The controversial topic that debates whether or not monetary reparations are justifiable for people of African descent in the 21st Century.
It might be too late for some reparations, but not soon enough for others.
The question of whether or not European and American governments should give reparations for slavery to people of African descent in the form of money or land comes from a few different sources: African-Americans (in all of the Americas); Haiti, for declaring their independence in 1804; and the people of the continent of Africa, for the European Scramble for Africa.
Every region of the world has experienced epic tragedies that involved the massive loss of human life in the most inhumane ways possible. In order to recuperate from past injustices of human culture, sovereign nations have been trying to readjust their societies in order to prevent dissent, violence and mass-murder, but when profits are to be made from chaos, consolidation of power, and human exploitation, morality takes a dive, and unethical laws are written in order to protect the ruling class from future prosecution.
Using the logic of those in favor of reparations, there are a myriad of historical events in which those who had suffered, or their descendents, should also be given compensation for their suffering: The Nigerian Civil War, the Colonization of the Americas, Rwandan Genocide, Genocides in Armenia, Cambodia, and Bosnia are just a few examples of people being singled-out because of their religion or race, and subjected to imprisonment, forced labor and death.
Reparation activists worldwide point to the fact that other peoples have been offered reparations by governments for forced labor, genocide, confiscation of lands, and for losing an armed conflict (war reparations). West Germany paid $35 billion to Israel between 1953 and 1992 in an attempt to pay for subjecting the Jewish communities to forced labor, “apologize” for the rise of Nazi Germany, and for how they were brutally and systematically round up, forced into concentration camps, tortured, and killed. They were stripped of all their assets, wealth, and above all, were subject to genocide as part of a fascist, anti-Semitic ideology.
African-American reparation activists point to other examples of reparations like the Native-American community and their inclusion in the U.S. Government’s policy of establishing Indian Reservations and paying out millions of dollars to compensate for 19th Century Manifest Destiny land grabs.
Reparations for people of African-American descent: Should it be a reality? The answer is, it should have been, but now it is too late. Those who had lived through slavery, or at least their children, were going to be honored a small compensation for their labor in the form of property ownership, one of the pillars of capitalism, but the U.S. Government at the time had a history of breaking promises not only to Native-Americans, but African-Americans as well. Considering that the British and U.S. Governments had broken over 500 treaties with Native-Americans over profitable and valuable land, African-Americans were also denied what was promised, especially those promises that were made after the American Civil War during what historians refer to as the Reconstruction Era.
40 acres and a mule was an agreement met between African-American ministers, abolitionists and Union General William T. Sherman, who promised to some 40,000 freedmen land and seafront property, which was confiscated from the Confederates. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, which occurred shortly after the American Civil War, was a way to punish the South for their attempts at succession, attacking the Union, and to break the link holding the finances between southern slavery and the Confederacy (not because of 250 years of chattel slavery). The 400,000- acre strip of land from South Carolina to Florida could have changed almost everything about modern American society and race relations in terms of education, culture, equality, and wealth in the African-American community.
The reason why so many people, black and white, are against reparations is that there is a cultural and temporal disconnect with previous generations in that Americans do not want to be held accountable, and are generally ashamed for their ancestors’ actions. Most importantly, in terms of the U.S. economy, the methodology of calculating and paying out 250 years worth of labor to descendents of Africans and African-Americans is culturally complex in that people will always contend whether or not some people of African descent deserve remuneration or not.
Whether or not reparations should be paid out, it will never happen because there are conflicts between American culture and economics. The majority of Americans are against reparations. The idea of giving a minority group of people ¨free money¨ because of a past injustice might not have the effect one would think from a cultural point of view.
Reparations for the people of Haiti: Should it be a reality? The answer is yes. The Haitian Revolution that resulted in the declaration of independence from France in 1804 came with extreme consequences. France demanded that Haiti pay 90 million gold francs for the loss of slaves and the French side of the island Hispaniola, which was called St. Dominique at the time, or risk another French invasion. From 1825 to 1947 Haiti continued to pay its “declaration of independence debt” to France, which was estimated to be more than $20 billion. Decades of economic warfare by the international community; the coup d’ état, which was suspected to be supported by the U.S., France, and allies; and the 2010 earthquake, which killed 100,000 civilians or more, were all recent events that have further crippled the sovereign nation of Haiti. At the very least, Haiti’s external debt was cancelled amidst the devastating earthquake, and $9 billion was giving in relief efforts, but it still falls short of the $20 billion that was extorted from Haiti post-independence.
Reparations for the people of Africa: Should it be a reality? The answer is yes, but not in the form of a simple payout. Reparations will come only in the form of true socioeconomic development. But first, bribery, corruption, and theft of capital must be identified, exposed, and dealt with in a way that prevents net wealth from leaving the continent.
An obvious, but not popular solution to corruption and embezzlement is transparency. Being able to track the flow of money between companies, governments, and banks will better inform the public of how their labor is paid, taxed and redistributed. To prevent government leaders from funneling money back to the U.S. or Europe, limiting the amount of money one can have in foreign bank accounts could help. However corrupt dictators may seem to the Western world, there are always enablers (Westerners) who permit this collusion of foreign aid by giving Africa money with one hand, while robbing with the other.
During the past few decades, government-to-government aid has not worked at all for economic development on the continent. Although the continent receives about $50 billion in aid each year, it is estimated that $1 trillion is stolen each year. Most of that money ends up right back in Europe, the United States, and island tax havens. One of the best ways for economic development is to stop foreign aid as Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo describes in her critique of decades of failed policy.
“A constant stream of “free” money is a perfect way to keep an inefficient or simply bad government in power. As aid flows in, there is nothing more for the government to do — it doesn’t need to raise taxes, and as long as it pays the army, it doesn’t have to take account of its disgruntled citizens. No matter that its citizens are disenfranchised (as with no taxation there can be no representation). All the government really needs to do is to court and cater to its foreign donors to stay in power.”
Economic development cannot occur if local markets are flooded with free goods that could be produced locally. Agriculture and manufacturing take a big hit when products are routinely sent to Africa. One might think that it is generous to do so, but it effectively puts local companies out of business. Moyo offers another simple example of how foreign aid is having a reverse effect.
“A Western government-inspired program generously supplies the affected region with 100,000 free mosquito nets. This promptly puts the mosquito net manufacturer out of business, and now his 10 employees can no longer support their 150 dependents. In a couple of years, most of the donated nets will be torn and useless, but now there is no mosquito net maker to go to. They’ll have to get more aid. And African governments once again get to abdicate their responsibilities.”
In order to properly gird these concepts into the theme of reparations I must say that foreign aid to Africa does not count as reparations. The scramble for Africa by European powers in the 19th and 20th centuries absorbed all but two (Ethiopia and Liberia) sovereign states into their empires, and the amount of wealth that was stolen by declaration of war against indigenous people continues to this day with the extraction of minerals and precious metals and the round-the-clock coup d’états that occur with the help of Western interests. The exigency in which raw materials are extracted from the continent to be sent to manufacturing plants in the European Union, China, U.S.A. and Russia, leave very little to be circulated within the continent – the flow of raw materials needs to be diverted inward.
The best kind of reparation high-income nations can give to Africa is to offer something tangible like renewable energy in the form of wind turbines and solar panels to help with their energy crisis. Combining the aforementioned with proper water irrigation systems and desalinization plants are also other true forms of economic development in which all citizens could eventually build upon and stabilize their societies. Only then will much of the conflict areas soon turn into places with cultural standards in which subsisting on foreign aid and pity will be a thing of the past.
By Opton A. Martin