16 May

Should Current Generations Make Reparation for Slavery?

Posted By polity_admin_user

By Janna Thompson

‘Why should present people have to take responsibility for the deeds of past generations?’ This was the response of the prime minister of my country to the demand for an apology for wrongs done to indigenous people and their forebears.

The same doubt is expressed by citizens of former slave trading or slave owning societies to demands for reparation for slavery. Doubt or denial seems like a reasonable response to reparative demands for injustices that happened so long ago. In this book I explain why it is nevertheless the wrong response.

Slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries was an important source of wealth, especially for Britain and France – countries that dominated the slave trade and used slave labour in their New World colonies. Slavery created wealth in the newly independent United States. It also brought misery to millions of Africans who were abducted from their communities, shackled into slave ships, forced to work, often under brutal conditions, and were beaten, raped, and sometimes worked to death by their owners.

Should current generations make reparation for slavery? People who refuse reparative responsibility usually have two objections in mind. The first is an impatient rejection of the idea that historical injustices should matter to present people. Why dwell on the past? they say. Why not concentrate on making things better for present and future people?

But history matters. Recently a memorial was unveiled in the capitol of the American state of Alabama commemorating black Americans who were lynched or subjected to other atrocities during the Jim Crow era that followed the American Civil War. Some visitors came to honour their relatives who had been victims of these injustices. Others came to learn about their history. According to one commentator, there is a hunger, especially among African Americans, for museums that authentically represent the history of Africans in America.

Some white citizens responded to the memorial by expressing the view that the bad deeds of history are best forgotten. But among them were undoubtedly people who want to retain the statues of Confederate leaders in their city squares as a way of remembering their history and honouring their heroes. People who take pride in their history should not be surprised when descendants of victims of historical injustice also want the history of their people to be properly acknowledged.

History also matters in a very material way. The present distribution of wealth, power and opportunities depends on what happened in the past: the hard work and ingenuity of our forebears but also on their bad deeds. Injustices, especially if they were endemic to a culture and propagated by governments, are bound to have intergenerational consequences. They condemn families to poverty for generation after generation; they are the root of persisting prejudices and the alienation of those who have never felt at home in their society.

The second objection of those who want to deny any responsibility for what their society did in the historical past relies on a basic moral principle: that an individual should not be blamed for what he or she did not do. Innocent people should not be punished for the wrongs of others. No one in current generations shackled Africans on slave ships or forced them to work on plantations.

But responsibility is not the same as blame. People can be asked to take responsibility for repairing injustices that they did not commit. They can obtain such responsibilities by belonging to a nation that committed a wrong, by acquiring stolen property or benefiting from an injustice. As members of a society, they can have a responsibility for repairing the lingering harm of past injustices.

The idea that current generations owe reparation for slavery is not absurd or contrary to basic moral principles. But slavery happened a long time ago and history has moved on. How can present people owe reparation for such an ancient injustice, and if so, to whom is it owed and how much should be paid? Is it enough to apologise to descendants of victims or to put up memorials? Some people disagree. Some African and Caribbean countries are demanding large sums of money for the suffering of their communities during the period of slavery. Some Americans think that descendants of slaves ought to be given the money that their ancestors should have been paid for their labour (with added interest).

These demands raise difficult philosophical and moral issues. They are also the subject of political contention. When I was first stimulated to think about reparation for historical injustices I assumed that the topic was of concern mostly to philosophers and others with an academic interest in moral and political issues. But politicians visiting former colonies are often met by demands for reparation or, at the very least, are required to make an acknowledgement of their country’s past wrongs. Commissions of enquiry or court cases uncover past injustices and make recommendations or rulings about reparation. Companies are asked to make recompense for their former use of slave labour. Whether present people owe reparation for slavery is not merely an interesting philosophical and political question. It is of pressing political concern.

Janna Thompson is a professorial fellow in the Politics and Philosophy Department at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

Her new book Should Current Generations Make Reparation for Slavery? is now available from Polity.