Friday, June 10, 2005
The 3rd Rail of Racial Politics
Images of Slavery: whip scars (left) and crucifixion scars (right).
IT'S TIME. In yesterday's Boston Globe, columnist Jeff Jacoby reported the following about a major U.S. bank:
AS SOON as he learned the ugly truth, the chairman of financial-services giant
It's not hard to guess the subject of all this remorse: slavery. Wachovia must somehow be implicated in the American slave trade of the 19th century. Here's how:
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, and Wachovia wasn't founded until 1879. The slaves for which Thompson was so apologetic were owned decades before the Civil War, when slavery was still lawful throughout the South. They were owned not by Wachovia but by the Bank of Charleston and the Georgia Railroad and Banking Co. -- two of the approximately 400 financial institutions dating back to 1781 that over the centuries merged with or were acquired by other institutions that eventually became part of the conglomerate known today as Wachovia.
In other words, Thompson's apology was for something Wachovia didn't do, in an era when it didn't exist, under laws it didn't break. And as an act of contrition for this wrong it never committed, it can now expect to pay millions of dollars to activists for a wrong they never suffered.
Jacoby's point in telling us all this is to highlight a legal fad which began in the City of Chicago and which has since spread to Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia; the operative mechanism is an ordinance requiring all bidders for city business to disclose any links between their institutions and the conduct of slavery in the pre-Civil War United States. The purpose is to build a documentable legal basis for the exactment of reparations from businesses which were in any way involved in slavery when it was legal. Jacoby correctly points out that these kinds of legal antics are only the hors d'oeuvres of an anticipated feast backed by what may prove to be an inexhaustible appetite:
If Thompson thought he would put the slavery issue to rest by apologizing abjectly and promising to put even more money into ''diversity" and ''organizations that support African-Americans," he was mistaken. No sooner had he issued his statement than it was dismissed as insufficient. ''Wachovia can and must do more," declared the head of one advocacy group in the Raleigh News & Observer. ''It . . . must reinvest in the communities and the people who have been wronged." Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, a key reparations strategist, warned Wachovia that if it doesn't ''provide comfort to the descendants of slaves," this issue ''will haunt them for a long time."
Jacoby concludes by suggesting that reparations are a Pandora's Box which will do little good to open and may do much harm, including the exacerbation of national wounds that should be permitted to heal:
America long ago paid the price for slavery: a horrific Civil War that killed 620,000 soldiers, more than half of them from the North. It is as vile to insist that white Americans today owe a debt for slavery as it would be to insist that black Americans owe a debt for freedom. What the reparations extremists are demanding would make a mockery of historical truth and inflame racial strife. Their cynicism is toxic, and corporate America had better find the courage to say so. [emphasis added]
His article is worth reading in full (registration required), but his appeal to reason, forgiveness, and institutional guts seems unlikely to stem the tide that is now building to flood force. Therefore, I am going to take the argument precisely in the direction decried by the sentence boldfaced above -- not for the purpose of transforming the descendants of slaves into debtors, but to illuminate the only rational basis on which reparations could be calculated in dollars and cents. I know that it's risky to apply cold logic to an issue so fueled by emotion, but I ask readers to follow my logic to its conclusion before exploding in righteous fury.
The first step is to acknowledge that any claim of reparations pursued through the courts now is on behalf of people who have not themselves been slaves. The specific pain and suffering illustrated by the photograph(s) above was committed by people who are now dead against victims who are now dead. All possibility of reparations as a moral expiation of guilt is moot because all parties to the immoral acts involved have been deceased for about a century. For this reason, the question of what reparations might be owed to the descendants of slaves must be a purely financial one, computed in terms of opportunity cost; that is, what financial losses are still being experienced by African-Americans that they wouldn't be experiencing if slavery had never existed in this country.
It is easy to see that the only valid comparisons we can make in this regard are between contemporary African-Americans and contemporary sub-Saharan Africans. The latter are the control population -- that population which was NOT captured, chained, sold to slave traders, and carried to American states for resale to slave owners. It is equally easy to see that the only statistic which matters is the lifetime financial expectations of African-Americans versus those of sub-Saharan Africans.
Lifetime financial expectations can be estimated based on two variables: per capita income and years of life expectancy. A contemporary African-American must accept the premise that without slavery in the U.S., his lifetime financial expectations would be those of an average contemporary sub-Saharan African, which can be calculated according to the following formula: Number of years of life expectancy multiplied by average annual per capita income.
Granted, these numbers are hard to acquire with a high degree of accuracy, but we can make approximate estimates based on surveys and studies which have been performed in recent years. For example, with respect to life expectancy, a 2000 report from the World Health Organization provides a worldwide summary, including this:
All of the bottom 10 countries were in sub-Saharan Africa, where the HIV-AIDS epidemic is rampant. In ascending order... those countries were Sierra Leona, 25.9 years of healthy life for babies born in 1999; Niger, 29.1; Malawi, 29.4; Zambia, 30.3; Botswana, 32.3; Uganda, 32.7; Rwanda, 32.8; Zimbabwe, 32.9; Mali, 33.1; and Ethiopia, 33.5.To be conservative, we should round the figure upward; call it 50 years, on average. And what of per capita income? The figures that are available to us come from sources like the World Bank. A written summary of the year 2003 states:
The overall life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa has dropped precipitously over the past 10 years, mostly because of the AIDS epidemic, the WHO says. Life expectancy dropped for female babies from 51.1 years to 46.3 years. For males, the level dropped from 47.3 years to 44.8 years.
In marked contrast to East and South Asia, poverty actually rose in Sub-Saharan Africa. Since 1981, a 13-percent contraction in GDP per capita in Sub-Saharan Africa resulted in a near-doubling of the number of people living on less than $1 a day, from 164 million to 314 million, a rise from 42 to 47 percent of the region's population.
Close to half of sub-Saharan Africans make less than $365 per year. For them, lifetime financial expectations are less than $18,250. Obviously, the 53 percent who make more than that may make considerably more than that, and fortunately the World Bank does break out figures for individual countries. Here's a link to a spreadsheet that captures the World Bank figures for Sub-Saharan African nations (2003) and also captures population data from another source. The result is a computation of per capita income for all of Sub-Saharan Africa: $509.
This gives us an easy way for anyone to guesstimate his lifetime financial expectations if he happened to live in Sub-Saharan Africa. We can call it the "50-500 Formula": (50 years ) x ($500) = $25,000.
If this number turns out to be greater than the lifetime financial expectations of an average African-American, the descendants of American slaves can sue for the difference.
What do we know about per-capita income for African Americans? Here's an indication, drawn from a Tennessee source that cites national census data:
African-Americans moved closer to per capita income parity between 2000 and 2002. In the former year, African-American real (inflation-adjusted) per capita income was $15,451. Although that number decreased $10 over the following two years to $15,441, overall per capita income fell even more, declining $541. As a result, African-American per capita income increased from 66.2 percent of per capita income for the general population in 2000 to 67.7 percent in 2002.
Oops. It begins to look as if any African-American who lives at least two years is going to enjoy a higher lifetime income than a Sub-Saharan African. What can we determine about life expectancy?
Racial disparities in life expectancy have declined since 1960. However, the pace of the decline is slower than what occurred in earlier years. For both blacks and whites, improvements in the life expectancy are relatively very small. From 1960 to 1990 the life expectancy for whites increased from 70.6 to 76.1 years, and for blacks the life expectancy increased from 63.2 to 69.1 years.Oops again. Using round numbers, we can easily calculate an average lifetime financial expectation for African-Americans: (70 years) x ($15,000) = $1,050,000. Approximately $1 million.
Finally, we can compute our average per capita reparations owed to African-Americans: $25,000 minus $1,000,000 = ($975,000). Of course, the brackets and red type indicate that it's a negative number, meaning no reparations owed. End of legal case. Period.
I am not going to argue that African-Americans should feel grateful about the enslavement of their ancestors, but I will propose that our 30 million African-Americans acknowledge they are far better off in America than their 600 million ancestral cousins are in Africa, living on average 20 years longer and making approximately 40 times as much money. In addition, they no longer face the prospect of becoming enslaved, which many Africans cannot say. Here's an excerpt from an overview on modern slavery.
When a ship carrying hundreds of people was recently turned away from Benin, Africa, officials suspected that the children on board were human slaves. The incident once again brought attention to the problem of slavery. At this moment, millions of men, women, and children—roughly twice the population of Rhode Island—are being held against their will as modern-day slaves.
Sometimes referred to as bonded laborers (because of the debts owed their masters), public perception of modern slavery is often confused with reports of workers in low-wage jobs or inhumane working conditions. However, modern-day slaves differ from these workers because they are actually held in physical bondage (they are shackled, held at gunpoint, etc.)...
The slave trade in Africa was officially banned in the early 1880s, but forced labor continues to be practiced in West and Central Africa today. UNICEF estimates that 200,000 children from this region are sold into slavery each year. Many of these children are from Benin and Togo, and are sold into the domestic, agricultural, and sex industries of wealthier, neighboring countries such as Nigeria and Gabon....
The enslavement of the Dinkas in southern Sudan may be the most horrific and well-known example of contemporary slavery. According to 1993 U.S. State Department estimates, up to 90,000 blacks are owned by North African Arabs, and often sold as property in a thriving slave trade for as little as $15 per human being.
Animist tribes in southern Sudan are frequently invaded by Arab militias from the North, who kill the men and enslave the women and children. The Arabs consider it a traditional right to enslave southerners, and to own chattel slaves (slaves owned as personal property).
Physical mutilation is practiced upon these slaves not only to prevent escape, but to enforce the owners' ideologies. According to an ASI report: "Kon, a thirteen-year-old Dinka boy, was abducted by Arab nomads and taken to a merchant's house. There he found several Dinka men hobbling, their Achilles tendons cut because they refused to become Muslims. Threatened with the same treatment the boy converted."
In point of fact, only one of the two photos at the beginning of this article is of an American slave. The photo on the right is only a few years old. It shows the legs of a boy named Joseph who was crucified by his slavemaster in the Sudan.
The United States of America indisputably has slavery as a part of its past. But if we can seriously be entreated today to wipe out all the current debts owed by the corrupt and frequently vicious governments of Africa, then perhaps African-Americans can finally forgive the debts owed by long dead white men to their long dead ancestors. Sound reasonable?
I'm guessing it won't sound reasonable to a lot of you. I await the deluge.
Modern slaves in the Sudan