Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: The logic behind reparations

Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: The logic behind reparations
The Rev. Ian Markham (Photo/Virginia Theological Seminary)

Virginia Theological Seminary generated significant interest recently with its decision to make direct payments to descendants of those who were enslaved or worked under the humiliation of Jim Crow laws. Having designated $1.7 million for a reparations fund, the proceeds are paid out annually to those who are descendants of the exploited.

The question we received repeatedly was this: No other institution is making direct payments to descendants, so why are you? A thought exercise may be helpful to explore this. Let me stress that this is not intended to provide an analogy with the evil of chattel slavery; instead, it is simply exploring circumstances under which a person or organization might feel obligated to pay into an estate.

Imagine that you are having a rather lovely swimming pool, tennis courts, or a small gym built in your back yard. Let us further imagine that the builder you have chosen to do this work dies just after he has finished the work but before you have had the opportunity to pay the outstanding balance for the work. Would you feel obligated to pay into his estate?

This thought exercise is easy. I am sure the overwhelming majority of persons would answer in the affirmative. The work has been done; the builder’s descendants deserve the benefits of the builder’s labor. It would be simply right to pay the balance and make sure it goes into his estate.

Now, imagine that, perhaps because there was no legal obligation to pay into the estate, no payment was made. Let us further imagine that 50 years later, your grandchildren are now living in the house with this delightful complex in the back yard. Let us further imagine that one day, as the current occupant is working out in the gym, the doorbell rings and a young person is standing there. She explains that her grandfather built the complex in the back yard and that he was never paid for this work. How should the grandchild now react?

It is unlikely that they can simply pay the bill outright. But wouldn’t most people feel that there is an obligation to least try and make amends in some small way?

This is the key principle of reparations. Those who were enslaved were never paid for their labor. All the compensation they deserved was denied to them. And as a result, their estates were denied that compensation. Those who worked under Jim Crow laws were paid much less than their white counterparts. It is theft – in the technical sense of taking that which is not yours – to deny the compensation to those who did the work and, given these people are no longer with us, to their estates.

The evils of slavery and segregation are much greater than just the denial of compensation for labor. Human lives were captured, herded onto ships, whipped, exploited, humiliated and treated like a commodity. It is important that the evil of racism is recognized, but this should be on top of the simple argument that human lives provided their labor and their estates, under slavery, were not compensated at all and, under Jim Crow, were not compensated adequately.

It is axiomatic in a democratic market economy, functioning under law, that we honor this simple principle that labor should be compensated. Even if you are very rich and don’t need the money, you still expect to be compensated if you do the work. In addition, one expects a cash payment; it is not for others to determine that the compensation should go to “education” or “community development.”

One worry remains. Surely, this is impractical? Granted, the first step will be small. This is the case at Virginia Theological Seminary. The payments are very puny compared with the exploitation. But the first step establishes a principle. The first step determines a direction.

America’s greatness could be realized in this moment provided we start thinking about this issue with greater moral clarity. We need to show the world we believe the fundamental, apolitical, axiom of a market economy: Those who labor should be compensated, and part of that compensation can be part of their estates when they die. Virginia Theological Seminary is showing how that is possible.

The writer is dean of Virginia Theological Seminary.