Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves Makes the case for reparations (NNPA Photo by Freddie Allen)
In a move that has implications for Blacks throughout the U.S., more than a dozen Caribbean nations have banded together to urge European countries, which profited from the transatlantic slave trade, to begin serious discussions about reparations.
“This was a state sponsored policy,” said Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. “Slave ports were built in Africa. African bodies were snatched and put on British and European ships and brought to the ‘new world.’”
Gonsalves continued: “They established plantations, they enslaved people. This is not something that was episodic, something that was done by a few rogue individuals. This was a policy sanctioned by the royal family right down.”
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, less than 30 miles north of Grenada and 100 miles to the west of Barbados, is a member of CARICOM, a group of 15 Caribbean nations dedicated to developing a sustainable regional community and improving the quality of life of the citizens of that region. During a recent meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, CARICOM members voiced concerns about the need to address the legacy of slavery.
Gonsalves said that the legacy of native genocide and slavery is underdevelopment, poverty, ignorance and disease.
“We see the legacies around us and those legacies are the consequences of policies that were grounded in the notion of racial subordination and international law says that where you have racial discrimination and there are consequences, those that are responsible should assist in the repairing of that legacy.”
Gonsalves added that the time and circumstances dictate that the Caribbean nations begin to formally voice their concerns about reparations in a unified manner.
“Reparations is a well-established principle of international law,” said Nkechi Taifa, a senior policy analyst for civil and criminal justice reform at the Open Society Foundations. “It is not, as some have characterized, it is just another way of begging the United States government for a handout. It is not welfare. It is payment for debt owed.”
Taifa talked about reparations for Africa Americans during a session at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. last month. Taifa said that reparations constitute four elements: the formal acknowledgement of historical wrong, the recognition that there is continuing injury, the commitment to redress and the actual compensation.
The session on reparations was hosted by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who introduced H.R. 40 the Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act in 1989 in an effort to study the on-going effects of slavery in the United States and the impact of racial and economic discrimination on Blacks today. According to the website, govtrack.us the bill was re-introduced on January 5, 2011.
Conyers said that forming a commission to examine reparation proposals is critically important to understand the issue.
“This issue has to be put, not just in a historical perspective, but also in the modern situation that we find ourselves in right now,” said Conyers.
People of African descent who live in the Caribbean are often plagued by same economic, health and social disparities that continue to dog the Black communities. A number of precedents also exist to support a move towards formal reparations for Black Americans and people of African descent living in the Caribbean. For example, Germany paid Israel reparations after the atrocities Jews suffered during World War II. More than 40 years later, the United States paid Japanese Americans reparations after forcing them into detention centers during World War II. Last year, a high court in England ordered the British government to pay restitution to Kenyans who suffered abuse and torture at the hands of colonial officials after the Mau Mau Rebellion in the 1950s.
At the CBCF reparation symposium, JoAnn Watson, a Detroit city councilmember, said those groups were successful because they had a champion critical mass.
You don’t need everybody, but you need a critical mass. That’s why you have to educate your own family and educate yourself about who has received reparations from this country. Then you have to decide that you’re worth it,” said Watson. “So, it goes right back to who we are.”
“The real key to claiming our reparations is for us to have a mindset in the real that we deserve it, that we are worth it. Our ancestors have already paid the price and the children yet born have a right to that revenue other than some debt. Seventy percent of the wealth of Americans is inherited wealth. A good portion of those that are inheriting wealth are inheriting it from their ancestors who had 246 years of hard labor and genocide that was committed against African Americans that never got paid.”
“With the wealth gap, there is no way to catch up by saving, without some exogenous infusion of capital so that Black people can get some equality,” said Julianne Malveaux, an economist and 15th president of Bennett College for Women, Greensboro, N.C. “Wealth determines everything that you do. It determines whether you can buy a house or not, it determines whether you can sign parent PLUS loans for your child or not or send your child to college or not, it determines whether you can bail somebody out.”
According to a report by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy, “whites were five times more likely to inherit than African-Americans (36 percent to 7 percent, respectively). Among those receiving an inheritance, Whites received about 10 times more wealth than African-Americans.”
Malveaux said that she remains skeptical that the fractured House of Representatives would even pass H.R. 40, but she recognizes the importance of raising awareness about the issue in the Black community.
“We empower our children when we talk about what we have done, what we have contributed and what has been taken from us. It flips the switch on this notion that Black people always have their handout,” said Malveaux.
Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, said that although we lack the critical mass to push the domestic reparation movement to the top of the agenda, it doesn’t mean that the idea is dead.
Even as the domestic reparation movement has stalled, the international movement is gaining momentum.
Rather than making individual payments to each nation, Gonsalves and other CARICOM countries are pushing for development partnerships. They want to work with those European nations that once trafficked in slaves and committed genocide there to build hospitals, schools, and roads and to address a myriad of social, health, and employment issues.
Gonsalves said that he suspects that the ruling class in America doesn’t support what CARICOM is doing, because if they succeed in coming to a settlement with the Europe countries, the international community may pressure the United States government to make amends with African-Americans.
“The case has been made, we have the law on our side, we have the facts on our side, we have morality and justice on our side,” said Gonsalves. As leaders of sovereign nations, CARICOM member countries have the power to bring grievances against European slave trading countries that committed crimes against humanity on a global stage.
Gonsalves said: “We don’t have to bang the table. We’re involved in the diplomacy of engagement, not the diplomacy of protest.”