The case against slavery reparations

Reparations for the legacies of the slave trade would be divisive, ineffective and absolutely impossible to implement.

Promise Frank Ejiofor

Topics Politics UK USA

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, some Black Lives Matter protesters have rejuvenated the discourse of slavery reparations. This refers to the demand that institutions historically involved in the gruesome Atlantic slave trade should make payments to those who have been negatively impacted by its legacy.

The overly emotional appeal of this argument has led some top British firms – Greene King and Lloyd’s of London among them – to agree to the idea of paying compensation to black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups as a form of atonement for their historical involvement in the slave trade. By the same token, the UN human-rights chief Michelle Bachelet has called on states that benefitted from slavery to pay reparations in order to provide healing for ‘centuries of violence and discrimination’. But can such compensations really help tackle racism and social stratification today? No, they cannot. On the contrary, monetary reparations are not only untenable, they are also a very bad idea.

Perhaps the fiercest proponent of monetary reparations is American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. In an Atlantic article entitled ‘The Case for Reparations’ he argued that America owes the descendants of slaves compensation for the multifarious legacies of slavery that have led to racial discimination in spheres such as housing, education and employment, and which continue to distort any possibility of social mobility for African Americans.

Obviously, compensation for slavery is morally and legally required when the slaves are alive, as we could directly identify those who suffered from the excruciating torture of labouring in their masters’ fields. However, critics of reparations argue that, given the slaves who directly suffered from the injuries are not alive today, their descendants therefore have no rights to monetary compensation.

Proponents of black reparations disagree in part because, for them, ‘African Americans have inherited the rights to reparation that was owed their enslaved ancestors and was never paid’. The most common example cited by defenders of black reparations is the 1952 Reparations Agreement between Israel and Germany, which led to Germany financially compensating the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Critics disagree with this analogy, not least because the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust could be readily identified and compensations made to them, whereas in the case of the Atlantic slave trade the survivors are no more.

Both the arguments for reparations from harm and from inheritance rights are as flawed as the criticisms. This is because these arguments have been formulated almost entirely in the context of the US. They ignore the fact that the slave trade was a ‘triangular trade’, and that the history of the US is not the history of the world. Indeed, slavery connected myriad societies and peoples across three different continents, namely Africa, the Americas and Europe. In each of these continents, there were buyers, brokers and sellers, and their identities were as complex as the trade itself. There were beneficiaries in the Americas, as there were, as a matter of fact, in Europe and Africa, but those who ultimately suffered from this inhumane trade were, of course, black slaves, whose descendants today live not only in the US, but also in Brazil, England, Jamaica and Sierra Leone, to name but a few nations. To speak meaningfully of black reparations would therefore entail taking into account the impossibly complex mix of actors, regions and interests involved in the slave trade, and its multifarious local and global consequences.

Supposing we were to agree with the argument that monetary compensation is the best approach to curb contemporary racism and address racial inequalities, three significant questions must be asked. First, who are the entities (persons or institutions) responsible for, and therefore beneficiaries of, the slave trade? Secondly, to whom should monetary compensations be offered? And, finally, how should we distribute the monetary compensation to the victims. Not only are these difficult questions, they are also divisive and antagonistic.

To begin, who were the beneficiaries of the slave trade? The political class in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Slavery was a trade that connected the political elites from these three continents. While slaves worked in sugar plantations that developed the economies of the Americas, and created the surplus values upon which the grand European empires were built, African political elites also used the profits from slaves to build their empires. The great Ashanti empire, for instance, which is found at the heart of modern Ghana, prospered not only through the sale of gold but also from trade in slaves. Such is the economic legacy of the slave trade that many of the descendants of those historical political elites – and there are surely many of them in the Americas, Europe, and Africa today – have continued to profit from it. Given that social elites in three continents were implicated in the trade, monetary compensations would make sense only if all the contemporary beneficiaries of these legacies are identified and compelled to pay for the evils of their ancestors. Given the unimaginable complexity of peoples’ social and geographical movements over the past 200 years, attribution of responsibility would be virtually impossible.

But the second question as to whom should reparations be made is even more problematic. The answer looks simple enough: reparations should be made to the ‘African world’, which means Africans everywhere. This is because the slave trade did not only dehumanise the slaves who ultimately arrived in the plantations in the Americas — it also arrested the development of African polities and aided the contemporary subjugation of African peoples everywhere. In his widely acclaimed How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the historian Walter Rodney contends that the trade in African slaves contributed to the ‘development of underdevelopment’ in Africa. Not only did African societies lose their most industrious men and women to slavery, their economic progress was also stifled by the fractures in social relations engendered among those who had the privilege of not being sold into slavery. But the danger of making reparations to the African world, I think, is that it would homogenise contemporary African peoples by failing to consider the disparities across multiple identities and experiences in the African world. Furthermore, to pay generalised monetary compensations to African states without taking social and economic disparities within Africa into account would not eradicate social stratification and racism. Rather, it would further strengthen the economic power of the African political classes, which have almost always impoverished their own people through corruption and political patronage.

The question of how to make these compensations is also difficult. Aid has been shown by the economist Dambisa Moyo to contribute nothing significant to the development of the African continent. That is because contemporary African elites, such is their corruption and self-interest, would use aid monies, intended for the putative benefit of their citizens, to shore up their own authoritarian regimes.

If the compensation is preferential treatment for descendants of African slaves, then we are only really speaking about ‘affirmative action’. In this case, what would matter is strengthening the policies of ‘affirmative action’ to ensure that black voices are represented in political institutions, tout court. What is needed, then, are systemic reforms in the very institutions and structures that perpetuate racisms and stratification, ranging from the police to the media.

It seems to me that the demand for black reparations is not just an impossible project. It is also a bourgeois ideology. The slave trade should be properly comprehended as part of the history of human beings in all their fortes and faibles. Once we understand the slave trade as part of the history of our species, as something that has affected the progress of our common humanity, then it ceases to be a question of whites versus blacks. It becomes a spur to work together to address our common problems today.

Sadly, the bourgeois ideology of reparations will do nothing to develop our common humanity. To transfer monies as compensation, from one centre to another, would leave us as polarised and divided as we have ever been in the 21st century. What we truly owe one another is to remember the slave trade as a horrific testament to man’s inhumanity to man, and to commemorate those who suffered from this evil practice.

Promise Frank Ejiofor holds an MA in Political Science from the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary. His research interests span constitutional politics, nationalism, moral and political theory.

Picture by: Getty.

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