The contentious issue of reparations for the descendants of African slaves is being revisited both in and outside of the academy.
Last year, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates penned a 15,000-word article that appeared in The Atlantic titled “The Case for Reparations.” An 1865 letter by an ex-slave named Jordan Anderson to his former master gained traction when it went viral a few years ago and was published in several U.S. news outlets.
Further, this November, several dozen academics, activists and former political leaders from across the globe traveled to Western Europe to take up the controversial issue.
Sponsored by the University of Edinburgh and Wheelock College in Boston, the three-day, interdisciplinary Reparations for Slavery Conference focused on the legal and moral imperative for reparations. Scholars and activists discussed the groundwork being laid for campaigns being waged to pressure countries around the world to take responsibility for the harm that was done as a result of the Atlantic slave trade.
In other parts of the world, such as the Caribbean, the fight for reparations has been steady and ongoing for decades. For example, in 2013, Caribbean heads of governments founded the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC), with a mandate to formulate the case for reparations for the region’s indigenous and African descendants.
CARICOM established a 10-point reparations plan that demanded, among other things, a full formal apology, the establishment of cultural institutions and a repatriation program.
“I think it’s important to have an international perspective,” says Dr. V.P. Franklin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Riverside and an editor of The Journal of African American History. “What’s happening around the world should inform the movement in the United States. We need to educate people about the reparations movement taking place around the world and make connections.”
Franklin says that there is currently a mass effort by some scholars to push President Obama to create the Dr. John Hope Franklin Commission on Reparative Justice, which would be similar in scope to the “One America in the 21st Century: The President’s Initiative on Race” that President Clinton established on race. Dr. John Hope Franklin, the late preeminent historian, was selected by Clinton to chair the commission’s advisory board.
“I think the issue is experiencing a resurgence,” says Dr. Jennifer Page, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University. “I think people are looking at reparations.”
The opportunity to meet senior academicians who have been studying and making the case for reparations for years was well worth the overseas travel to attend the conference, she says. “As a young scholar, I have a lot to learn,” says Page, who has a philosophy and politics background but researches and writes about reparations. “I like the idea of being at a conference that brings activists and academics together.”
Page, who is White, is perhaps the best evidence that the reparations movement is racially diverse as well. And she was not alone. Page was joined by other White professors, researchers and students — including two undergraduates from Wheelock College — who spend time thinking and writing about White privilege.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Jordin Diantonio-Smith, 22, a social work student at Wheelock who accompanied her former professor, Dr. Joyce Hope Scott, to the conference.
Like Diantonio-Smith, Erin Whitman, 21, also a senior at Wheelock, sees the reparations issue as an opportunity to confront race relations.
Pushing for solutions
Jean Allain, an expert in international law who teaches at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, believes that the legal system can and should be used as one of many tactics to push the reparations issue forward. He said that the crime of the Atlantic slave trade has continued to impact the descendants of slaves hundreds of years after the slave trade was officially abolished.
“The crime is deemed to continue until there is some closure,” says Allain, who writes extensively on the issue.
The solution may eventually have to come in the form of legislative remedies, says Tuneen E. Chisolm, an assistant professor at Campbell Law School in Raleigh, North Carolina. “There is no need for a study at this point for why we need reparations,” she says.
Still, Amos Jones, an associate professor at Campbell Law School, believes that nations, including the United States, have to atone for their role in supporting the slave trade for hundreds of years.
“We’ve already seen that official U.S. law and policy is capable of significant self-correction, though bloodshed has been required,” says Jones. “In the U.S. context, we can be hopeful that justice will prevail because our history is filled with moral conviction that has engendered dramatic self-corrections, from abolition of slavery to fulfillment of the Fourteenth Amendment through civil rights measures including affirmative action remediation ordered by presidents of all ideologies.”
Jones, an expert on discrimination, was a panelist at the conference held at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The event featured a spirited series of panel presentations and interactions among scholars, activists and lawmakers who are committed to turning their ideas into action.
At the conference, Jones opened his presentation by declaring America’s legacy of segregated schools and colleges to be “a chain of implication that creeps contemporary.” In speaking about the need for reparations in the United States, he said that the time was long overdue for the victims of underfunded, segregated schools — whose plight was examined in Yale Law tax scholar Boris I. Bittker’s 1972 book The Case for Black Reparations — to receive “direct” financial compensation.
Jones called for Blacks to “reclaim our brains, our traditional values” in order to foster fruitful, nonpartisan and interracial interaction as the issue of reparations continues to be debated.
“What, to me, is paramount is to consider the reality of how Black Americans, always a not-large minority, have from time to time — and in dramatic fashion, through sheer moral authority — forced America to live up to the ideals adopted by the Republic on paper,” Jones told the audience. “America has been situated in what I call a convictable posture.”
Sir Hilary Beckles, a Barbadian historian who is the vice-chancellor of The University of the West Indies (UWI) in Jamaica and an expert on reparations, said that he believes that support for the idea is gaining momentum and that reparations for slavery are long overdue.
“In the Caribbean, I think it’s fair to say that we have more or less made up our minds that Britain has a case to answer,” he said, adding that the governments of the region have recently come onboard in supporting some form of reparations nearly 40 to 50 years after independence from Britain.
“There have been decades of conversation right from the end of slavery to the present time and after 200 years of civil society discussion and debate, I think we are more or less settled around the position that there is a case to answer and we will proceed with that case in one way or another.”
In 2006, Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed his “deep sorrow” for slavery, months after the Church of England apologized for its role, but he stopped short of admitting historical guilt. Current Prime Minister David Cameron has been fiercely criticized by some Black British activists for his refusal to discuss the issue.
Jones placed the onus on all in power, including Black elected officials. “If 40 Tea Party members with very little seniority in Congress can shut down the government and defeat speakers of the house,” he asked during a part of his presentation criticizing politicians, “then why can’t 42 Blacks wield greater influence on behalf of their distressed constituencies, who form safe districts and are aligned in their longstanding calls for transformative justice?”
Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at email@example.com.