At the end of the Great War, the victorious allies wanted to really punish Germany for everything they had to endure in their victory. In addition to the loss of territory, the Treaty of Versailles contained a statement where Germany apologized and took all the blame for the war, and they were forced to pay some 132 billion gold marks (about $33 billion in 1919 dollars; over $500 billion today) in reparations. After a lot of refinancing (and another war sparked – in no small part – by the perceived humiliation of the reparations), the last payment was made in 2010.

In that next war, Finland wound up on the losing side due an alliance of convenience with Germany after Finland was invaded by the Soviet Union. Finland not only had to let the Soviets keep the territory they grabbed, but give them even more land and some serious cash payments. After the payments were made, a new bit of Finnish currency featured some nude figures (seen from the back) gazing at a sunset over an ocean. The joke was that it represented the Finns watching their last reparations payment going off to the Soviets.

Now there’s some serious talk – again – about reparations payments to African-Americans to atone in some fashion for slavery.

I’ve got a number of beefs with this.

Most fundamentally, “reparations” is the wrong term. As those two examples show, reparations are what a nation or people defeated in war pays to the victor in lieu of, or in addition to, giving up land. It’s part of the spoils of war. While there was a war over slavery, these “reparations” are asking the victors to give money to the people they fought for. That is not what reparations are. One would be better off asking those states that seceded for the money – but one can also claim that they were absolved from any reparations when they were readmitted to the Union.

A much better term would be “restitution”. That’s what a convicted criminal (or the state on their behalf) pays a victim of a crime in compensation for damages resulting from that crime. Someone steals your car and wrecks it? Yes, insurance should cover the loss of the vehicle, but a restitution payment would help with all the inconvenience of being without a car (paying for taxis and mass transit and all that).

If you consider all the fallout from institutionalized racism to be a crime and want to make up for it, then restitution is what you want.

There are a whole bunch of other issues that leave me fardeiget. Obviously, there’s the matter of who gets the money, and how much. Who decides who qualifies? How much genealogy is required? Who pays? Presumably the money will be coming from a general fund, which comes from people’s taxes. So in that case, people who never had anything whatsoever to do with slavery (or even institutionalized racism in any form) because they are either too young or are recent immigrants will be made to pay in some way. Why should they be held even a little responsible for something they had zero control over?

If the payments are needed “in principle” as a general atonement, what about all the many affirmative action programs? Aren’t they part of that same principle, so that any further action is unneeded? Can we end those programs once we’ve completed the payments?

That’s my final and biggest issue with any “payments” or “apology”. Having once made them, we will feel absolved from any further action on racial justice. And the current injustices and inequities will continue…..

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