Law & politics Social commentary

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.

Social commentary

Tunde Jaji’s dramatic journey

Professor Kurt Barling Middlesex UniversityProfessor of Journalism Kurt Barling tells how he played a role in the fight for Tunde Jaji’s British citizenship. Jaji, held as a domestic slave for almost a decade, is finally able to settle in the UK without fear of deportation.

In nearly 30 years as a journalist, very few stories have stuck with me as long as this one. In late September, 24 years after he arrived in the UK illicitly, I watched as Tunde Jaji took his oath of citizenship in the council chamber of Bournemouth town hall. “I am just so relieved,” he told me. “Now finally perhaps I can stop looking over my shoulder. I can finally be me.”

When he vowed to uphold the values of democracy and an open society that respects difference it was a demonstration that human wrongs can be overcome with just solutions. But first let me take you back to where it all began.

In October 2006, Lynne Awbery, a special needs education specialist, approached me to explain she had taken in a former pupil who had been a domestic slave. At first I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Jaji had been in domestic service with a Nigerian family in the London borough of Haringey from around the age of eight.

For the best part of a decade, the family he stayed with cleverly disguised this abusive relationship. Despite attending Haringey schools for more than 12 years, no-one in authority questioned the legitimacy of the relationship between him and his carers.

Only when the illegally claimed child benefits were stopped as he turned 16, did things turn sour. Threatened with deportation because the family had kept no official paperwork for him, he was forced to share his plight with a few trusted friends.

Tunde Jaji with his old teacher and the mayor of Bournemouth. Photo by Kurt Barling.

Confirming his identity

Jaji’s fundamental problem was similar to that of most trafficked children: he had no paperwork which established his true identity or his right to remain in Britain. That’s when he turned to the dyslexia teacher who had helped him at school. Awbery faced a wall of silence and bureaucratic indifference wherever she turned to seek paperwork that could prove who he was. Without this he could make no claim to stay in the UK.

Meanwhile, having passed his 18th birthday there was a very real threat of deportation. If Jaji had been stopped by the police his status could have been legitimately questioned and he could have been deported back to Nigeria, a country he no longer knew.

Over several months I sought to verify his claim that he had been in London for the 14-year period that is required for an illegal migrant to start regularising their status.

Despite being at local schools for his entire childhood it took veiled journalistic threats to the local primary school to get them to delve back into their original hand-written ledgers for primary school entries.

When Jaji and I went to his old school several teachers recognised him. The September 1992 entry for new starters showed his name. My investigation had proven he had been in the country long enough to apply to regularise his status.

Application to remain

Meanwhile, my investigation turned to Lagos, Nigeria, where we searched the official registry archives for a birth certificate. Not only did we eventually find this, but also made the sad discovery of his mother’s death certificate. Despite being told by the Nigerian family that his mother was dead, she had only recently passed away. Here was more evidence of the cruelty he had endured.

Armed with this documentation, immigration lawyer Martina Flanagan prepared a dossier we hoped would stay deportation. There was an agonising wait while the Home Office considered his application to remain in Britain.

Jaji had a dream to pursue a career in animation and for this he needed to go to university. He recalls how it was drawing that had preserved his sanity as a child. But it looked as if he would also have to forgo his university place because his immigration status was taking so long to settle.

Impressed with his artistic talent, the University of Bournemouth were extremely sympathetic to his case. Even if they have been educated in Britain, it remains very difficult for children with ambiguous immigration status to attend university now that fees of £9,000 have been introduced.

With some extra persuasion on my part, Jaji was allowed to begin his course and shortly afterwards he was given indefinite leave to remain in the country, ironically on his 21st birthday. I felt my journalistic duty was done once the authorities recognised the legitimacy of his claim to stay in Britain. Nevertheless, we have remained friends.

Jaji graduated in 2009 and while he is still following a dream of publishing his first graphic novel he has continued to earn his living in retail.


That brings us back to Bournemouth in late September. An English seaside retreat for generations and a retirement destination for senior citizens it has also become Jaji’s home. It was here he had decided to finally take the plunge and to save the several hundred pounds he needed to pass a rather difficult citizenship test to become a British citizen. His journey has been a testament to his talent, determination and resilience to overcome the trauma of a lost childhood in domestic servitude.

Jaji has been lucky too. Awbery didn’t walk on by and he is now a part of her extended family. She too was in Bournemouth to watch his citizenship ceremony with her husband. This was a moment that tugged on the emotions.

For hundreds of other trafficked children and unaccompanied minors languishing in refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk the rules are still unclear and they face not only the indifference of officialdom but an uncertain and troubled future.

It makes you wonder, given the UK as a nation can’t apparently care for many such vulnerable people, what kind of values Jaji was really pledging himself to with his oath of allegiance in Bournemouth.

This article originally appeared on the The Conversation