Saturday, August 29, 2015

PF Sep/Oct 2015 - Reparations for African Americans - Introduction

Resolved: The United States Federal Government ought to pay reparations to African Americans.

Getting Started

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It is always a good idea to examine the resolutions carefully. While at first glance the intent of the resolution may be obvious, often one can derive other interpretations or insights which can lead to more diverse argumentation.

The United States Federal Government (USFG)
Often debaters refer to an actor when speaking about the resolution.  The actor is the person(s) or entity which enables or executes the action specified in the resolution. Here, it is the U.S. Federal Government which ought to do something.  By now, if you are a U.S. student, you should know the U.S. federal government consists of the legislative branch, comprised of the congress; the executive branch, comprised of the president (POTUS) and his/her various cabinets, departments and administrators; and the judicial branch comprised of the supreme court (SCOTUS) and the various U.S. district courts.  A system of checks and balances is used to ensure that laws are fair, moral and not contrary to the U.S. constitution. Nevertheless, throughout history, laws have been enacted which are not fair, moral or constitutional. Still, within the system of the federal government there are mechanisms for overturning or eliminating these kinds of 'bad' laws.

In order for the U.S. federal government to carry-out an action it must enact legislation which gives it the authority to do so, requiring sufficient agreement among the three branches. Now, in some cases, this can be a point of contention.  Perhaps it can be argued the law will never be passed, there may be no willingness among the constituency of the congress or there may be no funding, or it may be deemed unconstitutional.  Under these scenarios, the action never occurs because the actor is incapable of carrying out the action for any number of reasons which prevents the law from being passed or which renders the law powerless.  This resolution, however, uses the word "ought" and so we must consider how this word potentially alters the interpretation of the resolution.

Ought to
This tiny little word is often interpreted to mean should. So why did the framer of the resolution not say, "the USFG 'should' pay reparations"? While I may use the two words interchangeably in everyday, common English/American language, the distinction between the two words is perceived in their root words.  Should is derived from shall and ought is derived from owe.  In addition it can be argued that ought carries a sense of duty or obligation which transcends individual opinion and carries a kind of universal agreement about what ought to be done (Collins 2009). Therefore, I would argue that ought in this resolution suggests something is owed, thus, obligated and suggests that fulfillment of the obligation is rooted in the values that humans generally hold dear.  So one may claim the USFG duty is grounded in morality or justice or fairness such is common to Lincoln Douglas debate resolutions. The distinction can be made, therefore, the USFG SHOULD do something because in the opinion of some, it would nice or good or right. Whereas the USFG OUGHT to do something because anyone would agree there is an obligation to fulfill in order to be just or good or right.

So what is the point of this discussion since the majority of debaters and indeed individuals will see no distinction between ought and should?  Simple. If the Pro side can successfully make the case the USFG action is obligatory based on universal principles of right and wrong or duty then Pro can easily expand the scope of the debate by using examples from other nations and cultures which share U,S, values, if any such examples exist.

pay reparations (to African Americans)
The payment of reparations is based upon the idea that descendants of African people enslaved in the U.S. deserve some form of compensation for the injustices they endured.  Even before the end of the U.S. Civil War proposals were already being made to provide some form of reparations ranging from granting of lands and other property to giving of money. In my opinion, the fact the resolution says "pay" does not necessarily imply the form of reparation is the transfer of money.  Indeed, there are many forms of payment that may be acceptable as compensation for services rendered and injustices inflicted upon individuals.  Therefore, there is no reason for Pro to claim reparations should be limited to monetary compensation. In fact, the form of the reparations is not the issue at all.  This debate centers around the rhetorical stasis point of "ought to".

African Americans
This terminology is unfortunate in my opinion. While it has been argued for years that reparations should be paid to (proven) descendants of African slaves, dropping the qualifications and expanding the debate to the more generalized qualification, "African Americans" implies reparations not only for slavery but also perhaps other forms of injustice.  While I believe this could be a very interesting debate; reparations for social injustice such as legalized discrimination, or institutional racism, it may not be what the framer of the resolution intended. The wise Con debater should be prepared to argue against an expanded definition within the context of the resolution but expect that most debates should properly limit the contentions to a debate about reparations for past slavery.


Borrowing theory from other forms of debate, the fact there are currently no laws granting reparations and even if Con can reasonably argue there is no popular desire among Americans in general or African Americans in particular to pay (or receive) reparations such arguments should have no bearing on this debate. Even if inherent barriers exist which make the payment of reparations impossible in the status quo, for the purposes of this debate we invoke a form of fiat (let it be so) and assume such barriers can and will be overcome.  It is quite clear to me and I hope others this debate is about whether or not the payment of reparations, whatever the compensation may be to defined individuals, is the right thing to do. Period. Of course, Con will argue it is NOT the right thing to do for many reasons and will be inclined to include arguments centered around the idea that ought implies can and if inherent barriers exist which make the action impossible, the judge should vote Con. I would certainly teach my students to use this kind of argumentation if needed.

One of the recurring arguments in high school debate I have witnessed plays out like this.  The resolution is limited to the United States or a U.S. entity as actor.  Con cites precedences or examples from other countries, jurisdictions, or cultures.  Pro forcefully claims the precedences are not relevant to the U.S.  As a judge, I often cringe when Pro rejects the precedences or examples out of hand without considering the intent of the examples which often provide a universal justification or illustrate mechanisms which may have worked in other places and which may work in the U.S.  To simply claim an example is not relevant without explanation as to why it is irrelevant will not convince me as a judge. If the Pro strategy is to narrow the debate sufficiently with convincing argumentation the 'ought to' is uniquely a U.S.-centric issue that is another matter which makes it a bit more difficult for Con to cite outside examples and apply them to a uniquely U.S. matter.

I believe the form of reparations should not be a particular issue in this debate.  Whether money, property, education, or advantages in opportunity; compensation can take many forms. Of course problems will arise when the Pro advocates compensation which requires the USFG to impose its actions upon private citizens or businesses or corporate entities. These kinds of actions do not play well with judges.  Of course, Con can make a very good argument that any form of action by the USFG imposes some kind of burden upon citizens and so the justification for reparations boils down to an examination of the social contract and perhaps an individual's obligation to others within the society.  Similar arguments were used in the debate for and against the Affordable Care Act.

With regard to the choice of the words, African Americans as opposed to descendants of enslaved Africans or some such language, some difficulties may be found in deciding who indeed is eligible for reparations since not all African Americans can prove descendancy from enslaved African even if the overwhelming majority of African Americans descend from African peoples originating in the regions south of the Sahara Desert. In any case, I find it difficult to think the terminology would result in significant clash.

Finally, nothing in the resolution specifies reparations for slavery.  This requires one to either show by common definition and usage reparations are in reference to slavery or it potentially adds another level of openness to the scope of the debate to includes many other forms of injustice suffered by Africans and their descendants.  Indeed, the history of exploitation of the African continent is easily exposed and in fact many examples of the issue of reparations of one form or another are seen around the world related to a variety of injustices.

In the next parts of this series we will examine some Pro position

Collins, Peter 2009. Modals and quasi-modals in English. Amsterdam: Rodopi.


  1. I just wanted to mention how helpful everyday debate is, and that it is always a wonderful starting point. Thank you for all the effort you put into researching to present a clear overview of the resolution :)

    1. Thanks, I appreciate your comment. I am glad it is useful to you.


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