Massachusetts State Senator William Owens, who represents an inner-city Boston district, has filed legislation to require the Commonwealth to pay reparations for slavery.

Senate Bill 1621 mandates payment to “people of African descent born in the United States . . . for malfeasance and culpable nonfeasance of the Commonwealth, its agents, employees and citizens with regard to the institution of African slavery, the African slave trade and invidious discrimination against descendants of Africans. . . . ” The amount of said compensation is to be negotiated with “legitimate representation of African descendants,” which is to say ghetto hustlers of the Jesse Jackson/Steve Cokely/Al Sharpton stripe.

The proposal has its prominent supporters, including Professor David Hall, chairman of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, who decries opposition to the bill as “strong evidence of how deeply racism still flows within the veins of this society.”

Over one thousand delegates to the African-American Summit, convened in New Orleans in late April, endorsed the reparations concept, and included it in their preliminary agenda.

That such a lunatic measure could be adopted even in progressive Massachusetts is beyond the realm of imagining. Yet the proposal merits consideration, if only for the light it sheds on the essential character of the racial numbers game.

Owens argues that the state benefited from the institution of slavery because the wealth of Yankee merchants was tied to the triangle trade—and since white residents of the Commonwealth somehow shared in these advantages, fairness necessitates recompense to the descendants of slaves. He cites reparations paid to Japanese Americans placed in internment camps during the Second World War and the West German government’s indemnifies to Holocaust survivors as precedents for the program.

However it’s rationalized, the measure is based on a presumption of collective guilt. The overwhelming majority of Massachusetts taxpayers are Caucasian. None were alive during the period of the slave trade. Many didn’t even have ancestors living in the state or nation at the time. They are to be punished solely for the sin of having the same skin pigmentation as plantation owners, slavers, or those who discriminated against blacks in the pre-civil rights era. In the course of a televised debate on Boston’s Channel 25, the senator informed me that, among other infamies, my progenitors had “raped our women.” I replied that this was a physical impossibility since, during the era in question, my relations were in Eastern Europe being chased by Cossacks.

The precedents the senator cites are in fact inapplicable. In both instances, payment was made to individual victims or their immediate families, not to persons several generations removed from the offenses. Even so, the equity of the measures is debatable; not the guilty parties but those who shared their nationality were penalized. In the case of Japanese Americans, justice would require sequestering the estates of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Earl Warren—those pillars of American liberalism who, as President and governor of California respectively, were responsible for the internment of the Japanese—instead of placing the burden on US taxpayers.

Attempting to rectify historic wrongs is a process that easily could continue until the millennium. Why stop with the descendants of the slaves? What of compensation for the victims of anti-Semitism, or their heirs? Octogenarian Bostonians can recall seeing employment notices in the windows of businesses proclaiming: “Irish Need Not Apply.” The grandchildren of Boston’s African traders were hardly hospitable to the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Slavs who arrived here via steerage at the turn of the century.

More germane to the case at hand, why not seek restitution from the posterity of the African chiefs who sold their own people into bondage? Unlike the public treasury, they are not readily available for plunder. But sums could be deducted from foreign aid to Zaire or the Ivory Coast.

World history is a sad saga of national wrongs, of conquests, subjugations, pillage, exploitation, and mass murder—of Chinese slaughtered by Mongols, Armenians massacred by Turks, Poles martyred by Russians, Britons harried by Norsemen, and Jews brutalized by just about everyone. (I anxiously await my payoff for the Babylonian captivity.) One could not even begin to calculate the extent of damages, let alone devise a system of compensation for these myriad atrocities. To complicate matters even further, in some instances the oppressed of one era were oppressors of another.

Owens’ bill may be loony, but its ethos was long ago actualized. For what is affirmative action—quotas in education, hiring, and promotions—if not a species of reparations? Whites (usually middle or lower middle class) are to be economically disadvantaged because they share the racial identity of the massah and the redneck bigot of a generation ago. Blacks, often from relatively comfortable backgrounds, are rewarded on the same nonsensical basis. Sociologist Thomas Sowell contends the whites penalized are least able to bear the burden, the blacks who benefit need it the least. Instead of this selective system of rewards and punishments, Owens’ bill would diffuse both the pain and the pleasure. For advocates of the irrational (racial guilt), it is the next logical step.