New Moral and Legal Basis for Reparations

In September of this year in Durban, South Africa, the United Nations will hold what could be one of the most momentous events of the 21st century, the World Conference on Racism. Thousands of people from around the world are expected to attend a conference, which will address one of the most malignant maladies to plague the darker peoples of the world historically -- racism and white supremacy.

People of African descent and other people of color from the developing world are anxious to discuss the past and present effects of the castigation and oppression of groups of people on the basis of skin color. As might be expected, the United States and many of the nations of Europe are casting a leery eye towards the conference for fear that the issue of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the demand for "restitution" will become a dominant theme of the proceedings. Indeed, the United States is taking extraordinary steps to prevent the slave trade and the question of reparations from appearing on the agenda at all.

This is proving to be a difficult task. Spearheaded by veteran human rights activists and organizers from the December 12th Movement and the National Black United Front, a formidable coalition of organizations is mounting a determined effort not only to ensure that the slave trade and restitution are on the agenda, but in a bold and visionary move, these organizations are pressing for the introduction and passage of a resolution at the World Conference on Racism that would declare the Trans-Atlantic slave trade a "crime against humanity."

The prospects that such a resolution will pass is causing grave trepidations in the United States and among the circle of nations which are culpable in the most horrendous holocaust in human history. Without question, the passage of this resolution will provide an unassailable moral foundation for the call for reparations. Equally important, this resolution will also provide legal undergirding for the demand for reparations in international law since there is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity. Hence, the argument that the slave trade was a long time ago and therefore should not be subject to litigation or other forms of redress will be severely undermined.

There should be no question about the veracity of the claim that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was a crime against humanity. By some estimates more than 100 million Africans lost their lives during the holocaust of enslavement. Beyond the unthinkable loss of life however, in "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa," Walter Rodney documents the devastating effects of the slave trade on African people in terms of the disruption and destruction of families, communities and nations, the distortion of social, economic and political relations and the loss of "development opportunity."

The economies of Europe and America developed off the free labor of enslaved Africans while the continent of Africa was pillaged, ravished and underdeveloped. Rodney recounts that whole industries and cities were born and flourished as a consequence of the involvement of Britain and France in the enslaving and trafficking of Africans. Concurring with Rodney, Eric Williams in "Capitalism and Slavery" documents how the fruits of the lucrative Triangular Trade made huge fortunes for Europeans in the Caribbean and North America, particularly New England. An entire continent was demonized, demoralized, devastated and hurled backward in history by the holocaust of enslavement.

Once in this hemisphere, enslaved Africans destined for North America were subjected to a slave breaking process which not only involved raw naked terror and intimidation but cultural aggression, the calculated attempt to dehumanize and de-Africanize the African. Malcolm X once said that of all the crimes committed by Europeans against Africans, the greatest crime was to take away our names. By that assertion Malcolm meant the effort to destroy our culture.

Our ancestors were forbidden to speak in their native tongue, to practice indigenous religions or to play African musical instruments. In addition, our ancestors were taught that their African heritage tainted them and that their color was a "badge of degradation." Any White person, no matter what their status or station in life was to be respected and obeyed at all times. And, as chattels, property, our ancestors could be sold and traded at will with no obligation to keep families together. There should be no question but that the slave trade was a crime against humanity. Slave labor made America prosperous while destroying and stagnating the lives of the captive sons and daughters of Africa in this country; a crime compounded by the fact that we were eventually "emancipated" without compensation, no forty acres and mule, no property or capital in a growing capitalist economy, whose explosive growth was directly attributable to the free labor of our ancestors.

Europe and America know that they owe African people a debt too enormous to be calculated. But like cowards, they continue to refuse to take responsibility for their dastardly deeds. And, they will continue to refuse to acknowledge their crimes until the victims of the holocaust of enslavement unite and fight to compel the perpetrators to confess, apologize and make suitable compensation.

It is for this reason that African people, other historically oppressed people and our allies must transform the World Conference on Racism into a forum for discussing the greatest crime against humanity in history. In so doing, we will build momentum for the just and righteous demand for reparations for Africans in America and the world.

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