After years of existence as a topic of philosophical debate among black activists and intelligentsia, the idea, if not the underlying rationale, of reparations for the descendants of African slaves has finally reached prime time. The events and controversy surrounding the United Nations' World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa has the headlines at least temporarily abuzz with the term "reparations." The U.S. withdrew its mid-level delegation to the conference (as did Israel), ostensibly in protest of Arab insistence that the conference collectively condemn Israel's treatment of the Palestinian people as acts of racism. Our abrupt departure, however, conveniently left Britain and the rest of the European Union behind to wrangle with the conference's other major point of contention: the demands of Africans worldwide for an apology and recompense for the transatlantic slave trade and its horrific legacy.
The pessimist in me doesn't expect for a hot minute that the U.S. or other nations who became engorged off the blood and sweat of stolen African labor will fully admit their crimes, let alone enact the necessary remedies (which would have to be on the scale of a Marshall Plan for Africa and her descendants throughout the world). Still, I find considerable merit in having the discussions, using the conversations to remove some of the cute little cartoon band-aids that America has for years placed over the oozing, gaping, festering wound of its otherwise untreated racial history. It obviously hurts to touch it. That's why people wince when the subject comes up in "mixed company."
While events such as the U.N. conference have resulted in increased media coverage of the reparations issue, the lack of depth of that reporting compels me to provide some context for the discussion, and, in particular, debunk some of the popular mythology that I see surrounding the issue.
Myth: There is no single group clearly responsible for the crime of slavery
The United States of America clearly bears chief responsibility for American slavery and for the havoc wreaked upon Africans once they reached these shores. While the practice was well established and sanctioned by the colonies that preceded our current nation, we vigorously maintained it, going so far as to enshrine it in our ode to freedom, the Constitution. In this oft-cited exemplar of enlightened society, African slaves were, for tax purposes, declared three-fifths of a human being.
Myth: Existing slavery in Africa justified European enslavement of Africans
Slavery has existed throughout human history, including in parts of Africa at the dawn of the transatlantic trade. But the latter practice, while wrong, was very similar to indentured servitude (which Europeans practiced among themselves) in that "slaves" could own property, would eventually be freed and could bear children who would be born free. Slaves in Africa had legal rights and could bring complaints against masters for overly harsh treatment. In contrast, the "chattel" slavery established by the Europeans as the foundation of the triangular trade allowed the slave master complete life-and-death power over the slave, as well as indefinite and complete ownership of the slaves and their offspring, making them no different from animals in the eyes of the law.
Myth: There is no one group that benefited exclusively from slavery
No one needed to benefit exclusively from slavery. All current citizens of the U.S. benefit from the fruits of slavery in that we enjoy a standard of living built and buttressed on the combination of stolen labor and stolen land (and yes, there is an incalculable debt owed to Native Americans). Simply put, minus the free labor of millions of Africans over the course of hundreds of years, America would not exist as it does today.
Myth: Since a minority of white Americans owned slaves, it's unreasonable to ask that descendants of non-slaveowning whites repay the debt
This is one of the most frequently used arguments against reparations, but it's only sensible if one believes that individuals (i.e., taxpayers) do not bear collective financial responsibility for the actions of their governments. If my town is deemed negligent in the death of a person on city property and a damage claim is filed, do you think they take the money out of the salaries of the mayor and other big wigs? No, the money comes out of the town's budget or from insurance that's paid for out of the budget. I didn't have a damn dime in an S&L, but the multi-trillion-dollar bailout of that industry was conducted on the backs of me and millions of other taxpayers who had no say in the matter, let alone responsibility for the industry's rampant mismanagement.
This works the same in the international arena. Germany didn't have to go around and establish individual guilt or even complicity on behalf of every one of its citizens prior to making reparations to Israel.
Myth: Reparations begin and end with slavery
Proponents of reparations for descendants of slaves are guilty of allowing this myth to stand uncorrected. Slavery was undeniably a terrible episode in human history, with far-reaching consequences that demand recognition. But the focus on slavery as the centerpiece of the reparations debate is problematic in that it distracts from discussion of the equally abhorrent and more immediate effects of colonialism and institutionalized racism. The ink is still wet on the historical record of systematic injustices of the 20th century. One need only bear witness to the fact that black Americans paid taxes at the state, federal and local levels for which we received few to none of the services provided to other people fully recognized as citizens of the United States. Dig up the books and do the math. We did not receive equal protection from the police, nor funding for our segregated schools, and were illegally denied home and farm loans guaranteed with federal funds. The judicial system routinely refused to pursue justice when whites committed crimes against blacks. How many lynchings were ever investigated, let alone solved?
Systematic exclusion from trade unions and craft guilds stifled our economic growth, poll taxes and gerrymandering disenfranchised us after Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws were enacted to suppress any social aspirations we may have had. Blacks were actively and openly discriminated against up to and through the 1960s and '70s, and well beyond that in certain areas. Less blatant, yet persistent discrimination against blacks exists to this day.
Myth: Colonialism's effects ended once the European powers ceded independence to their former colonies
The sad truth is that the effects of colonialism are just as prevalent now as they were when the practice was officially recognized. Some things are hard to undo. Colonialism forcibly converted nations in Africa and the Caribbean from subsistence to single-commodity agriculture, putting their economies and ability to feed themselves secondary to the needs of colonialists for raw materials in bulk, at prices which the latter could dictate.
Warfare and ethnic animosity have also been a post-colonial legacy in Africa (as well as in Latin America and Asia, for similar reasons). During the partitioning of Africa by Europe, territorial boundaries were intentionally drawn across ethnic or tribal lines, creating unstable populations in tried-and-true divide-and-conquer fashion. The catastrophic results of that social engineering were all too visible in Rwanda, where the minority Tutsis were favored by German and Belgian colonial rulers, fostering a hatred of them by the majority Hutus that ultimately found its expression in post-colonial genocide. While the U.S. had no formal colonies in Africa (as opposed to Latin America and the Caribbean, where we were more "hands on"), our nation nonetheless assisted considerably in the exploitation and destabilization of the continent by waging a sham of an ideological war with the USSR, providing both superpowers with markets for arms sales and access to valuable natural resources.
In beleaguered nations like Zimbabwe and South Africa, where political power was eventually wrested from minority white governments, the economic pie is still sliced in grossly uneven proportions (whites with huge estates, the best land, etc.; blacks overcrowded onto whatever small percentage remains) carved out by Europeans over decades at gunpoint. The ability of these nations to care for the needs of their citizenry has to take a back seat to their obligations to pay off crushing international debt which is often more than 50 percent of their expenditures. Austerity (Structural Adjustment) programs forced on these debtor nations by the IMF and World Bank leave them woefully unprepared for such social crises as the AIDS epidemic, droughts and famine.
Myth: Black people gotta be po' in order to have a moral claim on reparations
If Bill Gates were a brother, he'd have just as much claim to reparations as me or a family living in Section 8 housing. It's hilarious to read conservative pundits insisting that any reparation benefits be economically based. Such a class-based analysis would never be uttered by them in any other context. Anytime progressives mention a broad-based safety net-type initiative, it's dismissed as socialist class-warfare talk.
That millions of African Americans have overcome economic disadvantage does not eliminate the grievous wrong done to our forebears. As long as wealth is transferred through inheritance in this country, past economic exploitation is a relevant issue.
Myth: The reparations claim is damaging to African Americans in that it "victimizes" us
I guess this is supposed to be reverse psychology. I wonder if anyone told the Jews or Japanese that reparations would psychically damage them? The only other place in American jurisprudence where we find this "don't press charges, you'll be a victim" philosophy floated as a disincentive for dealing with legal matters is in rape cases. And that ironic confluence speaks volumes about where we are as a nation in dealing with race and gender issues.
Myth: Social programs such as affirmative action and welfare eliminate the need for reparations
Affirmative action is an extremely watered-down effort to rectify discrimination in employment, education and contracting decisions. While crafted in response to the needs and demands of blacks during the civil rights era, it has been beneficial to many other groups. Short white guys who want to be policemen can thank affirmative action for forcing employers across the nation to review their often-arbitrary hiring requirements. By no means can this program be viewed as specific to the needs of African Americans. And while we are proportionately over-represented on what remains of the nation's welfare rolls, the majority of welfare recipients are white.
Myth: An apology for slavery or colonialism absolves Africans of responsibility for their current conditions
Absolutely not. Candid, detailed international discussion of the scope and scale of the harm done to African peoples will hopefully provide everyone with a more enlightened explanation of our current status. But no amount of apologies or reparations can ever relieve us of the responsibility to get our own house in order. Recognition of the damage done, be it financial or philosophical, is just a part of a monumental healing process, the success of which will be ultimately determined by what's in our hearts and minds. Even as we invite others to critically examine history, we must do the same, using the lessons of the past to strengthen our resolve to the point where we love ourselves too much to collaborate in our own destruction. Dictators and dealers, slavers and snakes, have no place in our future.
The U.N.'s World Conference Against Racism was a remarkable opportunity that got sidetracked and never fully recovered. Lost amid the controversies were the compelling stories of the contemporary suffering of peoples throughout the globe, their aspirations crushed daily under the weight of mistakes that humanity should have long since learned not to repeat. But this was just one lost opportunity; there will be more.
If we can persist, like Nelson Mandela did behind bars for 27 years; like Rep. John Conyers, who presents his Reparations Bill in the U.S. House of Representatives year after year; or like Malcolm X, who called upon the very same U.N. three decades ago to recognize the human-rights crimes perpetrated in this country. If we can persist like mothers who bear children in abject poverty, with the hope that, somehow, one will survive. If we persist like that, our message will one day be heard in the halls of power and heeded by those seated at the thrones of privilege: "Intolerance and exploitation have no place in our world."