In 1989 U.S. Representative John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., introduced H.R. 40: The Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act. H.R. 40 wasn’t legislation to redress any grievance. The bill requested appropriations for a study so its findings could start a national dialogue.

During the decade of the 90’s H.R. 40 wasn’t mentioned by mainstream Black leaders, but in 2000 “reparations for slavery” became a controversial topic due to Randall Robinson’s new book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. (Notice: The controversy was over the concept of “reparations for slavery” not H.R. 40.) Robinson wrote, “Our society must first be brought to a consensus that it wants to close the socioeconomic gap between the races. It must accept that the gap derives from the social depredations of slavery. Once and for all, America must…accept full responsibility for the hardships it has occasioned for so many.”

Now, many Whites wanted to know why they had to pay for an injustice they didn’t inflict. Robinson stated it was moral justice. This response seemed based on the assumption that the question was motivated by unconscious racism, but what if it was a serious inquiry concerning jurisprudence?

First of all, no citizen of a modern state is opposed to reparations. The idea that the perpetrator of an injustice should pay the victim for damages is a well established legal principle dating back to ancient times. But “reparations for slavery” is a different proposition. It redefines the traditional principle. It extents guilt to and demands payment from the descendents of perpetrators, who committed no crime, to compensate the descendents of the victims, who were never enslaved.

Now, Whites weren’t asking because they didn’t grasp the morality of the issue. (Moral support doesn’t cost.) They asked because they needed the redefining of reparations explained. That’s a legitimate concern that proponents for reparations have failed to address beyond moral grandstanding.

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