How Black Lives Matter put slave repairs back on the agenda

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to present a bill that would create a commission to study the idea of ​​compensation for slavery, an idea that has also gained ground in Europe since Black Lives Matter protests went global last summer.

Legislation to set up a commission to study slavery compensation for black Americans cleared a House committee in a historic vote this week, sending it on its way to a full vote for the first time more than three decades after its introduction. If the legislation, HR 40, is passed by the House of Representatives, it would go to the equally divided Senate, with Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris deciding the tie.

“Settlements are ultimately about respect and reconciliation – and the hope that one day all Americans can move together toward a more just future,” said Democratic congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, a sponsor of the bill.

Some Republicans opposed the bill, claiming that the suffering of slavery happened a long time ago.

“No one should be forced to pay compensation for what they have not done,” said Republican Congressman Steve Chabot of Ohio. “Paying compensation would amount to taking money from people who never owned slaves to compensate those who were never enslaved.”

Historical precedents

The idea of ​​compensating the descendants of the estimated 4 million Africans who were forced to be deported to the United States between 1619 and 1865 was revived by the wave of protests that followed George Floyd’s death in May 2020. But the first version of the law text went on Wednesday was drafted more than three decades ago .

Compensation for freed slaves was promised towards the end of the American Civil War in 1865, when Union General William Tecumseh Sherman famously promised them “forty acres and a mule”. But this promise is never kept. It took until the 1970s and the establishment of the Repair Coordinating Committee by Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree before the issue resurfaced.

Proponents of repairs, however, are divided on what form they should take. Some argue for more welfare programs and an extension of existing measures, such as positive measures. Others argue for direct economic compensation – citing that there is still serious economic inequality between black and white Americans, and claim that the long-term effects of slavery and segregation are responsible. In 2019, the median income for an African-American household was $ 43,771 (36,000 euros) compared to $ 7,1664 (60,000 euros) for white families.

Proponents of compensation have also cited historical precedents. In 1988, Republican President Ronald Reagan signed a 1988 law to pay $ 20,000 (17,000 euros) each to all surviving Japanese Americans imprisoned during World War II. In 2012, Barack Obama’s White House agreed to pay more than $ 1 billion to 41 Native American tribes over the federal government’s mismanagement of trusted money and natural resources.

Partly inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, protesters in Bristol in the south of England dumped an 18th-century slave trader Edward Colston and tipped it off in a nearby port in June last year.

That same month, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on former colonialist countries to “make amends for centuries of violence and discrimination, including through formal excuses, truth-telling and reparations in various forms”.

In 2013, the Caribbean Community (or CARICOM), an intergovernmental organization with 15 states in the region, believes that France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Sweden and Denmark should pay compensation for their role in the transatlantic slave. trade between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Senior politicians in the Democratic Republic of Congo demanded compensation from the country’s former colonial ruler Belgium after the 2020 publication of a letter of apology from the Belgian king Philippe for atrocities committed during that era. They also demanded the removal of statues of King Leopold II, known for his brutal rule over the then Belgian Congo. DR Congo’s neighbor Burundi has been calling for € 36 billion in compensation for atrocities committed by German and Belgian settlers from 1896 to 1962 for several years.

In 1999, a Truth Commission conference in Ghana estimated the total amount for the African countries paid by the former colonial powers at 777 trillion dollars (650 trillion euros).

An association of slave descendants submitted a request to the French state for € 200 billion in compensation in 2005 on the grounds that France’s historic participation in slavery was recognized as a crime against humanity in a 2001 law (known as the Taubira Act). However, a court found that this request could not be considered because it was impossible to distinguish the amount to be paid for events that took place so long ago. The verdict was upheld by France’s two highest courts of appeal.

The Afro-Caribbean groups behind the claims rejected the court’s rulings on the grounds that France had compensated the slave roads when it abolished slavery in 1848. The following year, the French state paid the equivalent of 7.1 percent of public spending to compensate the slave roads. in Senegal, Madagascar, Reunion Island, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Guyana.

In 1825, France imposed a significant debt on Haiti – which had gained independence in 1804 – as compensation for the former French slaveholders there. The young Haitian republic was also forced to pay huge interest rates on loans from bankers in Paris.

A French research initiative called the repair project is building a database to log the names of those who received compensation as former slave owners and the amount paid to them.

The British Empire also compensated slave owners when it abolished slavery in 1833.

Some historians note that a significant number of these former slave owners were “free colored people” – former slaves who themselves became slave owners.

“We tend to see the history of slavery exclusively through the course of racial oppression of white against black, but this is problematic because race is not the only criterion to consider when considering the history of slavery,” said Myriam Cottias, director of Paris-based International Slavery and Post-Slavery Research Center (International Center for Slavery and Post-Slavery Research).

Against this background, it seems “to me that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to identify the right people to receive compensation”, Cottias continued.

In 2015, the French president François Hollande ruled out paying any compensation to the slaves’ descendants. “It would be impossible to calculate because it was so long ago,” he said.

Private initiatives

No country involved in the transatlantic slave trade has established compensation for the descendants of the slaves, but other initiatives have been launched. In the United States, City Council of the prosperous city of Evanston in the suburbs of Chicago voted in March to distribute $ 10 million (€ 8 million) in compensation to its black residents over the following decade.

In 2019, Georgetown University in Washington, DC, approved the creation of a fund to compensate the descendants of slaves that were sold to balance the university’s books in the 19th century. That same year, Glasgow University in Scotland announced that it would pay £ 20 million (€ 23 million) to fund a joint venture with the University of the West Indies as a way to repay descendants of relatives for donations it had received centuries ago from slave owners. .

In the private sector, Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds Bank and Greene King Brewery have acknowledged responsibility for their involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. To date, no French company has acknowledged involvement in slavery or offered compensation.

This article was translated from the original in French.