Reparations now and Economic Justice say two signs held by an African

Reparations: A History of the Struggle in the US

On July 4, 1776, the burgeoning ruling class of the British colonial project in North America seceded from their oppressors and created the United States of America. The authors of the Declaration of Independence claimed they were breaking away from the British Empire to pursue their god-given rights to equality, life, liberty, and happiness. Ironically, this fight for freedom from their colonial masters was fought by enslaved Africans. Not only did the American ruling class benefit from their manpower during the war for independence, but the profits generated by the labor of enslaved Africans also provided them with the resources necessary to take up arms in the first place. British forces recognized how integral enslaved Africans were to American success in the war and offered emancipation and full citizenship to those who decided to defect and fight for the British. Despite the country proclaiming to value principles of equality, liberty and dignity, chattel slavery remained legal for nearly a century after the Declaration of Independence was written. From 1619 to 1865, the trafficking of enslaved Africans for the purpose of generating capital was essential to the economic development of the United States and the global capitalist economy. As Black nationalist activist Queen Mother Moore asserted at the twelfth session of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), Africans in the western hemisphere were integral “to the very foundation of capitalism on which today stands as a barrier to your development and our liberation.” 

As Africans in the Americas began to secure emancipation, they began to seek recompense for centuries of unpaid labor and extraordinary violence and oppression. Propositions for reparations were not thought of as handouts but seen as back-pay for stolen labor. Early literature on reparations did not use the term but instead used synonyms like repayment, restitution, and atonement. One of the first recorded petitions for financial redress for slavery was from Belinda Sutton, during the American Revolutionary War. Her owner fled the country during the war and abandoned all his property, however, the owner granted Sutton a three year pension in his will. After the pension payments stopped, Sutton appealed to Massachusetts lawmakers for a continuation of the pension payments arguing that her former masters lived comfortably from her labor while she lived in poverty. Although Sutton was triumphant in her fight for restitution, successful petitions for reparations were few and far between. Historian Robin Kelley recounts a story of a slave master asking a Black family he held captive to return. In the story the emancipated slave, Jourdon,  requested back pay totaling over eleven thousand dollars plus interest to “test his sincerity.” Jourdon did not experience the same success as Sutton but one thing is evident: freedpeople understood the wealth accumulated by their former masters was built on the backs of their stolen labor and they sought fair compensation for their work. 

Jourdon and Belinda Sutton’s demands for indemnification are not anecdotal. Following emancipation, abolitionist Sojourner Truth began to advocate for reparations for slavery through land redistribution. In 1870, she circulated a petition requesting Congress to provide land to the “freed colored people in and about Washington” to allow them “to support themselves.” Sojourner Truth’s appeals for restitution were never seriously considered by those in power. However, demands for reparations have persisted. After the sabotage of Reconstruction, ex-slaves began to establish organizations whose central political aim was securing compensation for formerly enslaved Africans. 

The National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, and the Bounty and Pension Association touted membership numbers in the tens of thousands and formed a movement that pressured US Congress to draft legislation that would compensate freedpeople for their work during slavery. Federal lawmakers were dismissive towards the movement and responded with legal attacks towards a prominent leader in both organizations, Callie House. House was accused of committing mail fraud but the activist was unphased by these accusations and declared the attacks on her and the movement were racist. House was a former slave and a widowed mother of five that worked as a washerwoman and recognized the lack of support elderly former slaves had and the deplorable conditions they were forced to live in as a result. Witnessing and experiencing the aftermath of slavery motivated the activist to organize for reparations. House was found guilty of committing fraud through the mail in 1916 and was forced to serve one year in prison.

Since then, conceptions of reparations have developed and evolved to address the transgressions inflicted upon diasporic Africans since the end of slavery as well. In the United States, the federal government has never officially atoned for the atrocities that occured during slavery or any of the racial terror that followed despite their being several legal petitions and mass movements demanding redress. According to international law, reparations is used to describe “the redress of physical, material, or moral damage inflicted on an individual, a group of individuals, and even a nation.” Beyond the economic exploitation through stolen labor during slavery, the oppression of African Americans has been endemic to American society and culture. An extensive history of the theft of wealth and resources during events like the Greenwood Massacre of 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma; cultural and historical deprivation by inaccurately depicting African culture in school curriculum and mainstream media, mass incarceration, and state-sanctioned violence motivate demands of accountability and indemnification.

Chattel slavery  in the United States was outlawed in 1865,  however, the deleterious effects of the nation’s original socioeconomic system are still prevalent today. The free labor coerced from enslaved Africans generated the surplus value that funded the industrial revolution in Europe. Without the technological advances that resulted from the industrial revolution, the development of the capitalist mode of production would not be possible. According to Guyanese Historian Walter Rodney the English county of Lancashire was the epicenter of the industrial revolution “and the economic advance in Lancashire depended first of all on the growth of the port of Liverpool through slave trade.” The capital accumulated by the planter class in the United States during slavery propelled the country into a global superpower. However, the US is not the only former colonial power that profited from slavery and owes a great deal of restitution to Africans in the Americas. From its inception, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade has had global implications. Although every European country may not have been directly involved in the slave trade, the growing demand for raw materials and commodities produced by enslaved Africans made slavery an essential component to the budding capitalist economies throughout Europe. Rodney provides an example of  how profound the impact of slavery was on the burgeoning global capitalist economy in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa: “Sugar from the Caribbean was re-exported from England and France to other parts of Europe to such and extent that Hamburg in Germany was the biggest sugar refining center in Europe in the first half of the eighteenth century.”

In the eighteenth century, David Barclay was not only involved in the trafficking of Africans but also owned a large plantation in Jamaica. David Barclay and his brother Alexander would go on to marry into banking families and take over what is now the multinational Barclays bank. James Watt, The Scottish inventor credited for making improvements to the steam engine, relied on capital from slave owners to mass produce his invention. In France, the labor of enslaved Africans became integral to their economy. According to Rodney, “during the eighteenth century, the West Indies accounted for 20 percent of France’s external trade.” The raw materials harvested by enslaved Africans were traded throughout western europe developing markets and economies that created the superpowers that dominate the global arena presently. While the western world lives in decadence, Africans throughout the diaspora continue to experience the harmful effects of slavery. The slave trade was a profit generating industry and the motivations for continuing the practice were entirely economic. However, the construction of race and racism by the European bourgeisie to justify the preservation of The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, lead to extroadinary exploitation and tremendous violence inflicted upon Africans in the Americas. This exploitation and violence has been the motivating factor of calls for reparations. The exploitation of Africans since they arrived in 1619 has resulted in African-Americans being forced into a permanent underclass that still exists.

In the United States, estimates for compensation for chattel slavery have ranged from $3 billion to $17.7 trillion. Ta-Nahesi Coates reveals that “white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households, and that whereas only 15 percent of whites have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of blacks do.” in his article “The Case for Reparations.”  The lack of support for African Americans from local and federal government agencies immediately following the Emancipation Proclamation resulted in the wealth gap between white and Black families that presently exists. In Long Overdue: The Politics of Racial Reparations, Charles Young posits:

It is true that there are no living former American slaves, but every African American has either directly or indirectly experienced racial discrimination or has been indirectly influenced by it. The failure to treat reparations as a legitimate issue acknowledges that America is far from being a “color-blind” society.

As substantial as these numbers may seem, according to American economist William Darity, these figures are “underestimates.” These numbers can be considered underestimates because the oppression of African-Americans goes beyond economic exploitation. The inherently violent socioeconomic system of chattel slavery resulted in immense physical and psychological injury in addition to economic underdevelopment. De facto and de jure exclusion from suffrage, along with cultural and historical deprivation of African Americans calls for not just financial compensation but a more holistic approach to developing demands for reparations. 

Contemporary conceptions of reparations have been centered around economic concessions like Small Business Administration (SBA) loans, increased federal funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and prison reforms in the form of “investment into counseling, job training, and rehabilitation for our incarcerated.” Although financial recompense and economic stimulus is undeniably necessary in Black communities, one could argue, current proposals for reparations would ultimately only stimulate the American economy and would not emancipate Africans internationally. Without a structural change to the systems and institutions responsible for the oppression and exploitation of Africans, Black suffering will continue. The capitalist mode of production would not be possible without the stolen labor of enslaved Africans and the capitalist political economy is the root cause of anti-Black racism and oppression. If reparations are to reconcile for past transgressions and improve the material conditions of Africans in the US and throughout the diaspora, the contemporary reparations movement must consider investigating the benefits of alternative modes of production, such as socialism. By interrogating the economic motivations of the slave trade one must interrogate the socioeconomic system the trade gave birth to.

Demands for reparations have always been and must continue to be about more than a “paycheck and apology.” One could argue that compensation isn’t the sole purpose of reparations: “The demand for reparations was about social justice, reconciliation, reconstructing The internal life of Black America, and eliminating institutional racism.” As Sojourner Truth stated, African Americans needed the resources from reparations “to support themselves.” From this perspective, reparations are not the end goal, but instead, a means to an end: self-determination and liberation. According to Civil Rights Activist and scholar James Forman, “Reparations did not represent any kind of long-range goal in our minds but an intermediate step on the path to liberation.” In an interview with The Black Scholar, Queen Mother Moore declared two issues as the most pressing matters in the Black Freedom movement: reparations and self-determination. In the interview Moore proclaims: “Reparations is the main issue. The white imperialists have got to recognize their crime against us… When you destroy a people or anything you are obligated to restore it.” Moore viewed reparations as a viable alternative to civil rights and ultimately a vehicle to self-determination. In the interview with The Black Scholar, Moore challenges the idea of African Americans struggle to obtain “first class citizenship”: 

We began to talk about wanting to be first class citizens. We didn’t want to be second class citizens. You would have sworn that second class was in the constitution. Also that citizens have to fight for rights. Imagine a citizen having to fight for civil rights! The very thought of it is repulsive. And I resent it and I reject this “citizenship” that was imposed on me. From the bottom of my heart, I reject it.

Moore challenged African-Americans to demand more. Privileges in the imperial core, such as voting and inclusion in public institutions, are portrayed as the destination, instead of the vehicle, to achieve the original goal of self-determination and liberation. Consequently, formations in the contemporary reparations movement have tried to obtain restitution with the goal of further assimilation and the chance to to participate in inherently anti-Black political, economic, and social institutions.

Over the duration of the twentieth century, militant anti-colonial and anti-capitalist formations and organizations began to materialize across the African diaspora. In Africa and in the United States, these organizations emerged in response to the imperialist expansion in Africa and unmitigated racial terror and violence domestically. Several of these organizations made reparations central to their political demands and goals. According to historian Ana Lucia Araujo, the end of the Cold War made a tremendous impact on the reparations movement in Latin America and west Africa. For example, despite having the largest population of Africans outside the continent, Brazil was under a military dictatorship that controlled the government from 1964 to 1985. The political landscape of Brazil during this period: “hindered the ability of Black organizations to effectively fight against racism and, in turn, for civil rights. This context also prevented the emergence of calls for financial and material reparations as occurred in the United States during the same period.”

Much like Brazil, the political landscape shaped demands for reparations in the United States. As African Americans gained more rights, privileges, and access to public institutions, demands for reparations evolved. Over time, reparations have developed from individual requests for back pay from former slaves to organized mass movements advocating for acknowledgment from American lawmakers and the United Nations (UN). Specific demands for reparations have shifted and changed over time from symbolic demands like official apologies or changes in school curriculums to insisting on financial and material resources for African Americans. However, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade transformed the entire globe. Africans across the globe have been impacted by the structures created to maintain a racist hierarchy established during slavery. In order to ensure that the systems that created Black oppression are dismantled, reparations movements must develop an internationalist orientation. Reparationist politics, theorized by Queen Mother Moore, emphasized the shared common history of Africans in the Americas and the need for some form of redress for slavery. Moore’s political framework can establish reparations as a foundational political demand for organizations across the Black political spectrum using this reparationist politic in a contemporary context.