Biden’s ancestors owned slaves — should he pay reparations?

Biden’s ancestors owned slaves — should he pay reparations?

President Biden’s ancestors owned slaves. A genealogist quoted by the New York Post says that “two of Biden’s ancestors on his father’s side enslaved people while living in Maryland. Jesse Robinett, the president’s great-great-great-grandfather, enslaved two people in Allegany County, according to the 1800 Census,” while “Thomas Randle, another third-great-grandfather of Biden, enslaved one 14-year-old boy in Baltimore County in 1850.”

Biden has not told the public about his slave-owning ancestors, although he has falsely claimed that his great grandfather was a coal miner. Media fact-checkers note that Biden has made many false claims. Biden made his false claim about being descended from a coal miner in a plagiarized speech. As the Washington Post notes, “Biden’s first presidential run in 1988 exploded in allegations of plagiarism. Without credit, Biden’s stump speech included lines lifted from a speech given by Neil Kinnock, then leader of the British Labour Party. An operative in a rival campaign — that of Michael Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts, who eventually won the Democratic nomination — gave to the media a tape comparing Biden’s speech and Kinnock’s speech.”

Biden has been sympathetic to the idea of the federal government paying reparations to blacks and Native Americans. Proposals to do that  would cost taxpayers an estimated $10-12 trillion dollars.

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But if Biden is descended from slaveowners, maybe he should pay such reparations himself, before asking taxpayers to do it — especially since many taxpayers, unlike Biden’s ancestors, never profited from slavery, and are not descended from anyone who ever owned black slaves. After all, Biden is wealthy, and has at least $8 million.

If Biden pays reparations, rather than having taxpayers do it, that would avoid the serious constitutional problems associated with taxpayer-funded reparations for particular racial groups. Reparations would conflict with court rulings forbidding racial handouts by the federal government, unless such handouts are needed to remedy recent, intentional, widespread discrimination by the federal government, or a prima facie case of such discrimination. A federal appeals court ruled that the federal government couldn’t give nonwhite and female restaurant owners a preference over white male restaurant owners in access to government help, because the federal government hadn’t recently discriminated against minorities in an intentional and systematic way.

Reparations would cost a lot, according to reparations advocates. The U.S. government should spend a minimum of $10 trillion on reparations to the descendants of slaves, according to a Stanford University panel. That’s nearly half the size of the U.S. economy. Reparations could require vast tax increases or massive increases in the national debt. Moreover, reparations are unlikely to stay limited to the descendants of slaves, so their cost would likely be much higher than $10 trillion.

In 2019, Joe Biden said he was in favor of paying reparations to American Indians, not just blacks, if studies find that to be workable. And reparations may also end up being paid to sexual minorities, as left-leaning governments have already done in foreign countries. In 2019, Argentina’s Neuquén province provided pensions to transgender individuals over 40 as a form of reparations. Uruguay and Argentina reserve some government jobs for transgender people as a form of reparations.

If reparations are enacted, they are likely to increase the national debt to unsustainable levels. The national debt is already at record levels due to COVID relief. Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill has already increased the national debt, making it bigger than our economy.

Reparations tend to harm a country’s economy, without permanently eliminating its wealth gaps. Zimbabwe’s policy of redistributing wealth from whites to blacks ruined its economy, without increasing black wealth or investment. Many people just spend windfalls they receive from the government, rather than saving or investing the money.

When Uganda seized the businesses of Indian immigrants without compensation and gave them to blacks as reparations for colonialism, the businesses did not last for long afterwards, and Uganda’s economy collapsed. When Uganda let Indians come back to Uganda and set up businesses again 14 years later, Indians once again ended up dominating Uganda’s economy, even though they had to start from scratch.

In February, Barack Obama said that reparations were “justified,” because “the wealth of this country, the power of this country was built in significant part … on the backs of slaves.​”​​ But his reasoning was questionable. Black people constitute only 13% of America’s population, and most Americans didn’t own slaves during the era of slavery. Slavery and discrimination, moreover, are not the cause of most present-day racial disparities in wealth. Most wealth is not inherited, and most of the wealth gap between whites and blacks is not due to inherited wealth. Non-white immigrants from Africa and Asia commonly earn more than whites do, showing that racism is not a barrier to success. “Asian Americans have the highest average net worth and highest average income,” despite harsh discrimination against Chinese and Japanese Americans in the past.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” Contact him at


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