This slightly mad Henry Louis Gates op-ed (apparent thesis: the history of slavery has responsibility that's widely distributed and hard to disentangle across North America, Europe, and west Africa, so thank goodness we now have a President whose half-east African, half-white ancestry gives him magical historical-responsibility-apportioning powers) made me, possibly, realize something.
Gates hints that, if reparations are owed to the descendants of slaves, they might be owed in part by [some] west Africans whose ancestors were involved in the slave trade.
I think this is finally a case that lets my moral intuition click into the patterns set by Jeremy Waldron's famously controversial article Superseding Historic Injustice. Waldron argues that forward-looking demands of distributive justice and the welfare of the poor trump backward-looking rectification. There's much more to it, but that's one of the key moral ideas. As applied to the indigenous land rights cases that he talks about, I've never found this even slightly compelling. But: I can't imagine the fact pattern or historical evidence that would make me think taxing west Africans in 2010 to make payments to African-Americans in 2010, when the latter have a standard of living between 20 and 50 times higher than the former. Liberia has a per-capita income of just over a dollar a day. Extracting even millions, to say nothing of tens or hundreds of millions, of dollars (and in dollars, that is, exhausting-and-then-some the foreign exchange reserve capacity of west African states) from people many of whom are among the poorest in the world just can't be what justice demands.
I could just fall back on the following, which is part of how I think about reparation cases anyways: the United States government and the government of the several states within it are historically and institutionally continuous with those that perpetrated slavery. There's been no repudiation of the national debt in the US since that time. So those governments are corporate actors that could still be liable for "their" misdeeds of a century and a half ago (and more recent misdeeds as well, since I think much of the case for reparations rests on the Jim Crow era). No west African state and probably no west African collectivity or corporation has that same demonstrable intergenerational continuity. The relevant actors have ceased to exist. So there's no one who could be held responsible today in west Africa, although there is in the US.
That seems plausible to me. But it also seems unnecessary to reach the conclusion. Forward-looking distributive and welfarist considerations alone would, it seems to me, trump any backward-looking evidence of continuity one could find. That's not a comfortable view for me, and maybe my intuition is still entangled with other facts about the case. But at least I can now see Waldron's point on a basic level that I've never managed before, even though I can follow the argument just fine.
(Hat tip Melissa Harris-Lacewell on twitter.)