It’s a beguiling idea. Slavery was so hideous a crime and caused so much pain and suffering that something should be done about it. But we face a lot of problems in the concept of reparations. For one thing, there were a fair number of black people who emancipated themselves through superhumanly hard work, then used their savings to buy slaves. How do we assess their liability?
For another, the conditions of slaves varied wildly. Some were house servants and lived halfway decent lives. Others worked like myrmidons in sugar cane fields and were literally whipped to death if they faltered. How do we account for this kind of difference in degree of suffering?
For yet another, some moved north immediately and led barely normal lives as did their children and grandchildren. Others stayed in the deep south and were subject to every kind of humiliation. How do we compare how much these two different groups are owed? If a black person voluntarily stayed in a horrible Jim Crow environment, what should be his progeny’s measure of damages as compared with that of the offspring of black people who moved to Des Moines?
Also, there is a chain of causation in many cases. One black tribe attacked and captured others then the captors sold their slaves to Arab slave traders who then sold the slaves to New England slave brokers.
How do we break down the chain of causation such that each group of exploiters pays its fair share? How would this even remotely be possible in 17th, 18th, and 19th century Africa, Arabia, and America? Where would the records be?
Also, who would be taxed for the reparations? The great majority of white Americans never owned any slaves. Why should they be taxed? The present population of America is by a wide margin the scions of Poles and Czechs and Italians and Chinese and Jews who never owned any slaves at all. Why should they be taxed at all for reparations?
Next, since we cannot establish culpability for something that was in any event not a legally recognized crime at the time of slavery, wouldn’t a law establishing a penalty for something an ancestor did that was not a crime at the time be a Bill of Attainder, outlawed by the Constitution?
Further, there is considerable evidence that the blacks in America often — not always at all — live far better lives than the progeny of blacks who remained in Africa. There is just no comparison. So how do we measure the degree of payment to people whose ancestors’ enslavement — as dreadfully horrible as it was — led to a far better life for their children in Compton or Anacostia?