CI Briefing: Slavery reparations back on the agenda
Slavery reparations - the debate over financial compensation owed to the descendants of slaves - has come back into the spotlight this year. Caribbean Intelligence© has looked at developments in in the past and sums up some of the key events of the first half of 2019.
- In mid-June, a bill proposed by Texan Democrat Sheila Jackson-Lee prompted a US House of Representatives judiciary sub-committee on the constitution to hold a hearing examining what it called "the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, its continuing impact on the community and the path to restorative justice". It was the first time in a decade that Congress had held such a hearing.
- The hearing on the so-called H.R. 40 bill attracted an overflow of people outside the hearing as congressmen heard the arguments on 19 June, known as Juneteenth to commemorate the day in 1865 when Texan slaves finally learned that they were free - two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation made by President Abraham Lincoln.
- One high-profile witness, actor Danny Glover, told the sub-committee about the slavery experience of his great-grandmother. He said that “white America must recognise that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical change to the structure of our society”, adding that reparations had to be seen as a “moral, democratic, and economic imperative”.
- Also appearing before the sub-committee was Ta-Nehisi Coates, a former member of the Black Panther movement who has also worked as a journalist for the Village Voice and the Washington Post, as well as on the Black Panther Marvel comic series. He told the hearing that black people in the US had been subjected to a century of “a relentless campaign of terror” after the Civil War, way beyond the period of slavery. He said that reparations were the right answer 150 years ago and that it was still right today. “It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement, but the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders and the god of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs,” he said.
- In response, Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that no reparations bill would pass while he controlled the Senate. He told a news conference afterwards: "I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us who are currently living are responsible, is a good idea. We tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War, by passing landmark civil rights legislation, elected an African-American president. I think we're always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that, and I don't think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it.”
- Opposition to the reparation proposals did not just come from white Republican circles. One writer and Columbia undergraduate, Coleman Hughes, said that reparations were “only given to victims”. “So the moment you give me reparations, you’ve made me into a victim without my consent,” he added, earning boos from some members of the audience.
- University of the West Indies (UWI) Vice-Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles attended the US Congressional hearing and spoke at a National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)-sponsored forum afterwards. Dr Beckles said that the CARICOM Reparations Commission would work with congressmen on steering its proposals.
- The US has not been the only venue that has seen a revival of the reparations debate. In Scotland in late 2018, Glasgow University announced what it called a programme of “reparative justice” following a year-long study indicating how the university had benefited from the profits of slavery. The university plans to set up a centre for the study of slavery and to establish a memorial in the name of slavery. Its Vice-Chancellor, Prof Sir Anton Muscatelli, said that it was now clear that the university had received “significant financial support from people whose wealth came from slavery”.
- In April 2019, Cambridge University launched a two-year study to look into its archives and work out how it had gained from the slave trade. Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope said it was “only right” that the university look into its “own exposure to the profits of coerced labour". He added that “we cannot change the past, but nor should we seek to hide from it”.
- There are many in the UK who also questioned the value of the reparation assessment exercises. The Spectator said in May 2019 that the Cambridge study would “certainly be interesting”, but that “serious problems inevitably arise when historical discoveries are deemed to have moral consequence for the present”. Pointing out that the architects of the abolition movement, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, had attended Cambridge, the magazine pointed out that Cambridge University had long condemned the evils of slavery. The Spectator concluded that the exercise was “already facing charges of tokenism”. It continued: “While some see the enterprise as self-flagellating guilt-letting, or even virtue-signalling wokery, others think it half-baked to leave unexplored the 31 colleges that form the lifeblood of the University. Others perhaps may prefer to see greater energy from Cambridge in working to help end modern-day slavery, still supported by states and private institutions worldwide.”
- In the US too, the heavyweight papers have weighed in on the new focus on reparations. The Washington Post asked in June 2019 whether reparations would be enough, given that official racism had lasted much longer than the period of slavery. The New York Times concluded that there were “no easy answers on reparations”.
- New York State Assembly member Charles Barron wrote in one of America’s oldest black newspapers, the New York Amsterdam News, accusing Democrats of using reparations to get out the black vote. He said that Democrats failed to bring up the issue when they had control of the House and a black president in the White House. Stating that he was glad that reparations were being discussed, the Assemblyman added: “Now that the Democratic Party doesn’t have Barack Obama to get out the black vote, they are using reparations to seduce black voters into supporting them. We must not let them use reparations like some political football to be kicked around!”
- The debate is set to cast its net wider than the US Congress and UK academia. CARICOM’s Caribbean Reparations Commission, set up in 2013, drew up a 10-point plan to include calls for a full formal apology for slavery, psychological rehabilitation and debt cancellation from countries involved with the transatlantic slave trade. Letters have already been sent to Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium and Denmark. Following further research into evidence of slave trade voyages, the Commission said in June 2019 that letters would also now be sent out to Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Russia and the Duchy of Courland (modern-day Latvia).
- UWI said in a statement about the US Congress session: “Their [Congress members’] long history of lobbying has now matured with this hearing.”
View the hearing on slavery reparations: