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.