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Reparations for Slavery – A Contemporary Debate

Dr Angus Nurse, Associate Professor in Criminology and Sociology, examines the current debate over reparations for slavery in both the UK and US.

As election campaigns kick-off on both sides of the Atlantic, attitudes towards and the treatment of black citizens have become a topic of debate. Evidence on both sides of the pond consistently indicates that black citizens are disadvantaged in their treatment at the hands of the state and state agencies, particularly criminal justice ones.

In the US, the Black Lives Matter movement has shed light on the killing of unarmed black men and alleged disproportionate use of force by policing agencies against the black community.

In the UK, research continues to suggest disproportionate use of police stop and search powers against black and minority ethnic people. 

In both the US and UK, black people are disproportionately represented in  prison populations and evidence suggests they receive harsher prison sentences compared to their white counterparts.

Discrimination continues

Underlying these issues are social attitudes towards black people arguably situated in cultural perceptions of inferiority and of black communities as being predisposed towards crime. However social inequalities between black and white communities are visible in a range of areas including income disparity, access to professions and discrimination in the workplace and provision of services.

The racial disparity in US society is arguably more pronounced and visible to the extent that race based dialogue such as recent debates about whether calls to send elected (non-white) politicians ‘home’ is racist. However, the Windrush Scandal also draws into sharp focus the extent to which UK authorities have discriminated against black citizens and shown at best poor judgment in the creation of a hostile environment towards black people. At worst, Windrush gives the impression that racist attitudes towards black people permeate aspects of Government thinking and policy.

Against the backdrop of poor attitudes towards black people and concerns about differential treatment for black citizens and communities, a campaign for slavery reparations has been gathering momentum. At the heart of this campaign is a growing call for recognition of the impact of slavery on current communities. There are also calls for UK and US Governments to acknowledge a debt is owed to those who suffered and lost their lives as a result of slavery, while governments and other institutions benefited.

For those who believe that a long history of forced, unpaid labour, ownership and servitude and persistent social attitudes of black people as second class citizens has caused difficulties for current communities, reparations for the harm caused by slavery make sense. However, assigning responsibility at the level of the state and identifying who should make reparations and what form any reparations should take can be difficult.

The US movement

In the US, the slavery reparations movement is fairly advanced. In July 2019, Chuck Shumer leader of the Democrats in the US Senate backed a campaign for reparation. US Presidential hopeful Cory Booker and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee have also called for a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans

A range of court action has also taken place in the US in recent decades with the aim of having the courts rule that reparations should be paid and drawing some conclusions on who should pay them.  Legal cases have included action against major financial institutions that benefited from slavery as well as claims against the government itself.  So far, none of these cases has fully succeeded with the reasons for failure varying.

In rejecting these claims, reasons given by courts include arguments that present day institutions cannot be held responsible for the actions of their long-dead predecessors. It has also been argued that whether the state should compensate for something that was legal at the time is a political question rather than one that should be decided by the courts.

Claims have also been rejected because there is nobody alive today who has directly suffered from slavery and so in one sense there is no surviving victim who should be compensated. This argument distinguishes the ‘legacy’ of transatlantic slavery as an institution against black people who are still feeling its effects, from more recent harms like the persecution of the Jews in the Holocaust. Reparations have been paid for the Holocaust in part because not only is the Holocaust a more recent memory, but a number of its survivors and their children are still alive. As a result, there were living victims whose harm could be addressed when Holocaust reparations were initially agreed in the 1950s with later payments agreed decades later.

The same can not be said of the victims of black slavery which technically ended in 1865 in the US with the emancipation proclamation and 1834 in the UK following the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. That said, an argument can be made that reparations could be given for the descendants of slaves, many of whom continued to suffer the effects of slavery through segregation in the US until the civil rights reforms of the 1960s and 1970s.  US civil rights and Black Lives Matter activists might well argue that they are still suffering today.

The legacy of UK slavery

The legal arguments for reparations are complex and different arguments can potentially be made in the US and the UK and against private and public bodies or the Government. The US slave trade has arguably resulted in marginalised black and ethnic minority communities and poor treatment of black citizens when compared to their white counterparts.

The UK’s slave trade has resulted in Caribbean communities who may have achieved (legal) independence from the British colonial power but who are still slightly dominated by colonial influences, legal systems and British forms of governance. Caribbean communities still also suffer from general imbalance between the status and wealth of black and white communities. So a general argument can be made that slaves were denied the economic value of their labour (wages) and so at least some money is owed from those institutions that benefited from a free work force. 

Some universities and other institutions have admitted that they profited from slavery and so a simple form of reparation here might be to provide scholarships or other benefits that can be accessed by Afro-Caribbean or African-American students and other service users, as US Bank JP Morgan Chase and Company has already agreed to do.

Reparations should address not just the immediate harm caused to victims of an atrocity like slavery, but also its enduring legacy.  So while it is true that nobody currently alive directly suffered from slavery, giving this general type of reparation at least recognises that as a consequence of slavery, black people still experience difficulties in accessing some institutions that historically refused entry to these alleged second class citizens.

State reparations

Reparations by the state are a little more challenging but reflect the Government’s support for the institution of slavery and its impact on black communities.  Slavery existed partly because US and UK governments made money from the slave trade and the ‘free’ labour it provided and so allowed it to continue long after there were calls for it to end.

Caricom, the Caribbean Reparations Committee,  continues to call for slavery reparations to address the harm caused to Caribbean communities and the crimes against humanity endemic to the slave trade. However, on a visit to Jamaica in 2015, former Prime Minister David Cameron responded to calls from Jamaica’s Parliament for reparations by asking them to ‘move on’ and ‘continue to build for the future’. Yet inequality continues to be felt across the Caribbean and access to the wealth available to white Caribbeans as well as the luxury of the islands’ tourism industry and produce resources continue to be denied to large portions of the black and indigenous population who are arguably segregated from the benefits of island economies that have been made possible by slavery and the wealth made for Britain by its slave plantations.

The moral argument

Besides the legal arguments a moral argument for reparations also exists. Slavery represents a wrong inflicted on people due to a belief in their inferiority and a perception that they are fit only to exist within certain areas of society. Reparations provide a tangible means of acknowledging the wrong and harm of such thinking and clearly stating that it has no place in contemporary society.

While an apology for the harm caused by the slave trade is welcome, the gesture of reparations provides a means of giving something back to communities and nations who most felt its effects. With the rise of racist rhetoric in the US and of hate crimes in Brexit-fuelled Britain, concerns about racism are once again on the agenda. It’s time the reparations debate was as well.