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Confronting racism, repairing history

Summary:
The wave of mobilisation against racism and racial discrimination poses a crucial question: that of reparations for a past history involving slavery and colonisation. This is an issue which has still not been fully confronted. No matter how complex the question may be, it cannot be eluded for ever, either in the United States or in Europe. In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, the Republican, Abraham Lincoln promised freed slaves that after the victory they would get “40 acres and a mule” (roughly 16 hectares). The idea was both to compensate them for decades of ill treatment and unpaid labour and to enable them to look to the future as free workers. If this programme had been adopted, it would have represented an agrarian reform of considerable dimensions at the expense, in

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Confronting racism, repairing history

The wave of mobilisation against racism and racial discrimination poses a crucial question: that of reparations for a past history involving slavery and colonisation. This is an issue which has still not been fully confronted. No matter how complex the question may be, it cannot be eluded for ever, either in the United States or in Europe.

In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, the Republican, Abraham Lincoln promised freed slaves that after the victory they would get “40 acres and a mule” (roughly 16 hectares). The idea was both to compensate them for decades of ill treatment and unpaid labour and to enable them to look to the future as free workers. If this programme had been adopted, it would have represented an agrarian reform of considerable dimensions at the expense, in particular, of the leading slave-owners.

But, as soon as the war was over, the promise was forgotten: no text for compensation was ever adopted and the 40 acres and a mule became the symbol of the deception and hypocrisy of the Northerners (so much so that the film director, Spike Lee ironically made it the name of his production company). The Democrats regained control of the South and imposed racial segregation and discrimination for over a century, until the 1960s. There again no compensation was ever applied.

Curiously, other historical episodes have nevertheless given rise to quite different treatment. In 1988, Congress adopted a law granting $20.000 to the Japanese-Americans interned during World War Two. The compensation applied to those who were still alive in 1988 (approximately 80,000 persons of the 120,000 Japanese-Americans interned between 1942 and 1946); the cost amounted to 1.6 billion dollars. Compensation along the same lines paid to the Afro-Americans who were victims of segregation would have a strong symbolic value.

In the United Kingdom, as in France, the abolition of slavery was accompanied on each occasion by compensation of the owners paid out of public funds. For the ‘liberal’ intellectuals, like Toqueville or Schoelcher, this was obvious: if these owners were deprived of their property (which after all had been acquired legally) without fair compensation, where would this dangerous situation end? As far as the former slaves were concerned their apprenticeship of liberty involved extremely hard work. Their only compensation was the obligation to obtain a long-term work contract with a land-owner without which they were arrested for vagrancy. Other forms of forced labour were applied in the French colonies until 1950.

During the British abolition of slavery in 1833, the equivalent of 5% of the British national income (in present day currency, 120 billion Euros) was thus paid to some 4,000 slave owners, the average indemnity being 30 million Euros, which was the origin of numerous fortunes still visible today. Compensation to the owners was also paid in 1848 in Réunion, Gaudeloupe, Martinique and French Guyana. In 2001, during the debates on the question of the recognition of slavery as a crime against humanity, Christiane Taubira made an unsuccessful attempt to convince her fellow members of parliament to set up a commission to study the issue of compensation for descendants of slaves, in particular in terms of access to land and to property which was still highly concentrated in the hands of the descendants of planters.

The most extreme injustice is undoubtedly the case of Saint Domingue, the jewel of the French slave islands in the 18th century, before their insurrection in 1791 and their proclamation of independence in 1804 under the name of Haiti. In 1825, the French state imposed a considerable debt on the country (300% of the Haitian GDP at the time) to compensate the French owners for their loss of slave property. Threatened with invasion, the island had no other choice but to comply and to repay this debt which the country dragged like a millstone until 1950, after multiple re-financing and interest paid to French and American bankers. Haiti is now requesting that France refund this iniquitous tribute (30 billion Euros today, which does not include the interest) and it is difficult not to agree with them. France refuses all discussion on the subject of a debt which France had imposed on Haitians (as a fine) for having wanted to put an end to their slavery. The payments made from 1825 to 1950 are well documented and are not challenged by anybody. Today compensation payment is still being made for spoliation which occurred during the two world wars. There is inevitably a risk of creating a huge feeling of injustice.

The same applies to the question of street names and statues, like that of the slave trader which has just been torn down in Bristol. Of course, it will not be easy to fix a frontier between the good and bad statues. But just as for the re-distribution of property we have no other choice than to trust to democratic discussion to endeavour to fix rules and criteria which are just. All refusal of discussion amounts to perpetuating injustice.

Over and above this difficult but necessary discussion concerning compensation we must also, and primarily, turn to the future. To repair the damage done to society by racism and colonialism we must change the economic system and establish a foundation of reduction of inequalities and equal access for all women and men to education, employment and property ownership (including a minimal heritage), independent of origins, for both Black people and Whites alike. The present mobilisation which brings together citizens of all backgrounds can contribute thereto.

Thomas Piketty
Thomas Piketty (7 May 1971) is a French economist who works on wealth and income inequality. He is a professor (directeur d'études) at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), associate chair at the Paris School of Economics and Centennial professor at the London School of Economics new International Inequalities Institute.

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