Jewish World Review March 24, 2004 / 2 Nissan, 5764

Thomas Sowell

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Rattling the chains | The president of Brown University has appointed a committee to look into the history of the connections of that institution to the slave trade. This is to be no academic exercise of scholarly research. There is obviously supposed to be a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.

Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons was coy on the one hand but clear on the other. According to the New York Times, "Dr. Simmons said she would not reveal her opinion on reparations so as not to influence the committee."

"Here's the one thing I'll say," she said. "If the committee comes back and says, 'Oh it's been lovely and we've learned a lot,' but there's nothing in particular that they think Brown can or should do, I will be very disappointed."

How is that for not influencing the committee? If there is anything worse than race hustling, it is being coy about race hustling. At least Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are up front.

Dr. Simmons said that the idea of appointing a committee to look into Brown University's past came to her because she is a descendant of slaves and the building in which she works was built with the help of slaves. Unfortunately, there are descendants of slaves all over the world, and they are every color of the rainbow.

Slavery was an ugly, dirty business but people of virtually every race, color, and creed engaged in it on every inhabited continent. And the people they enslaved were also of virtually every race, color, and creed.

A recently published book titled "Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters" by Robert Davis (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) shows that a million Europeans were enslaved by North Africans between 1500 and 1800. Nor were they the only Europeans enslaved.

Europeans enslaved other Europeans for centuries before the drying up of that supply led them to turn to Africa as a source of slaves for the Western Hemisphere. Julius Caesar marched in triumph through Rome in a procession that included British slaves he had captured. There were white slaves still being sold in Egypt two decades after blacks were freed in the United States.

It was the same story in Asia, Africa, and among the Polynesians and the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. No race, country, or civilization had clean hands.

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What makes the current reparations movement a fraud, whether at Brown University or in the country at large, is the attempt to depict slavery as something uniquely done to blacks by whites. Reparations advocates are doing this for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks: That's where the money is.

No one expects Qaddafi to pay reparations to the descendants of Europeans whom his ancestors captured on the Mediterranean coast or Western Europeans to pay reparations to Slavs who were enslaved on such a scale that the very word slave derived from their name.

Still less does anyone expect Africans to pay reparations to black Americans whose ancestors they sold to white men who took them across the Atlantic. Only in America can guilt be turned into cash.

Who is supposed to benefit from all this?

Are young blacks, who have a lot of educational lags to make up, supposed to be helped by this distraction or to become more employable with a chip on their shoulders? Are they to be helped by being led to believe that the way to get ahead is to hustle white people?

White guilt is too much of a declining asset to depend on. More and more white people are feeling less and less guilty. Ruth Simmons may squeeze a few bucks out of Brown University but it is doubtful whether whatever good that does will balance the resentments and polarization it creates.

The only clear winners in the reparations movement, whether at Brown or elsewhere, are the people who engage in it. At a minimum, they get publicity and ego gratification.

Dr. Simmons' standing has no doubt risen in politically correct circles, which would include not only the academic world but the foundation world and the world of liberal politics. If she ever wants to make a career move in any of these directions, she is now well set.

But at what price?

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)


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