The Reparations Fantasy

H. W. Brands reviews Margaret MacMillan's new book on the uses and abuses of history. He then proposes:

A statute of historical limitations would serve particularly well to defuse one of the most explosive issues in American historical politics. MacMillan mentions but doesn’t delve into the demands for reparations to the descendants of African-American slaves. These demands crop up recurrently, but though they haven’t yet gone anywhere, they never quite go away. And while they linger, they threaten to thoroughly poison the atmosphere on race. Without question the millions of men, women and children forced into servitude were horribly wronged. But righting that wrong, a century and a half after emancipation, transcends the power of mortals.

Reparations would take money from people who never owned slaves and bestow it on people who never were slaves. It would require judgments of collective guilt and collective innocence, which are problematic at best; when the collectives are defined by race and the judgments extended across generations, the whole issue becomes noxious in the extreme. Racists would find cover for reviving old arguments about slavery actually benefiting slaves—after all, if the issue is money, isn’t the average African-American today better-off than the average West African? What about African-American slaveholders—which side of the ledger do their descendants land on? And the American children of Africans who were never enslaved? Would the president of the United States get a check?