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Ask Damon: I want to redistribute the wealth of my slave-owning ancestor

(iStock; María Alconada Brooks/Washington Post illustration)

Hi Damon: I just finished the biography of a famous family ancestor who was a slave owner. My family benefited mightily from her crimes and I can afford to redistribute some of our wealth to the descendants of those she wronged. What do you think is the most beneficial thing I could do? Try to find the slaves’ descendants? Scholarships for kids in the county where she lived? Is there a nonprofit famous for private reparations?


Anonymous: I’m immediately reminded, after reading this question, of the scene in “Ocean’s Thirteen” where Basher (Don Cheadle) pretends to be a stunt performer, and barges into the office of casino owner Willy Bank (Al Pacino), demanding to renegotiate his deal.

Basher: Mr. Bank. Do you know what Chuck Berry said every night before counting one, two, three, four?

Bank: What did he say?

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Basher: Pay me my money.

Bank: I’m sure if I give you …

Basher: (Singing) In cash!

When circumstances like this arise, where a monied party wishes to provide financial assistance, it’s usually accompanied with the implicit feeling that the person with the money is smarter with money, and knows how to spend it better than the people receiving it. Which is why this type of generosity comes with promises of scholarships, trusts, fellowships, fiscal sponsorships, memberships, bonds, investment opportunities, and even the creation of foundations and nonprofits, when the best thing to give someone who needs money is always just … money.

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Let’s say you met someone dying of thirst, and they asked for a glass of water. You wouldn’t offer them a season pass to the wave pool, would you? I hope not! (That analogy has some holes, but you get my point.)

I’m not saying that you’re doing this. You’re doing a good thing! (More people should do good things!) But I’ve seen it happen enough to know that this thought is pervasive.

I imagine that some (White) people reading are scoffing in their seats at the idea of a person acknowledging that their family’s wealth was a direct byproduct of owning people, and choking on their coffee at the desire to redistribute that wealth to the enslaved people’s descendants. And I just think it’s funny when people are perfectly fine to receive inheritances, houses, heirlooms, jewelry, stocks, savings, legacy college admissions, and all the perks of nepotism from extra super duper dead relatives, but not debt.

Anyway, if you’re sincere in your desire to attempt to right your family’s wrongs, find those descendants, show them the money and then hand it to them. You will likely need help, and there are organizations such as the National African American Reparations Commission that could connect you to people with more professional expertise.

(If you can’t find the descendants, and you’re still in a generous mood, my cash app is $givemeyourwhiteguiltcashinstead.)