the next post I deal with the payments and beneficiary issue. And in my final post I shall deal with what I will call the individual rights argument, against Boonin’s collectivization of the black population. It is in these three posts that I hope to demonstrate that Boonin’s arguments are unsound.

The Causal Claim

Boonin defines the causal claim as “the acts by which previous generations of American citizens wrongfully harmed previous generations of Africans and African Americans continue to cause harmful consequences for black Americans today.” He admits that this claim is “absolutely essential” to his argument: “if the past wrongful acts involving slavery and its aftermath are not currently exerting any harmful influence on the present generation of black Americans, after all, then the compensation principle won’t entitle the present generation of black Americans to any compensation because there won’t be any damages to compensate them for.”

He believes that “black people in the United States today, on the whole, are disadvantaged relative to white people” and he has tried to seek an explanation. He rules out genetic differences as “thoroughly discredited within the relevant scientific communities” and concludes that it therefore must be differences in the social environment “that makes it more difficult, on average, for black Americans to flourish.” With no evidence whatsoever, Boonin makes a leap: “The most obvious candidate for such a difference by far is the existence of the legacy of slavery and its aftermath. And so the most reasonable conclusion to draw, on this account is that slavery and its aftermath do, in fact, continue to exert a negative influence on the life of Black Americans.”

David Horowitz argued that the economic adversity suffered by many black Americans does not arise from the lingering effects of the slave trade but from “failures of individual character.”   Boonin responds, again with no evidence, but just because he cannot think of any other explanation: “if black Americans really are more likely to suffer from failures of individual character than are white Americans, this discrepancy must be due to the lingering and discouraging consequences of slavery and its aftermath.” Boonin cites John McWhorter, who argued that the reason why black students did not try as hard as white students is that they “belong to a culture infected with an Anti-intellectual strain” and “defeatist thought patters.” Shelby Steele is also cited for the claim that the reason for the respects in which black Americans on average lag behind white Americans is that they “internalize a message of inferiority.” Finally Dinesh D’Souza is cited for the claim that black Americans have “destructive and pathological cultural patterns of behaviour.” For exactly the same reason, i.e., he cannot think of anything better, Boonin attributes the reasons for any cultural factors leading to black Americans not doing as well as white Americans to the legacy of slavery and its aftermath.

It is fair to comment that Boonin does make an appeal to authority. He states that McWhorter, Steele, and D’Souza all “endorse the claim that the American legacy of slavery and its aftermath is at least in part to blame for the rise of a dysfunctional black American culture.”  Such an appeal to authority does not seem impressive. One could presumably just cite other writers such as Horowitz who would dismiss such a claim.

In 1865, with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery officially ended in the United States. It had been made illegal much earlier on in many states. Boonin argues that if there are any cultural differences between black Americans and white Americans that lead to black Americans not doing as well as white Americans today, these can be traced back to the way different black people were treated in America up 150 years ago and perhaps even further.

My argument against Boonin is this. If he is right that a black person today can be culturally affected by the harmful treatment of a different black person say 200 years ago, then why stop there? Why not go back to a period before slavery? Boonin has simply not considered that cultural behaviour might have much longer roots and date back from a period of time before Christopher Columbus sailed to America. I am not saying that this is a reason for black Americans not doing as well as white Americans. What I am arguing is that Boonin’s argument has failed. His reason for blaming the academic and financial underperformance of black Americans on slavery and its aftermath is not that he has evidence that this is so, but that he has ruled out other factors such as genetics. The world did not begin with the discovery of America. Boonin seems not to have even considered this fact.

In my next post I shall deal with the payments and beneficiary problem.