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.