While the US debate heats up, why won’t the UK even talk about reparations for slavery?

On his 2015 trip to Jamaica, David Cameron flatly refused to listen to the growing call for financial recompense. Nothing has changed since

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Saturday 20 July 2019 12:25
Mélisande Short-Colomb on Georgetown University students voting to increase tuition fees to pay slavery reparations

As the world struggles to make its mind up about what is and isn’t racist, another conversation about race and heritage is picking up again – the debate over the payment of reparations.

Though the push to pay a price for the damage of history never stopped, it has been ignored and dismissed so effectively that at times the call for justice could barely be heard. Now the reluctant colonial stars – the US, the UK and several major European nations including France and Switzerland – have been dragged back into a discussion about whether any nation can be found responsible, today, for the slave trade and its repercussions. And if they can, whether they should be expected to provide financial compensation.

To those who accept the notion that the ripples of centuries of forced, unpaid, back-breaking labour (not to mention the psychological, sexual and physical torture that the majority of enslaved African people were subjected to) can still be felt, the argument in favour of reparations makes a simple, moral sense.

In the US, where slavery and the Jim Crow laws together have dominated more than 80 per cent of the total length US history, social inequalities between white and black communities live on today, visible in everything from income disparity to discrimination in access to housing.

Yesterday the campaign for reparations received the backing of Chuck Schumer, leader of the Democrats in the US Senate, following concerted efforts from his colleagues Cory Booker and Sheila Jackson Lee, who made the case for a commission “to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans” through their proposed bill. Whether it will go any further than that, even after renewed efforts from the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates (who reignited the drive for financial compensation in 2014 with his compelling essay, “The Case For Reparations”) is yet to be seen.

In the UK, we have no such standard bearers for a homegrown campaign. Reticent as ever to afford the same recognition to black British history, politicians dismiss the significance of the slave trade without so much of a wave of the hand, or repeat the tired inaccuracy that it all happened far too long ago to worry about now. This despite the claims of Brexit supporters that the Commonwealth might play a major part in our international trade strategy after we leave the European Union.

Inequalities caused by the legacy of slavery persist across the West Indies. In Barbados, the Empire’s earliest “modern slave society” and one of the most profitable, white descendants of slaveholders have benefited from inherited wealth, with a number of families still living on and profiting from former plantations to this day. No surprise then, as a recent paper on income inequality in Caribbean states found, laws that directly excluded formerly enslaved people from buying up property were only repealed as late as 1937.

There are countless examples of sustained inequalities across the Caribbean. For anyone, like myself, who has been to some of these islands, you don’t have to look far to find them. Often, staring you right in the face, alongside the beautiful landscapes and azure seas these countries are often reduced to, are remnants of that rule, with large portions of black and indigenous populations in some Caribbean countries subjected to social segregation, or unable to access the high-end luxuries and wealth available to many white Caribbeans since the arrival of colonial powers some hundreds of years ago. In 1984, for example, despite the fact that black people made up over 90 per cent of Jamaica’s population, only four chairmen of 41 companies on Jamaica’s stock exchange were black, although representation has since improved.

Yet, while countries including the Bahamas, one of the 12 member states of the Caribbean Community’s (Caricom) Reparations Committee, continue to call for the world to pay attention, the UK has opted to do the opposite. In fact, the demands of the Caricom Reparations Committee have been ignored entirely – as we saw in 2015 when David Cameron, then prime minister, made a state visit to Jamaica. In a bid to “strengthen ties” with the former colony (while simultaneously doing some shameless PR over an agreement to pay £25m towards a new prison on the island nation – as long as Britain could repatriate hundreds of Jamaican prisoners), Cameron’s response to the Jamaican parliament’s call for reparations was to ask them to “move on” and “continue to build for the future”. Was their request not an attempt to do exactly that?

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Today, you’d sooner find Britain turning its sights to the US and its own debate on slave history than the fight ongoing in its own (and former) back yards. Should the US pay reparations to African Americans? Well, that same question is glaring right back at us across the Atlantic from our own “commonwealth", including the advice of Hilary Beckles, chairman of the Caricom Reparations Commission, to US congress on this issue last month.

While Democratic senators are using their position to move this debate forward, the British government can’t even get it together to respond clearly and compassionately to the Windrush scandal. West Indian victims of the “hostile environment” have been routinely failed by the Home Office. The Windrush compensation scheme has been flagged as ineffective by MPs including Diane Abbott and victims alike. New cases emerge every day. And still the push for reparations remains a distant dream.

When politicians such as Rory Stewart, claim that “rage against the British Empire is now coming from people who never experienced” it but “have only read about it” because it is simply an “easy thing to get angry about”, what hope can we have?

He is wrong. The case for reparations – for African Americans, and for the Caribbean – is not a redundant cause with the sole purpose of stoking division. It is justified, and it is alive.

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