Slavery reparation: why now?

One hundred and thirty-eight years after slavery was abolished in the USA, what's behind the movement to gain compensation?

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics

Slavery reparation is one of the political hot potatoes being juggled by Western nations at the UN World Conference against Racism in South Africa. The USA has now pulled out of the conference in response to the row over Israel, but it won’t escape the slavery issue by going home. In this case, home is exactly where the problem is.

This became clear as differences broke out between African leaders and the African-American members of US congress who attended the conference: while African leaders called for an apology for slavery and colonialism, it was the US congress members who wanted to push for financial redress (1).

It is only in the USA that slavery reparation has become a serious possibility, commanding the support of politicians, academics and other public figures. Economists have done the sums on how much the descendants of slavery are owed, lawyers are preparing a case to be filed later this year – and given the legal precedents of payouts to Native Americans and other groups, they stand a real chance of success.

Even without getting into socioeconomic arguments about the inequalities in contemporary America, it is clear that a system abolished before any of today’s black Americans were born cannot be held responsible for the problems facing black America in the here and now. But despite the absurdity of calculating the amount owed to today’s black Americans on the basis of their ancestors’ suffering, brains have been churning on this very problem. The results make for some creative mathematics.

The African American Reparation Action Network goes back to bills put forward by senators at the turn of the century (which were blocked by Southern votes), which promised each slave 40 acres and $100 for building a dwelling (2). They calculate that with inflation this means that every African American is owed 40 acres and $100,000, or just $200,000. Others refer back to a different version of the bill, which offered every black American 40 acres, $50 dollars and a mule (though how one calculates inflation on a mule is not quite clear).

Another approach is to extrapolate from slaves’ lost wages. Time magazine columnist Jack White calculates that black Americans are owed $24trillion, based on unpaid wages owed to 10million slaves, doubled for pain and suffering (3). Economist Larry Neal calculates that the value of expropriated slave labour between 1620 and 1865 is now worth around $9.7trillion (4).

These calculations are somewhat arbitrary. Why base today’s claims on a rejected government bill from decades ago? How can you claim back wages from five generations ago? Why double the value of unpaid wages on the basis of the pain and suffering endured by slaves – why not triple it, or quadruple it?

It seems the past is being scoured for a monetary indication of the suffering of slaves, which is then increased in line with inflation and held up as the amount due to black Americans today. This exercise indicates less about the terrible institution of slavery than it does about the peculiarity of the contemporary mindset.

Until relatively recently, the demand for slavery reparations was limited to black radical groups, such as Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, and won little support among mainstream society. The International Tribunal on Reparations for African People in the USA, for example, was an offshoot of the Black Panthers movement (5). Reparation demands were often anti-white and separatist. In 1968, the Republic of New Africa called for $400billion in reparations to finance an independent black republic (5).

Today, by contrast, the demand has moved into the heart of the US liberal elite – and carries the banner, not of black separatism, but of national unification and the ‘healing’ of social divisions. The Democratic Party has agreed that it will champion up to $440billion of reparations (6). Senator John Coyers Jr has 31 sponsors for a bill in the Senate that will pledge millions to studying the possibility of reparations for slavery. At least 10 US city councils, including California and Chicago, have endorsed the idea of a federal ‘impact statement’ on slavery (7). Academic conferences have been held on the subject, and a number of academics support the reparation cause.

A coalition of civil rights groups has launched a suit against the government and surviving businesses that profited from slavery – represented by a ‘dream team’ of lawyers led by Harvard professor Charles Ogletree, and also including Johnny Cochran (who represented OJ Simpson), Alexander Pires Jr (who won a $1billion settlement for black farmers from the US Department of Agriculture), and Richard Scruggs (who won a $368billion dollar settlement for states against tobacco companies) (8).

As UK Observer writer Will Hutton has noted, ‘slavery and its fallout promises to become the hottest, most contentious issue in American politics’ (9). One hundred and thirty-eight years after the event, it is worth asking: why?

Two aspects of contemporary US society seem to be playing an important role in this – moral angst and compensation culture. That is, the idea that America is divided and sick and needs healing; and that financial compensation is the solution to all ills. The movement for slavery reparation is an example of a broader trend which sees therapeutic measures as the way to solve social problems – producing a strange mix of emotional therapy and hardnosed economic accounting.

The therapeutic element to reparation comes across in Chicago City Council’s adoption of a slavery reparations resolution. ‘America is in denial’, said one member of the council. ‘[The resolution] calls for an end to the time of weeping and cursing and the beginning of healing and reconciliation’, said another supporter. Senator John Coyers said that in putting his motion to congress he is not ‘trying to win a debate. [He is] trying to heal’ (10).

There seems to be an idea that harm, and responsibility for harm, is transmitted pathologically from generation to generation. Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes Blacks, says: ‘I don’t think that there is very much appreciation in America of the causal relationship between the present condition of the black community and the 246-year crime of American slavery, how it debilitated a whole people psychologically, socially and economically, and how those consequences have stayed with us intergenerationally through the twentieth century’ (11).

By these accounts, black Americans are reduced to the status of child abuse victims, unable to get over their deep, psychological trauma. One campaigner for reparation claimed that ‘Africans held as slaves have been struggling for a restored sense of wholeness since being brought to this country as chattel’ (12). The idea that blacks still stumble around under the weight of their psychological chains is insulting – and ironic, considering that those trying to persuade the court of this fact are multi-million dollar case-winning African-American lawyers.

Today, there is a whole legal apparatus geared towards translating suffering – present or past – into hard cash. According to one legal commentator: ‘The success of tobacco and other corporate class action litigation in recent years has spawned a class of lawyers who leave no stone unturned when it comes to imagining gargantuan lawsuits in pursuit of social agendas.… Minds are churning for ways to pursue [slavery reparation] claims in court.’ (13)

And the precedents of similar successful compensation claims already exist: descendants of Native American tribes who lost their land over 100 years ago; Japanese-Americans who were interned during the Second World War; black survivors and family members of the 20 year-long syphilis experiment which began in the 1930s; survivors and relatives of those who lost their lives and property when a white mob destroyed the town of Rosewood in 1923.

But all of these claims were more specific, and involved smaller groups of people, employing more specific notions of harm (for example, Native American land lost in the 1800s, the value of property destroyed in Rosewood, or the damage to the health of living people).

That slavery reparation is now coming to the courts expresses the expansive nature of reparation claims: each successful claim will spawn others, and its offspring are likely to be even bigger and stranger. As UK journalist Simon Jenkins noted, ‘Britain could be sued by descendants of Indian maharajahs, Boer farmers, Chinese opium dealers, Boston tea merchants’…the list could go on (14). Aware of how claims could escalate exponentially, the UK has shied away from discussing slavery reparations at the UN conference. Perhaps the only limit is a financial one – after adding up all the harm suffered by black people in the USA, including slavery and workplace discrimination, David Swinton concludes that it would take more than the entire wealth of the USA to compensate them fully (15).

But contrary to the claims being made, reparation for slavery will not unite and heal divisions in America. Instead, it will increase animosity and jealousy between groups, as they scramble for advantages against each other in the courts.

You can see this already from the Native American experience. Native American tribes had arguments among themselves – and with the Bureau of Indian Affairs – about who were ‘real Indians’, and therefore deserving of reparation; black Seminoles went to court to try to gain a part of the millions awarded in compensation for land taken in the 1800s. Million-dollar payouts to tribes have incensed some whites.

Indeed, this competitive ‘It’s not fair’ tone is notable among proponents of reparation for slavery. Both the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) and the African American Reparation Action Network list all the past claims for reparation on their websites – as if to say, ‘they got compensation, so why can’t we?’ (16). The African American Reparation Action Network makes this sentiment explicit, saying: ‘The African Americans’ turn has come. They are the only group of Americans that has not received reparations for the war crimes of slavery. African Americans are the only ones who suffered more than a hundred years of pain and crimes.’ (17)

Minority groups bickering in the courts about whose ancestors were the most victimised hardly seems like a strong basis for American unification. And it will not solve the problems of American society in the present. For that, there needs to be a positive attempt to improve contemporary society – for everybody.

Read on:

spiked-issues: The race card

(1) Financial Times, 3 September 2001

(2) See the African American Reparation Action Network website

(3) See article on reparations on the Afrocentric Experience website

(4) Quoted in Race and Reparations, Clarence J Munford, Africa World Press, 1996. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(5) Race and Reparations, Clarence J Munford, Africa World Press, 1996. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(6) Slaves to the past, Observer 26 August 2001

(7) See the Inter Press Service News Agency, Washington 23 July 2001

(8) Claims for Slavery Reparations Head to Court, 5 January 2001 at law.about.com

(9) Slaves to the past, Observer 26 August 2001

(10) Politicians, Scholars Voice Support For Slavery Reparation on findarticles.com

(11) See Payback time, Guardian 11 August 2001. Buy The Debt: What America Owes Blacks from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(12) See the N’COBRA website

(13) Claims for Slavery Reparations Head to Court, 5 January 2001 at law.about.com

(14) The Times (London), 5 September 2001

(15) Quoted in Race and Reparations, Clarence J Munford, Africa World Press, 1996. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(16) See the African American Reparation Action Network and N’COBRA websites

(17) African American Reparation Action Network website

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