As the reparations issue heats up across the country — Congressional Democrats are considering forming a commission on reparations, reports the New York Times — it’s just a matter of time before the divisive debate comes to Virginia. The Old Dominion, after all, was a slave state and a segregationist state. We have a history of racism and discrimination to grapple with that, say, Minnesota or New Hampshire do not.
Personally, I find the idea of holding individuals accountable for long-ago sins committed by members of the same race to be a moral obscenity. But as an amateur historian, I find the debate fascinating. The controversy should dredge up loads of intriguing material as Americans trace the impact of slavery and segregation and the efforts to ameliorate that impact.
Here is a study that you won’t hear cited by the reparations brigade: “The Impact of a Wartime Health Shock on the Postwar Socioeconomic Status and Mortality of Union Army Veterans and their Children.” The authors did not research the paper with reparations in mind. Rather, they were tracing the impact of disability on earnings and wealth in an economy dominated by farming and manual labor. But the findings bear upon the reparations debate. In any moral reckoning over the legacy of slavery, one must consider that 620,000 soldiers died from combat, disease and other causes in the Civil War. Even if we assign zero value to the deaths of Confederate soldiers in the war to end slavery, surely we must take into account the loss of 360,000 Union soldiers (who were, for purposes of the reparations debate, overwhelmingly white). Continue reading