I ran across an interesting post today, on the question of who might give or receive compensation for the history of their ancestors:

should the govt pay reparations to Irish families who lost loved ones during the civil war?

after all they are the only true victims, thousands of Irish got off the boat in New York, and were carrying a gun for the US, fighting to end a slavery cause they had nothing to do with. … not to say the slaves were a guilty party, but I think that if you give reparations to blacks, and reservations to native americans, you should give reparations to Irish descendent’s that honorably fought to end a slavery cause they had no part in making.

I think this position isn’t at all unusual among many whites in this country, and I believe it illustrates several important issues.

Now, this poster doesn’t seem to be particularly well-informed about the U.S. civil war. Historians generally agree that the war wasn’t fought to “free the slaves.” This merely became one of the many enduring consequences of the conflict. This argument is akin to odd notion that any debt owed to slaves and their descendents was paid off when that wrong stopped happening at the end of the war.

More subtly, however, this argument assumes that the reason to provide compensation of any kind today for slavery — whether in the form of reparations to slave descendents, or, at the other extreme, broad social and economic programs aimed at minority and underprivileged groups generally — would be to compensate for the harm done to slaves historically.

There is simply no way to “un-ring” that bell. This fact is nicely illustrated by this poster’s discussion of how Irish immigrants fought as Union soliders, and by the impossibility of paying reparations to the descendents of soldiers of old wars, simply for having had to fight and die in those wars. There are other complications involved in revisiting historical wrongs. In this case, for instance, there are no easy answers to which Americans (if any) bear responsibility for the deeds of their ancestors, even assume no one has “mixed” ancestry in this sense. And there’s also the nagging consideration that no one alive now was even remotely harmed by slavery itself.

But this position misses the point that the lingering effects of slavery and discrimination remain very much with us today. Blacks in this country have clearly not recovered from enslavement and subsequent generations of Jim Crow and institutionalized prejudice. And there’s no denying that, even today, there is a privilege enjoyed by all who are identified as being white — even if only the negative privilege of not being treated in the harmful ways which blacks so often experience.

(I’m not even going to comment on the poster’s belief that the system of reservations for American Indians has been a form of compensation akin to reparations.)

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