Thomas Sowell’s Folly
Did the Selective Historian We Neither Need Nor Deserve Just Sell Me on Reparations for Black America?
Conservative ideologue and ideal casting choice for Carlton Banks-as-a-grandfather in any Fresh Prince revamp, Thomas Sowell, argued in 2016 that it’s absurd to hold people responsible for things that happened before their “born on” date gets stamped.
I started investigating this premise when a fanboy website recently retweeted his words, and to retort in terms lofty enough for a Hoover Institution Senior Fellow like Sowell, he is full of “equestrian feces,” historically speaking.
In 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 interning (forcibly relocating to camps) over 100,000 Japanese-American citizens and resident aliens. The Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of FDR’s order in 1944 by a 6–3 vote, so this was all legal. (Yeah, FDR and most of the court were Democrats, if you’re the kind of person who uses “Democrats are the REAL racists” in your talking points).
In 1948, President Truman (also a Democrat if you want to rebut “Democrats are the REAL racists” talking points) signed the Japanese American Evacuation Act, which provided compensation for lost property, awarding up to $2,500 OR 3/4 of a valid claim, whichever was less. Yes, you read that correctly. If they decided you had a VALID CLAIM, you still didn’t get full money. I assume no Japanese Americans griped back then because it was still better than having every five of you counted as three people, so as far as America’s use of dehumanizing ratios goes, it was a dramatic 15% uptick.
Reagan (and a Democrat Congress) Saves the Day!
Fortunately, in 1988, Republican President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which (1) apologized to interned Japanese Americans; and (2) gave them reparations of $20,000 each ($43,346 in 2020 value).
The law was “bi-partisan.” For the benefit of the under-40-crowd who have no frame of reference, this means House Republicans (63 of them, to be exact) joined 180 House Democrats and 20 Senate Republicans joined 45 Senate Democrats in voting “yes.”
The Act’s purpose was to acknowledge the fundamental injustice of internment and also apologize “on behalf of the people of the United States.”
In his bill-signing statement, President Reagan said this:
“…no payment can make up for those lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here WE admit a wrong; here WE reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”
Neither the law’s apology nor Reagan’s statement smashes on FDR or all the people who did the dirty work. The apology is from ALL Americans. Moreover, the reparations were paid from the U.S. treasury, which means ALL Americans who paid taxes in 1988 were forced to contribute.
As a general notion, asking people to pay for wrongs they couldn’t control seems unjust. But two ways Americans living during internment could have ended it were: (1) voting against FDR in the 1944 presidential election to express disapproval; or (2) lobbying him to end the practice. Of course, for all practical (and legal) purposes, only Americans over 18 years old could have done either. We’ll call these folks our “control group.”
Fast forward to 1988. Our control group is now at least 62 years old. According to Census data, only 15% of the 248 million Americans alive in 1988 were at least 62.
Applying Sowell’s principle — that we should NOT be held accountable for things that happened before our births — by what moral authority could Ronald Reagan and the United States government apologize for, and use the money of, 85% of us who weren’t born or who were minors when internment happened? We could have withheld social security checks from people over 62 to offset the internment cost, but we didn’t.
As an interesting historical note, unlike today, the Japanese interns were NOT forced to work for free in those camps “to gain experience.” They were given the option of earning the salary of the lowest-paid army private. This would have been nirvana to a slave. Also, lest you think the $20,000 constituted only economic loss, the average non-farm income in America was $3,000 in 1946. Japanese Americans absolutely got compensated for pain and suffering and mental anguish, though it was still a smoking hot deal for Uncle Sam (sort of like finding conscience assuagement on a clearance rack at Ross).
Wait? Native Americans Got Something From Us?
In 1946, Truman signed the Indian Claims Commission Act as a way to thank Native Americans for WW2 service (in particular, the “code talkers” whose work was pivotal to victory). This law set aside $1.2 billion, and the Commission spent the next 30 years adjudicating claims of wrongdoing by the U.S. government. Ultimately, it awarded $800 million dollars in “restitution” (we never gave any land back; we just paid the “market value” per acre at the time of seizure).
To validate claims, researchers explored the earliest maps of the original title, territory, and cartographic presentations based upon treaties, statutes, and executive orders, and relied on Indian informants, explorers, trappers, military personnel, missionaries, and early field ethnographers. Scholars even reconstructed native ecology in terms of food supply and other resources of the environment to map original territory. (Mentally bookmark the absolute complexity in adjudicating claims).
But here’s a crucial fact: the Commission honored some claims that went back to 1785, or EIGHTY years before the last legal act of slavery. I note this because an oft-spouted counterpart to Sowell is that we shouldn’t pay descendants for harm to their forebearers. Yet almost ALL of the money went to descendants of Native Americans who were NOT BORN when the offending actions occurred.
America says, “My Bad, Native Peeps!”
In 2010, current U.S. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) stuffed a resolution apologizing to Native Americans into a Department of Defense appropriation, following America’s tradition of hiding all of America’s most significant and soul-stirring proclamations in budget bills.
That resolution said America…
(4) APOLOGIZES ON BEHALF OF THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States;
(5) expresses its regret for the ramifications of former wrongs and its commitment to build on the positive relationships of the past and present to move toward a brighter future where all the people of this land live reconciled as brothers and sisters, and harmoniously steward and protect this land together;
(6) urges the President to acknowledge THE WRONGS OF THE UNITED STATES against Indian tribes in the history of the United States in order to bring healing to this land
Congress passed the appropriation, which Democrat President Barack Obama signed into law. Of course, the apology resolution noted it could not be used as the basis to file a lawsuit.
But, again, by what moral authority — under the Sowell principle — could President Obama and our government apologize on behalf of an America populated by literally NOBODY who was alive when 4/5 of these land grabs happened? NONE of these were “our” fault, right America? And, as with internment, how could Truman and his ilk justify using OUR Benjamins for acts perpetrated before there literally WERE Benjamins?
But Wait…Haven’t We Apologized for Slavery?
In 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives passed, by voice vote only, House Resolution 194, which apologized for slavery AND Jim Crow. But as anybody who paid attention to Schoolhouse Rock knows, absent a bill passing both chambers of Congress and being presented to the president for his signature, the American government has NOT spoken. So, no, we still haven’t.
Let’s Talk About Nazis!
According to some estimates, Nazis looted 600,000 Jewish works of art, and in 44 nations, a thief of said goods cannot pass good title, which means if your father were a Nazi who fled to America, died, and gave you a Jewish painting in his will, you hand it over. On a 1–10 scale, with 10 being absolutely indignant, how badly does this irritate your sensibilities? I’m guessing zero.
Where am I going with this? Well, in 2016 the U.S. Congress enacted the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016, which negates ALL statutes of limitation (the automatic deadlines that starts running from the day an injury occurs, and if you miss it, you forever lose the right to file a lawsuit). Now we give six years to file suit after the stolen art is found, and in no circumstance have we denied a remedy to someone who didn’t personally own the stolen painting. Heirs can file claims, as can heirs of heirs. All that matters is whether they can prove ownership.
Lastly, not to bore you all with “the law,” but EVERY contract I’ve ever seen or written binds “heirs” (holds the non-living accountable for the actions of those who came before), as does EVERY treaty signed by America, often long before any of us were a thought.
We (cough, mostly white people) need to confront the fact that— at any time after 1865 — we could have afforded African-Americans the same opportunity to seek redress we afforded Native Americans and Japanese Americans. At any point, we could have created a statutory regiment to adjudicate claims of “unjust enrichment,” which is when Party A pays for the uncompensated value they took from Party B, and any such claim could be inheritable from descendant to descendant.
We could have simply enforced General Sherman’s Field Order № 15, which gave 40 acres of nicely arable Southern U.S. land to each freed slave. (A mule wasn’t included until later, contrary to popular belief). But we didn’t.
Some Americans are opposed to making blanket payments to every African-American because of debate over who gets payments and who pays. Fair point. But why isn’t the answer to create either private rights of actions or a government office to adjudicate claims? With the astonishing advances in genealogy and access to historical records, we could absolutely identify who are descendants of slaves, and we could absolutely trace assets from slave owners to present-day heirs, which would be superior to having us ALL pay, wouldn’t it?
To recap, the United States government HAS apologized to Native Americans for stealing their land and gave them (pittance) restitution for acts committed LONG BEFORE slavery. It used money taken from people who had NO hand in the wrongdoing and gave it to descendants of the wronged, not to just the wronged (as is the case with Jewish heirs and looted Nazi art).
The United States government also apologized for interning Japanese Americans and gave money for acts committed AFTER slavery, using money from people who, again, had no hand in the wrongdoing.
Do I think America will do what I suggest? I’m skeptical. But at least now you know that NOT holding people accountable for the acts committed before they were born is, to say the least, selectively applied in America, except when it might benefit black people. Then it’s an ironclad rule.