In the epigraph to “The Godfather,” Mario Puzo quotes the 19th century French novelist Honore’ de Balzac: “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” There has never been a more accurate observation about the source of America’s collective wealth.
Nothing makes this point better than a visit to the new Smithsonian African-American history museum. It’s treatment of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the extraordinary detail with which it addresses slavery in Colonial America and the United States establish the inseparability of American economic development to slavery. The foundation of America’s current economic and social wellbeing is the direct result of a highly organized international criminal enterprise that lasted for 240 years.
Defining slavery as an organized criminal activity – as opposed to the moral failings of a discrete group of people in a specific historical moment – changes how you think and talk about the idea of reparations. I want to reframe the reparations discussion by appropriating concepts from Western classical economic theory and American jurisprudence.
There are three intellectual giants who are foundational to Western economic theory: Adam Smith, David Ricardco and Karl Marx. All three were major advocates of the labor theory of value, which holds that the value of a commodity is a function of the labor required to create it. The NBA – where 50 percent of gross NBA revenue is contractually committed to player compensation – is an example of what happens when an empowered workforce understands the labor theory of value.
At the beginning of the 1600s, America was populated but underdeveloped, devoid of any agricultural or economic activity of scale. The first European settlers’ numbers were insufficient to economically develop America. The purpose of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was to provide Europeans with the labor necessary to economically exploit the natural resources of the Americas. It’s estimated that 12 million people were forcibly removed from Africa and 10.5 million were brought to the Western Hemisphere, of whom 400,000 were sent to what was to become the United States.
Once here, they and their descendants labored uncompensated for 240 years, transforming a wilderness into a modern economy for the benefit of the European settlers and their trading partners in Europe. There is a direct, unbroken line from the economic capacity of the United States in 1860 (and of the United States of 2019) to the 20 Africans who disembarked at Point Comfort, Virginia in August 1619.
America was a vast, underdeveloped continent incredibly rich in natural resources, but it wasn’t going to transform itself. It wasn’t European genius, but African labor that created the wealth of America.
Wealth shares several interesting characteristics with memory. Both are transferable and cumulative, not just from one individual to another, but also from one generation to another. Transferability allows the preceding generation to endow its heirs, and it’s the cumulative nature of both wealth and memory that allows the inheritors to add to both and then transfer their now value-added inheritance to their heirs.
I want to contextualize these qualities of transferability and accumulation using concepts from American jurisprudence. There is a general rule that nobody can pass on better title to goods than he or she has; a thief can't pass on a good title to stolen goods. You can’t transfer or sell to anyone something you stole. Add to this the concept of ill-gotten gains, which are benefits obtained in an evil manner or by dishonest means. This is a textbook definition of the benefit white Americans and their descendants received from slavery.
Let’s summarize: Africans were forcibly brought to America to provide the labor required to economically develop the land. They and their enslaved descendants where uncompensated for their labor and got no equity in the value that labor created. The original enslavers then pasted on the ill-gotten gains, to which they had no title, to their heirs, who used it to perpetuate further ill-gotten gains.
This is why a discussion about reparations for the descendants of enslaved African Americans is not only appropriate, but it’s also legitimate, economically and legally. It’s why it’s not unreasonable or hyperbolic to consider the American project an ongoing criminal enterprise. But establishing the intellectual validity of the argument only starts a debate about reparations. So, if reparations for 240 years of slavery are both economically and legally, then what are we owed?
To be continued.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016 and 2017, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association, and in 2018 he was awarded Best Serious Columnist in the nation by the National Newspapers Association.