Reparations – an idea whose time has come?
Making the case for YES is Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University and author of Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century. His next book, The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World, will be published by Penguin in February 2021. He is the founder of the Harambee Organisation of Black Unity and editor-in-chief of Make it Plain.
Arguing NO is KA Dilday, a journalist based in New York City. She has worked at publications including The New York Times, Essence Magazine and openDemocracy.
KEHINDE: Transatlantic slavery was pivotal in the efforts to build what we now think of as the West. It was hundreds of years of slaughter, enslaving millions of Africans – turning us into commodities – in order to create unparalleled wealth for the West. So profitable was this system that in order to end slavery, the state provided the biggest ever bailout to private industry: 40 per cent of government revenue in 1834 was handed over to compensate slave-owners for their losses. So enormous was the sum that the loan from the Bank of the England was only paid off in 2015.
If I and generations of families who descended from the enslaved have been paying to compensate slave-owners, then it is simply absurd to argue that this is an issue of the past. The wealth accrued from slavery is very much still with us and so is the poverty. ‘Black Lives Matter’ is necessary in the 21st century because the legacies of slavery still shape the present: poverty, institutional racism and even the racial stereotypes that dehumanize us into targets for state violence. Money is not the only issue but slavery unbalanced the playing field to the extent that there is no rational argument against the principle of reparations.
K: When the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates made the case in favour of reparations for slavery in The Atlantic, Daniel Wildcat, a Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation, responded by writing that many of his fellow indigenous Americans were not fighting for reparations for the injustices done to them: ‘America’s ceremonies, habits and dominant institutions are all shaped by money. In such a society, it makes sense that monetary reparations will play a role in addressing injustice. However… the injustices of slavery and its real legacy may not be recompensed with dollars.’
Slavery is a human failure, a moral abyss. It stems from greed – free labour! – as does its long-enduring aftermath: the boot on the neck of those who might try to share in limited riches. American society believes in winners and losers. Mr Wildcat touches on the fundamental problem with the call for reparations: it affirms the ideals that birthed slavery. Money is power, worth – the only thing that matters.
The greatest reparation for the cosmic violence of slavery is to reform society to one where everyone is able to live a decent life and has the opportunity to flourish and grow. I want that to be possible for all people regardless of colour, background or national origin. This call for reparations is a distraction. Were it to happen, in 50 years, some who receive reparations will be wealthy and secure, and some will again be living lives of degradation and despair and then we will be right back to where we started: in a country where people live lives of degradation and despair alongside those who thrive.
In 50 years, I may just be alive. But I am not going to fight to hand my child the same broken system I came into.
KEHINDE: Native Americans are a curious example to use given reparations have been a key component of much indigenous activism and there have been attempts at government compensation in both dollars and land. Indigenous peoples’ relationship with the political and economic system is also very different. America is founded on trying to erase the natives, whereas Africans were imported by the millions and forced to labour for free. The wealth generated from this exploitation fuelled the development of the US and there are tens of millions of African- Americans living in poverty as a direct result. To pretend that repaying the substantial debt to the descendants of the enslaved can be repaid without money severely misunderstands the problem.
Compensation to Native Americans is instructive in terms of the pitfalls that must be avoided in any serious scheme. The amount eventually paid out was the equivalent of less than $2 billion, hardly a genuine figure for genocide and theft of the land. The US government and corporations also largely controlled where the money went. I agree that the only route to true freedom is to build an alternative political and economic system. Full reparations for slavery, globally, would give us the resources – which are rightfully ours – necessary to create the world anew.
K: I don’t dispute that the United States government at best meddles and at worst controls Native affairs despite the reparations and other attempts at restitution. And this ill-gotten abused land will never be returned. But I bring up Native Americans not to provide a balance sheet of who has been compensated (among whom have been Japanese-American internment victims and others) and who has not. I bring it up to disavow the self-centredness of the claim.
If I look far ahead to a future 20 years after reparations have been paid to formerly enslaved ethnicities and races, I can see a glimmer of an even more distant future in which those who receive reparations take control of societal institutions and plough the monies restituted into societal transformation. But mostly what I see looming in that future is a continuation of an unequal society – the mores that our winner-takes-all form of capitalism affirms.
‘Me and my kind first’ has long been the refrain of most peoples. From where I sit, it seems to me that Black people have yet to prove a claim of higher, better morality. Fighting for transformation instead of reparation could be that moment.
KEHINDE: True reparations are not about individual claims for prosperity, or arguing that Black people should be at the head of the queue. Real reparative justice is by its nature transformative, because there is no way to repair the damage done by slavery that does not involve a fundamental shift in the way that society works.
Legacies of slavery underpin our way of life, seeping into every institution and interaction. Once we understand how central slavery was to making what we currently have, we realize that the transfer of wealth necessary to rebalance the scales is impossible without rethinking the entire political and economic system. Even if it were possible to find the money, the payment would destroy the current economic order.
The power of the reparations debate is that it reveals the necessity for revolutionary change. We are not interested in a pay-off so we can be slightly better off in an unequal society. Repairing the damage done in slavery means building a just society. There can be no tinkering at the margins. Reparations are a reminder of the scale of change needed to build the word anew, not just for the descendants of the enslaved.
K: This discussion has convinced me that we are more in step on this topic than apart: we agree that the true goal is fundamental societal change. Yet, while I see focusing on reparations for slavery as an ancillary topic that distracts, and a positional demand that divides, it seems to me that you see reparations as the redistribution necessary to jump-start this fundamental societal transformation.
It’s true that I want white people (and others around the world who have enslaved fellow humans) to acknowledge that their wealth and position in society were achieved by climbing on our backs and the backs of others. Will financial recompense make up for the horrors my people have suffered? No. There is no monetary price that can recompense what we lost and there is no amount of money that will warm me while I know that others are still living in the cold. I once asked a wealthy friend, ‘Isn’t it hard to enjoy your money when you see so many others suffering?’ I ask those calling for reparations the same.
But the goal of a fundamental transformation of global society to one that makes its best attempt to provide everyone with a safe, healthy life and the opportunity to flourish as they choose – ‘a world anew’ as you call it – that is a vision we share.
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