Sen. Kamala Harris has indicated support for reparations to black Americans to address the legacy of slavery but has not provided many specifics.  She should. The public needs to know who Harris feels deserve reparations and who should pay for them.

The idea of reparations has been around for a long time but has recently found new favor among the political left and in progressive circles.  Along with Harris, 2020 candidates Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro have also endorsed the idea. This is likely to be a major plank in the 2020 Democratic Party platform and its presidential candidate will have to endorse some form of reparations.

But a more difficult question is exactly who should be the beneficiaries.  It would seem unfair if reparations are to be equal between a person of full slave ancestry and a person who has only one fourth or one eighth slave ancestry.  So to determine who is eligible for reparations, we will need to return to racial classifications that have not been in vogue in this country for more than century.

The “peculiar institution” of slavery was peculiar indeed, because vast numbers of slaves were actually part or even a majority white, as a result of the common practice of overseers and slave owners having children with their female slaves.  

No better example exists than the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, who had four children by his slave mistress, Sally Hemings.  For many decades the relationship was denied by the Jefferson family, but DNA testing and careful examination of farm records establishes beyond any doubt that Jefferson had slave children by his slave mistress.

But it is more complicated than that.  Hemings was not only owned by Jefferson and was his mistress, but she was also his sister-in-law.  Sally’s mother, Betty Hemings, was a slave belonging to a wealthy Virginia planter named John Wayles. She was the daughter of an African woman and a white English sea captain named John Hemings.  Sally Heming’s father was John Wayles, and she came into Jefferson’s possession when he married Martha Wayles, John Wayles’ white daughter.

So Sally Hemings was three quarters European by race; one quarter African.  Her children were seven eights European, one eighth African. But they remained slaves, possessions of Thomas Jefferson.  That is because under slave law, ”increase”, that is the children of slaves, were themselves slaves despite in many cases being majority white by blood.

However, many of these mixed race children later classified themselves as white.  Three of the four Hemings children, who were freed at Jefferson’s death, “passed” as white; one named Madison Hemings did not, and his grandson, a man named Frederick Madison Roberts, became California’s first African American legislator, representing south central Los Angeles from 1918 until 1934.

So Sen. Harris needs to tell us how she will classify those eligible for reparations, will it be by showing that at least one ancestor was a slave, or will it be by self identification as having some African descent?  DNA research is now showing that a surprising number of white Americans actually have some African blood due to long forgotten slave-master relationships. What about them?

Perhaps later racial classifications will help Sen. Harris.  After Reconstruction white southern Democrats took control of the old confederate states and imposed a strict regime of racial segregation, Jim Crow laws, as they were known, which the southerners called “separate but equal.”  In 1954, the Supreme Court declared racial segregation of schools fundamentally unequal and therefore unconstitutional.

But for Jim Crow to work, it was necessary to classify people by race, and thanks to legacy of mix race slaves, this was quite complicated.  So the government came up with special designations. A “mulatto” was a person of equal mixed race. A “quadroon” was a person with one African grandparent (one quarter black).  An “octoroon” was a person of one eighth African ancestry. Once properly classified, it was possible to determine who was expected to use the “colored” drinking fountains and who could use the “white” ones.

In the 1890 U.S. Census, “colored” people were to be classified as black, mulatto, quadroon or octoroon, and the explanation to census enumerators how this was to be done was quite complicated: “Write white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian, according to the color or race of the person enumerated. Be particularly careful to distinguish between blacks, mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons. The word ‘black’ should be used to describe those persons who have three-fourths or more black blood; ‘mulatto,’ those persons who have from three-eighths to five-eighths black blood; ‘quadroon,’ those persons who have one-fourth black blood; and ‘octoroons,’ those persons who have one-eighth or any trace of black blood.”

Clearly, Sen. Harris needs to clearly explain how she is going to do her racial classification for reparations, and the media covering her presidential campaign should press her on this point.

Equally complex will be to determine who should pay for reparations.  If a white person’s ancestors all arrived after the Civil War, it seems hardly reasonable to expect them to pay reparation for slaves they never could have owned.  

A religious test may be helpful here.  The slave states were primarily Protestant with mainline denominations, so it is reason to assume that today’s Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists could descend from slave owners.  Episcopalians are a special case, as the Church of England was the Established Church in many southern states, and Anglican Bibles often contained a “negroes register” listing the slaves the family owned.

But practically the only Roman Catholics in America at the time of the Civil War were impoverished Irish.  The Irish had arrived on “coffin ships” during the Irish famine decade (1840s) and were hardly in the position to buy and sell slaves.  

Those who fought in the Civil War overwhelmingly did so on the side of the Union.  At the Union center at Gettysburg is the Tammany Memorial, placed there by the Democratic organization of New York City for the 42nd New York Volunteer Regiment, made up almost entirely of Irish immigrants.  Should such people be forced to pay reparations for slavery?

The same is true of Jews.  There were very small numbers in America before the Civil War, and some in the south did own slaves, but the vast majority came from Eastern Europe and would not have brought African slaves with them while fleeing Tsarist pogroms.

Certainly no one will assert that Asian Americans and Latinos should be paying reparations, never having owned any slaves and having been subjects of discrimination themselves.

So you could limit reparation payments to people of southern Protestant ancestry.

There is also another way to determine who should pay reparations and who should not.  The 1850 and 1860 U.S. Censuses included a “slave schedule” that listed the slave owner and his or her slaves by age and sex.   So we have a complete list of everyone who owned slaves in the final years before the Civil War. It would be possible to determine who their living descendants are today, although with some difficulty.

As the Democratic Party and its candidates wade into the area of slave reparations, it is clear we will need to revisit the sordid business of racial classifications that seem so offensive today but that in our past were so important.  If the next Democratic administration adopts some form of reparations, we need now to know how they will be administered and who they will cover.