Race

The Hypocrisy of Reparations Opposition

No Reparations for McConnell
Alex Wong / Getty Images
Guy Nave
Written by Guy Nave

In his opposition to reparations, Sen Mitch McConnell stated, “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, when none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea.” He went on to say, “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African American president.”

Besides the fact that electing an African American president does not serve as recompense for slavery and the fact that McConnell was not part of the “we” who elected President Barack Obama, McConnell conveniently omitted that two of his great-great-grandfathers participated in the “original sin” of slavery.

Families like McConnell’s that descended from slave owners are likely to have benefited from the labor of slaves that propped up farm families in earlier generations — a point made by many reparations supporters, who have said descendants of slaves were never compensated for the economic benefit their forebears made to white families.

In response to my critique of Senator McConnell, a white woman recently wrote, We can’t be held responsible for things our fathers did let alone what people generations before us did.”

While many white Americans make this argument, few acknowledge that white slave-owning families were given “reparations” (or “compensated emancipation”) for the labor they lost as a result of the abolition of slavery. President Lincoln signed a bill in 1862 that paid slaveholders up to $300 for every enslaved person freed.

The idea of reparations has historically and repeatedly been opposed when African Americans have been the proposed recipients of reparation but not when slaveholders were the recipients of reparations.

When asked about his opposition to reparations, in light of the fact that two of his great-great-grandfathers were slaveholders, McConnell made what can only be considered a disingenuous comparison of himself to former President Barack Obama by saying he and Obama both oppose reparations, and they are both the descendants of slave owners.

The opposition that then Senator Obama expressed toward reparations when he was campaigning for President was significantly different than the opposition expressed by Senator McConnell now.

Senator McConnell’s repeated opposition to reparations and his comparison of himself to former President Barack Obama, as well as the frequent white refrain, “we can’t be held responsible for things our fathers did let alone what people generations before us did,” are just a few of the many reasons why white opposition to reparations for African Americans often feels hypocritical.

Why do so many white Americans claim the right to the financial and material benefits resulting from what their ancestors did 150 years ago, but they reject any financial or material obligations for what their ancestors did? The benefactors of slavery want to inherit the resulting wealth but not inherit the resulting debt.

If white Americans oppose reparations on the ground that they are not responsible for what their ancestors did, then they also need to reject the financial and material well-being they experience as a result of what their ancestors and white people generations before them did.

About the author

Guy Nave

Guy Nave

Guy Nave is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research focuses on the topics of Christianity, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics, and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change."

He is the author of several articles and book chapters, and he served as a New Testament Greek translator for the 2011 Common English Bible. His commentary on 2 Corinthians is published in the African American New Testament Commentary, and his book, The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke-Acts has been identified as “the standard scholarly work on repentance in the New Testament.”

Guy Nave received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale University. In addition to his blog posts here, he is a frequent contributor to Sojourners Magazine's online "Commentary" blog series.