With his brilliant Atlantic magazine article "The Case For Reparations", the great author Ta-Nehisi Coates outlined the stark reality of the injustices visited upon generations of African-Americans not just during slavery, but also those that occurred subsequently in American history. In so doing, he reignited - at least for a moment - the discussion of whether or not the descendants of African slaves were due any compensation for the free labor provided by their earliest American ancestors and for the economic oppression that continued to occur long after emancipation.
Of course, the issue of reparations is fraught with angst. Some detractors argue that no American living today either was a slave or owned a slave, thus no current citizen should be required to fund reparations payments to other current citizens. Others reject the idea of reparations as impractical for many reasons including establishing the amount that would be due and the form that those reparations should take. The virulently racist and those infected with other flavors of hatred and stupidity attempt to argue that welfare should be considered a form of reparations, in spite of the fact that welfare payments go to everyone and that only a fraction of African descendants actually receive welfare payments. While none of these arguments are intellectually compelling, they go beyond the scope of this particular article. Today, I ask the reader to consider two questions. First, did the African slave work for zero compensation? Second, did the labor of the African slave create value?
To the first question, I'm sure that some of you are ready to argue that the slave was indeed compensated. The African slave, in the mind of the willfully nescient, was provided food, clothing and shelter that he or she would have been required to cover themselves had they been free persons. Clearly, this self-servingly ignorant perspective is wrong in so many ways, starting with the fact that the slave didn't have a choice of whether or not to accept food, clothing and shelter as compensation for their labor. Indeed, the African slave was treated little differently than any beast of burden and was not afforded the one essential thing that differentiated that slave from a free person who was compensated - choice. The slave did not have a choice in what tasks they preferred to perform or where and when they would work. Owners could hire the slave out for whatever work the owner deemed profitable enough. The African's choice was to submit to slavery and all of the vicious brutality and degradation that came with it, or die a likely horrible death. Some took a third option of attempting to escape to geographies where slavery was forbidden. But while in bondage, the slave of course toiled without compensation. His or her labor was not traded for value, it was taken.
To the second question, the value created by that taken labor was without a doubt pivotal to America's economic standing in the world. By 1860, American slaves were picking 75% of the world's cotton, which accounted for 58% of America's exports. Raise that number to 65% when you add tobacco and rice, all together nearly $215 million. To find out how much that is in today's dollars, multiply that number by one plus an average inflation rate (say, two percent) raised to an exponent equal to the number of years between then and now (about 154). That comes to about $4.5 trillion in today's dollars. In 2013, America's exports totaled only $1.6 trillion. They didn't call it "King Cotton" for nothing.
Let us also not forget the downstream industries created by the cotton industry. As the product had to be moved to ports on the Atlantic seaboard and on the Gulf of Mexico, much of the rail transportation infrastructure of the southeastern United States was built to move cotton from growing regions to the nearest waterway. Nearly all of that infrastructure was built with slave labor. Historians document that some of today's largest rail transportation companies - CSX, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, etc. - own routes that were originally built through slave labor. Cotton was processed in Northern mills and factories. Financial institutions made money by insuring slaves and providing capital to products and services provided through the exploitation of slave labor. Coal used to run locomotives, to produce salt and to execute other commercial activities that required energy was mined by slaves.
By 1860, 17 coal mining operations in Virginia and West Virginia were using 2,012 slaves. Another seventeen firms in eastern Kentucky, four in northern Alabama, and three in northern Georgia employed 319 slaves. Of the 3,579 coal miners in 1869 Appalachian enterprises, two thirds were enslaved workers.
Lest anyone deceive themselves, northern business interests were willing participants in all commercial activities that sprung forth from slave labor. Wall Street was designated an official slave market in 1711. The largest purchasers of land ceded to the United States by the Chickasaw Nation were companies representing investors and speculators from New York, Boston and other areas of New England. Even after slave trading was outlawed in the United States in 1808, New Yorkers continued to finance transcontinental slave trading. Obviously, the free labor provided by African slaves was a significant value contributor to the American economy. Those with a self-serving interest in denying the economic value created by slaves must simply deny the reality that for many industries, free slave labor was foundational to that industry's creation and possibly to its ongoing profitable existence. Much of that economic value was stolen.