I am politically liberal. I used to feel more middle-of the-road, but not so much lately. And that, in theory, should mean that I am in favor of the current suit for slavery reparations some African Americans have filed.
The more I have read about the suit, the more I am convinced it is a terrible idea, and I hope some judge throws it out soon.
The suit deals with wrongs that are over 140 years old. None of the people who made the decisions at that time are alive today. None of the people who were slaves are alive today. True, the ugly spectre of racism is still alive in some Americans today, but it has been fading over the last 40 years or so. The legal apparatus that reinforced racist behavior has mostly been dismantled.
I had mixed feelings about the moves to pay slave laborers from World War II, but at least a few of those laborers are still alive.
For Americans to take the American slavery suit seriously means we are becoming as obsessed about redressing generational past wrongs as people in the Balkans, Turkey, Armenia or the Middle East. We must be aware of our history, but we should never run our lives to make sure that wrongs against our father’s father’s father are refought in our own time. For that just means that we can’t get beyond past ills.
Focusing on past wrongs means people are less likely to pay attention to current wrongs. We should be much more worried about the remaining vestiges of racism (housing, education, jobs) and work to erradicate them, rather than fighting issues related to past slavery.
Does this suit mean I should be suing the government because my grandmothers (and those before them) were not permitted to vote? My great-great-great-great-great-great* grandparents were Quaker immigrants to America who were exiled to an island and who starved to death; should I sue the English government or the American government to complain? Almost everyone in America can find a reason to sue someone over generational past wrongs. Suing will do nothing to change the lives of the people who died long ago.
Slavery does exist in our time, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia. We need to make people more aware of contemporary slavery, and we need to find ways to fight it. Suing over past slavery offenses can aid current slaveholders by keeping people distracted about the present.
We live in the present. At least, we ought to. I’ve always believed that we should learn from the past, live in the present and plan for the future. Suing over wrongs from hundreds of years ago keeps people too tied to the past.