Lessons for Historians About Reparations

Monetizing historical racial oppression in order to offer handouts to preferred groups is on the rise. As ever, California leads the way as it deliberates the question of how to pay African Americans with 19th-century ancestry to redress slavery and segregation. 

Native Americans, too, are demanding redress for Indian country allegedly seized for the Land Grant College Bill (Morrill Act) of 1862. 

Local and national governments elsewhere are beginning to experience similar pressures. Centenarian survivors of the Tulsa race massacre provide the headline figures for a community demanding compensation from the City Council. 

And in April, Lord Boateng, a former Labour cabinet minister and the first person of African descent to serve in a British cabinet, told the House of Lords that a portion of the British government’s overseas aid budget ought to be paid to former Caribbean colonies as reparations for slavery. 

Computation of guilt cannot be offset by any subsequent good works. The fact that Victorian British Prime Minister and Liberal leader William E. Gladstone’s father owned slaves in the Caribbean and his maiden speech in the House of Commons opposed the Emancipation Act is enough to outweigh any and all achievements of his subsequent 60-year career in public life. One transgression outweighs a lifetime of service in this tribunal of guilt-by-skin-color. 

Likewise for institutions. Administrators at Harvard are all aflutter having discovered that a slaveholder was a member of their faculty during the 18th century, enough to follow Georgetown in promising places, scholarships, and so on for minorities at a time when the former’s acceptance rate for undergraduates in 2022 is around 4.59 percent, per the Harvard Crimson

Apologies—even when delivered by British royalty on Caribbean tours—are not enough. Neither is renaming university buildings, schools, and thoroughfares, nor tearing down statues. More concrete material redress is needed from today’s taxpayers so that today’s generation of white Americans can atone for the guilt of those of the same race who lived in the past. 

To avoid this coming madness, it is essential for taxpayers to insist their wallets are not raided for reparations and that their children do not face discrimination on the basis of this evil ideology. Can historians help the resistance? 

So far, historians have been willing collaborators as they have always been disposed to act as both judge and jury when it comes to the past. Novelist E. M. Forster declared a century ago that one of the “consolations” of history for historians is for them to assume a power they lack in the present. Given they are badly paid, and treated with contempt both by teachers in other disciplines and administrators, historians lash out in frustration and have long sought compensation for their powerlessness in the present by snubbing, censuring, and pitying people unlucky enough to have lived in the past. 

Other incentives then come into play. If the historian cannot share the race of those oppressed in the past, then at least he or she must study them to get any funding, let alone the prospect of tenure. This pernicious pseudoscience creates a new system of winners and losers and contrived problems that cannot be solved without expansion of regulation and oversight, wealth transfers, whole new departments, training programs, and recruitment based solely on skin-deep diversity. After all, students need to be taught by professors who superficially look like them, share their “lived experience,” and use history to reinforce this present racial tribalism. Or so the reasoning goes. 

And so follows the segregation of the faculty, curriculum, and campus.

The resulting history, in which everyone is set up for failure with impossible demands set by today’s social justice warriors, is boring, predictable, and discouraging for students. After all, even Gladstone’s reforms are deemed irrelevant when set against his slaveholding background and racism. The seeming permanence of racism and “systemic” injustice in history means there is little point in believing in the operation of meritocracy in the present, i.e., getting good grades and then a better job. 

The historian’s first task is simple: We have no understanding now how anybody lived before World War II, so it is nonsense to associate today’s white Americans with the slaveholder or segregationist class and African Americans with the taint of being once enslaved. Another novelist (they write so much better than historians!), L. P. Hartley, put it best: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Gordon Wood, a great historian who can write, argued that imposing today’s values on individuals in history violates the integrity of the past.  

The second task is more difficult. The historian must refocus to teach students about the quiet voices of the past: the real ideas, conversations, debates, dilemmas, and decisions in history. These may not resemble our own and are only possible to uncover through patient instruction and research. While uncovering true moral choices faced by individuals can reveal what is heroic, it is also the case that those who worry history will then return to just praising dead white men, are missing the extent of the contemporary vituperation against figures in the past. Gladstone, Winston Churchill, or Abraham Lincoln do not need today’s judgments of racism piling on the existing criticism to be fairly assessed. 

When Gladstone came out in favor of Irish self-government in 1886 and stood for “Home Rule and the Union of Hearts” in opposition to “the Union and the Empire,” he was denounced by opponents as a man of inequity with whom no further communication should be held. The debate over Irish home rule was a battle between conflicting ideals and imaginations, loyalties and prejudices, politics and beliefs. Uncovering this debate could teach us a thing or two about managing disagreements today. 

Churchill was perhaps ruing criticism of himself by contemporaries during his wilderness years in the 1930s, as well as the fruits of his research on his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, when he wrote: “Few are the public men in any modern state who have reached exceptional eminence without there being passed from foul lips to pricked up ears some tale of shamefulness. ‘This one was corrupt’ or ‘that one was immoral’ or ‘the other perverted.’ In the clubs, messes, and pothouses of every country, such atrocious stories are the inseparable shadows of worldly success.”

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