Reparations : The Airtight Legal Case Against Them, and the Moonshot That Would Make Them Possible
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade… not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win….”
It was 1962 and the Cold War was raging. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave his “we will bury you” speech to 1956 and his shoe-banging speech in 1960. Meanwhile, the competition had turned skyward, and the Soviet Union had gotten a leg up.
“History changed on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I.
“That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race.
“As a technical achievement, Sputnik caught the world’s attention and the American public off-guard… the public feared that the Soviets’ ability to launch satellites also translated into the capability to launch ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the U.S.”
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson compares Sputnik’s impact to the furor that ensured when, on January 11, 2007, China blasted one of its own weather satellites out of the sky:
“The hit put tens of thousands of long-lived fragments into high Earth orbit, adding to the already considerable dangers posed by debris previously generated by other countries, notably ours. China was roundly criticized by other spacefaring nations for making such a mess: twelve days later, its foreign ministry declared that the action ‘was not directed at any country and does not constitute a threat to any country.’
“Hmm. That’s a little like saying the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957 was not a threat — even though Sputnik’s booster rocket was an intercontinental ballistic missile, even though Cold Warriors had been thirsting for a space-based reconnaissance vehicle since the end of World War II, even though postwar Soviet rocket research had been focusing on the delivery of a nuclear bomb across the Pacific, and even though Sputnik’s peacefully pulsing radio transmitter was sitting where a nuclear warhead would otherwise have been.”
JFK announced the USA’s comeback with his “we choose to go to the moon” speech to 40,000 people packed into the stadium at Rice University. It was visionary in concept and triumphant in tone. The USA wasn’t going to go to the moon just because the Soviets were trying to beat us there, not just to win a celestial derby for a grand prize of bragging rights, and not just to gain the ultimate battlefield high ground. We were going to do it to further America’s mission of bringing peace to the nations, including the new frontier of outer space.
“Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it-we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.
“Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.
“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
“It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.”
The speech didn’t focus on the bad guys, didn’t accuse or blame them, didn’t spout media-speak about protecting our national interests. Instead, it was aspirational. It seized the high ground. We were going to the moon because that’s the kind of thing Americans do — we willingly test ourselves to see how good we are. We routinely “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.” We do hard things, we take on huge challenges because that’s who we are. We stand on the high ground — on Earth, and in space.
It’s hard to imagine someone making a speech like that today. It feels hokey in the unforgiving hindsight of all that’s transpired in the past 60 years, and especially recently. No, I’m not nostalgic for the 60’s — those were not “the best days of my life.” And no, I’m not beatifying JFK or waving the flag of American superiority — a myth I’ve long since had disillusioned out of me. It’s just that I miss living in a culture, nation, and world where leaders think and act and talk like that. And in particular, if we’re going to talk about reparations for slavery, we need to do so with the kind of attitude and outlook that permeated JFK’s speech. Otherwise, the legal technicalities will shut it down.
The Open-and-Shut Case Against Reparations
Here is the insurmountable legal case against reparations:
- Slavery wasn’t illegal. There are and never have been criminal penalties or civil remedies against those who carried it out — all of whom are long since dead anyway.
- The only possible responsible party is the government itself, which sponsored slavery in the first place.
- But even if there were legal grounds to prosecute or sue the government (there aren’t) you can’t do it anyway. That’s because the government is protected by the legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” which means it can’t be held to account for administering its own law.
- The only tribunal with authority to override the doctrine of sovereign immunity is international law, but submitting to international law is voluntary, a matter of each nation’s willingness to give up some of its sovereignty to its national peers, and that is a choice the U.S. has not made.
“Law and order” adherence to the legal case against reparations instantly shuts down the idea. The legal case against reparations is exemplified in what Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said about the topic:
“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea. We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War and passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African-American president. I think we’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that. And I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it. First of all, because it’s pretty hard to figure out who to compensate.”
McConnel’s comments make it clear that he views reparations in the conventional way of suing for “damages”- money -to recompense a victimized party for past losses.
I wasn’t there. Nobody who’s alive now was there. Everybody who was there is dead now. It’s not my fault. It’s nobody’s fault. The law doesn’t hold anybody accountable.
He was right about all that. The rest of what he said was legally unnecessary, a resort to the kinds of rationalization and platitudes we reach for when what we really mean is “over my dead body.”
Slavery was bad, but why dwell on the past? We’ve been trying to move on, put it behind us. We’re a work in progress. We need to let bygones be bygones.
He didn’t need platitudes. He could have gone straight to the ultimate legal defense:
The Ultimate Defense: Sovereign Immunity
“Sovereign immunity, or crown immunity, is a legal doctrine whereby a sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune to civil suit or criminal prosecution.”
Sovereign immunity came over on the boat with the rest of English common law.
Where Sovereign Immunity Came From: The Divine Right of Kings
“Sovereign immunity finds its origins in English common law and the king’s position at the ‘apex of the feudal pyramid.’ In that pyramid, lords could not be sued in their own courts, ‘not because of any formal conception or obsolete theory, but on the logical and practical ground that there can be no legal right as against the authority that makes the law on which the right depends.’ Thus, lords could only be sued in the courts of their superiors, but, for the king, ‘there was no higher court in which he could be sued.’” 
Sovereign immunity is a carryover from the “Divine Right of Kings” — a legal doctrine formulated in the days when monarchies were more than ceremonial. The doctrine was derived from the Biblical worldview that underlies law and culture in America, Europe, and the U.K.
“The theory of the divine right of kings lent support to the proposition that the king was above the law-that he was in fact the law-giver appointed by God, and therefore could not be subjected to the indignity of suit by his subjects…. To Bracton the maxim ‘the king can do no wrong’ meant simply that the king was not privileged to do wrong, but to Blackstone the phrase was not so restricted, and in his Commentaries the following is to be found: ‘Besides the attribute of sovereignty, the law also ascribes to the king in his political capacity absolute perfection… The king, moreover, is not only incapable of doing wrong, but even of thinking wrong: he can never mean to do an improper thing: in him is no folly or weakness.’”
The divine right of kings and non-monarchical sovereign immunity both mean that government -i.e., the people in it who determine and enforce its laws — get the same hands-off treatment as God. God can do no wrong — neither can the king or the President or their emissaries.
I still recall sitting in a law school class when I learned about this. How could it be, that government would not be held accountable for how it treats the governed? “Government needs to be free to govern,” my law professor explained.
Sovereign Immunity Can be Waived.
There is, however, one powerful way through this legal barrier:
The government can volunteer to make things right — it can waive its own sovereign immunity. (It has in fact done so on other occasions, which we will also look at another time.)
Viewed solely as a legal act, a waiver of sovereign immunity would require the commitment and action of all three branches of U.S. government: an act of Congress, signed into law by the President, and upheld as Constitutional by the Supreme Court.
Beyond legalities, reparations would require a break from centuries-old notions of the right of government to govern as it sees fit. Such a break would require a new “social contract.” As one history teacher explains:
A New Social Contract
“The Divine Right of Kings represents a ‘Top Down’ approach to government, in contrast with the ‘Bottom Up’ approach of social contract theory, which claims that the people create governments for their own protection and that those governments serve the people who created them.”
According to Rousseau, a social contract is the mechanism by which we trade individual liberty for community restraint. As Thomas Hobbes famously said, lack of that tradeoff is what makes life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Or, as a recent version put it, “For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly.” A social contract suggests we can do better. As Hobbes said:
“As long as men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in the condition known as war, and it is a war of every man against every man.
“When a man thinks that peace and self-defense require it, he should be willing (when others are too) to lay down his right to everything, and should be contented with as much liberty against other men as he would allow against himself.”
The USA was created out of the colonists’ desire for a new social contract when their deal with England grew long on chains and short on freedom. In response, the Founders declared a new sovereign nation into existence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
The new nation was conceived in liberty, but there would be limits. Once the Revolutionary War settled the issue of sovereign independence, the Founders articulated a new freedom/chains balance:
That original social contract + revisions and amendments over the course of 250 years of history = the USA as we know it today.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Mitch McConnell was right: our nation’s history is always a work in progress — we are constantly revisiting and readjusting our social contract.
For reparations to happen, we need a new social contract that would enable a waiver of sovereign immunity. And for that to happen, the new social contract needs to explicitly reject a racial perspective articulated by none other than John Wilkes Booth:
Reparations Would Require Another Moon Shot
“This country was formed for the white, not for the black man,” John Wilkes Booth wrote, before killing Abraham Lincoln. “And looking upon African slavery from the same standpoint held by those noble framers of our Constitution, I for one have ever considered it one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation.”
A new social contract is an idea of monumental proportions. People don’t rally behind small ideas. National transformation requires big, bold, decisive initiative — ideas like that are hard, impossible by current standards, that require voyages into uncharted territory and commitment to solve unprecedented problems. The USA would make reparations for slavery because that’s what Americans do — we willingly test ourselves to see how good we are. We routinely “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.” We do hard things, we take on huge challenges. That’s who we are. We don’t make ourselves the good guys and everyone else the bad. We don’t blame them, don’t spout media-speak about national interests, don’t hide behind legal technicalities. We do the aspirational. We stand on the high ground — on Earth, and in space.
If the USA is going to make reparations for slavery, we need a new moonshot.
 Tyson, Neil deGrasse and Lang, Avis, Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military,
 McCann, Miles, “State Sovereign Immunity,” National Association of Attorneys General, NAGTRI Journal Volume 2, Number 4. Although the article is technically about state — vs. federal — sovereign immunity, the quoted text applies to both. See also the following quote from this monograph from the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, a New York based firm with a reputation for its commitment to diversity” “At its core, the doctrine of sovereign immunity stands for the proposition that the government cannot be sued without its consent — that is, ‘the King can do no wrong.’ Sovereign immunity is simple in concept but nuanced in application.”.
 Pugh, George W., “ Historical Approach to the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity.” Louisiana Law Review Volume 13, Number 3 (March 1953).. Citations omitted.
 In Hobbes’ terms, social contracts end the battle royale. Ironically, they often also create war as the ideals of one contract conflict with those of another.
Originally published at http://iconoclast.blog on July 3, 2020.