The moral case for reparations for slavery

Submitted by Tendai Kamba
Posted 6/30/20

Dear Editor:

In this monumental time in our beloved nation’s history when society is reflecting on the brutal murder of George Floyd in the hands of police, and trying to chart a way forward …

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The moral case for reparations for slavery


Dear Editor:

In this monumental time in our beloved nation’s history when society is reflecting on the brutal murder of George Floyd in the hands of police, and trying to chart a way forward on how to confer the black Americans equal rights that have been denied for the past 400 years, my mind was taken back to slavery.

America’s original sin was the killing of the natives while plundering of their beloved land and the subjugation into slavery of the peoples of African origin for more than 200 years. The question that came into my mind was, can this sin be atoned through reparations? The answer to that question is yes, for the following reasons.

First, according to the southern African principles of Ubuntu, people are connected to the history of the land through the unbreakable bond of the forbearers. People affirm this bond with the forbearers through inheriting property from the immediate ancestors such as parents or grandparents. According to Ubuntu principles, as humans we are indirect beneficiaries of the wealth that was created by our forbearers, whether legitimately or ill-gotten.

Within the Ubuntu principles, there is an idiom that states that a sin or crime committed and not compensated for does not age nor disappear. It continues to haunt the descendants of the perpetrator as legitimate inheritors. Therefore, the sin of theft and plunder of native lands and slavery against Africans, our part of our sin as it is for the forbearers, as we are bound by an unbreakable bond of sharing DNA and property across generations.

Second, as Professor Christopher Hitchens argued that if we all agree that the plunder of native lands and slavery was wrong, then the question is, can that wrong once inflicted be restored or made good? Restitution in the form of reparations could be made to help atone for the original sin. Definitely, reparations will not make everything right, but it would help restore something. As Professor Hitchens noted, the original offense was the taking, theft, rape, confiscation, dispossession and claiming people as property, and there is no scope of a program that can undo the damage done during the period plunder slavery and rape.

We can’t make up to the uncounted millions of people who were captured, raped, tortured and even died before they made it across the Atlantic to be other people’s property. We can’t make up to the millions that toiled and died in the cotton fields of the south, without any descendants living among us today. We can’t undo the damage to west Africa during the period of plunder, slavery and rape.

With restitution to the current descendants, some of it can be made good and repaired, something can be rescued from this terrible situation. Alternately we can refuse, forget and let the original sin haunt our descendants. 

Third, as Professor Hitchens stated, during slavery the profits piled on top of one another, and was piled there by unpaid labor under the whip, and the dead labor became the dead capital and dead souls. The dead money piled within the treasury department and the financial systems that turned into capital and assets such as gold vaults. It is the obligation of this generation to back pay, an overdue money owed to the descendants of the slaves for the unpaid labor.

Professor Hitchens highlighted that a cherished principle that defines American freedom is the right to entitlements and inheritance, and to share in a common treasury. Let us as a nation cherish this principle and use the common treasury to make reparations to descendants of slavery and land dispossession. That way we would all be proud of our heritage, history, as well as shouldering the obligations that come with it. At last, like the British earlier we would be making reparations for slavery; unlike them, we would be doing one better, by acknowledging and giving compensation directed at the true victims of slavery.

Tendai Kamba