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Reparations for Slavery and Social Discrimination

Reparations for Slavery and Social Discrimination

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September 29, 2010

Question: I recently read something from one of the articles on your site. It stated that Objectivism holds that people from today could not be held accountable for actions taken by ancestors in the past, and as such, reparations for slavery serve no real interest and that more effort should be taken to focus on today and future achievements.

The writer went on to mention Depression-era programs (which helped white Americans more than black Americans by the way, which isn't what the writer said) and affirmative action, and that these programs have served as a form of reparations.

My question is this: How does Objectivism deal with and/or view the reality of continued discrimination of African-Americans despite years of productive achievement by African Americans, and does Objectivism ignore the reality that race/ethnicity is the singular issue that causes a majority of schisms in the U.S. and world?

Answer: Objectivism is totally opposed to racism. It is an individualist philosophy, and it holds that all people, first and foremost, should be regarded as individuals and judged on their individual traits. In her essay "Racism," Ayn Rand decried racism as a primitive form of tribalism and a crude collectivism.

Politically, Objectivism is for a race-neutral governmental system, one founded on individual rights in which government will never reach judgments or enact laws based on race per se. It is for laissez-faire capitalism, in which each person is free to live in the relationships he chooses. Of course, in such a system, a person who is guided by racism is free to act as he chooses—but he pays the price in the lost benefits he foregoes, and in any case he is unable to impose his racist beliefs on others through law.

As to reparations, it is an absurd position on many grounds. Presuming we are speaking of a violation of individual rights, such as enslavement, assault, etc., the law can in justice enforce claims only between victims and those who genuinely caused the harm. If there were to have been reparations, they could only have come from slaveholders. The idea that somehow all people of non-African descent, or perhaps only all people of European descent, are today somehow responsible for an injustice that they did not cause and that they never enforced, is absurd. Most Americans can't even trace descent from slaveholders. And in any case, being the descendent of a murderer doesn't make one guilty of murder; and the same goes for any other such crime.

There is no doubt that racism has had a long institutional history in the U.S., as in many other places. Yet one aspect of America with which we should be pleased is the way it has lived more and more up to its promise of equal rights for all over time. It is worth noting that durable institutional racism depended on racist laws, like those of the Jim Crow South. Liberty and individual rights are powerful disinfectants.

Whatever residual cultural racism may remain in the U.S., discrimination against people of African descent is not legal anywhere in the U.S. today, and it is contrary to the explicit principles of virtually every significant organization. It is sad that in a culture that offers so much opportunity, there remain many who make excuses and look around for someone to blame for their troubles. I think the reparations movement is an instance of this. Objectivism counsels the practices of independence, productivity, and responsibility. It holds that any individual who lives a responsible and productive life stands to thrive in a free society.

Objectivism thus rejects the idea that people must be divided by race or ethnicity. That racism has shaped and continues to affect American society (and here I refer to affirmative action—which sets standards based on race—as another symptom of racism) does not mean that it must be so. We as individuals can live as we choose, and can transcend traditional ethnicist divisions in society.