Whenever the topic of reparations is raised, the usual response from white people is that they don’t want to pay for something that their ancestors did. Many will say that they never owned slaves and therefore should not be punished for the actions of their ancestors. Even African people who oppose reparations make similar arguments. Burgess Owens, for example, has argued that he doesn’t want reparations because he was never enslaved. Owens wrote: “Because of work I’ve never done, stripes I’ve never had, under a whip I’ll never know, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren and others want to give me free stuff.” I will add that Owens is somewhat contradictory on the issue of reparations because he suggested that Democrats are willing to give him free stuff (in the form of reparations), but when he spoke recently at a hearing on the topic of reparations Owens suggested that the Democrats should pay reparations:
Let’s pay restitution. How about the Democratic Party pay for all the misery brought to my race and those, after we learn our history, who decide to stay there, they should pay also.
Owens’ contradictory statements aside, many have this notion that the claim for reparations is only about past wrongs that have been inflicted against African people. These people seem to overlook the public housing crisis which is impacting African people, mass incarceration (which Coleman Hughes ironically mentioned in his presentation on why he opposes reparations), the fact that Flint’s water still has not been fixed, the high rate of African American women dying from complications during pregnancy, failing schools, and many more issues. The Trump administration boasts about the historically low African American unemployment rate during Donald Trump’s presidency, but last year the unemployment rate for African Americans was still double the unemployment rate for whites and African Americans still have only a fraction of the wealth that white people collectively have in America.
Reparations for slavery is a bit of a misnomer because the reparations are not simply just for the crimes committed against African people during slavery, but rather for the continuous injustices that have been inflicted against African people, which began during enslavement and never ended. The abolition of slavery, for example, was followed by a system of forced convict labor, which lasted up until the 1940s. Since then we have seen the rapid advancement of the prison industry, which has become a multi-billion dollar industry that is built largely on exploiting the labor of the incarcerated population. The 13th amendment which abolished slavery also allowed for slavery in cases of punishment for a crime, so to speak of slavery in America as a thing of the past is actually inaccurate. Slavery never legally ended and the United States continues to profit from the unpaid labor of African Americans.
In The Devastation and Economics of the African Holocaust I explained the African Holocaust not only in terms of the tremendous cost of human life, but also in terms of how Europeans benefited in various different ways from the exploitation of Africa people. This is a process that still continues and this is why reparations is such a touchy topic. Many understand that true reparations means an end to this exploitation of African people, which would require a complete transformation of the Western system of capitalism, which relies on exploiting the labor and resources of others to sustain itself. The debate over reparations in America has largely centered on justice for centuries of wrongs that were inflicted against Africans in the United States, but the oppression of African Americans has always been an aspect of the larger global exploitation of African people.
In Africa and the Caribbean, independence gave away to neo-colonialism in which colonial exploitation persisted, in spite of political independence. I was born in Guyana, where the United States and England intervened to interfere with our electoral process, which helped to pave the way for Forbes Burnham’s dictatorship. Guyana became independent in 1966, but Guyana’s first fair and free election did not come until 1992. The history of America’s inference in Haiti is even more lengthy and has had much more destructive consequences. Not only did the United States support the Duvalier dynasty which lasted from 1957 until 1984, but America heled to pave the way for this dictatorial family dynasty by sending American marines to kidnap President Daniel Fignolé. The United States also supported Rafael Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship in Cuba.
Neo-colonialism in Africa was marked by eliminating leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Slvyanus Olympio, and other African leaders who did not serve the interests of Western nations. The political instability caused by Western meddling has had serve political consequences in Africa. Togo, for example, has endured five decades of dictatorship after Olympio was assassinated — Togo has been independent since 1960 and Olympio remains the nation’s only democratically elected president. That dictatorial regime in Togo has benefitted from the support of Western countries. A most recent example of this is the European Union’s financial support of the regime in Togo.
This a global system which sustains itself at the expense of African people globally and it precisely because of the fact that this system is built on exploitation that the topic of reparations is a touchy one. The opponents of reparations understand that true reparations means not only giving out checks, but transferring power back to African people. I want to mention Burgess Owens’ again because his confusion on this topic demonstrates some important points that needs to be understood.
Owens claims that in America every generation has become better than the last. The problem with that is African American progress in America has come in cycles. The Reconstruction Era was definitely a period of progress, followed by a regression that was marked by brutal racial terror. We saw this again the early 1900s when African Americans across the country were again making progress, only to see that progress destroyed. On Friday I attended the unveiling of a marker to honor July Perry. July Perry was one of the victims of the Ocoee massacre in 1920. The aim of this massacre was not only to prevent African Americans in Ocoee from voting, but it was also a land grab. Perry was just one of the African Americans in Ocoee who owned land, but as a result of the massacre the African American population was driven out of Ocoee and those who owned land lost that land.
Over the last few decades African Americans have witnessed yet another period of regression, as the institutions and businesses that we once controlled are gone. Many our communities are also still struggling with issues such as failing infrastructure and pervasive violence. Certainly there are individuals who are successful, but this isn’t anything new. Even during the days of slavery there were successful individuals like Eliza Greenfield, who had a very successful career as musician and Tom Molineaux, who was a successful boxer. The multi-millionaire entertainers and athletes that we see today are nothing new. Entertainment and sports are two fields that African people have always been allowed to excel in, but American society has been very hostile whenever it has seen African people acquiring real political power, as well as control over land and resources. This fear is why Black Wall Street was destroyed and why Marcus Garvey was deported as part of the attempt to destroy the efforts of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
Owens presents his own individual success as an example of the fact that a Black man can succeed in America, but his success is the result of being a football player. How many of the teams that Owens played were owned by a Black person? How much wealth did Owens’ Super Bowl championship bring to the Black community? The question here isn’t one of individual wealth, but one of power and the ownership that comes with that power. Owens’ relative success as a football player does not represent significant progress for African Americans, especially when one considers that at one point African Americans owned and controlled an entire Baseball League, which was later killed off by integration.
Various models for what reparations looks like do exist. The most obvious example is the reparations that Jewish people receive for the Holocaust. New Zealand agreed to pay reparations to the indigenous citizens for the injustices that were inflicted against them for 150 years. Japanese Americans received reparations for they being forcibly interned during World War II. There are also numerous example of African Americans receiving reparations as well. For example, reparations were paid to the survivors of the Tuskegee experiment who were deliberately infected with syphilis, the survivors of the Rosewood massacre in Florida were given reparations, and reparations were paid to the victims of police torture in Chicago. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed a $1.15 billion settlement for Black farmers who were discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It is not as though America has never paid reparations to individuals who have been victims of racial discrimination, but reparations for the entirety of what African people have endured under the system of white supremacy is much different because this does not require a mere transfer of monetary wealth, but a transfer of power, which African people have been kept from exercising for centuries now.
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.