Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Caribbean Reparations Initiative Inspires a Revitalization of US Movement

Don Rojas
May 26, 2014.

The headquarters of CARICOM, the Secretariat of the Caribbean 
Community, is just outside Georgetown, Guyana. 
Picture this scene. It was almost surreal, improbable just a few years ago: a room filled with presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers from the 15-nation Caribbean Community (CARICOM), all listening with rapt attention, several nodding in agreement, as one of the region's most distinguished academics, and perhaps the Caribbean's most prominent public intellectual, gave a riveting report on the recent work of CARICOM's Reparations Commission.

Yes, "reparations," as in compensation for the crimes of slavery and indigenous genocide at the hands of former European colonizers - reparations, as in reparatory justice for the horrific consequences of two of the greatest crimes against humanity in the history of this planet - the 400 years of the African Slave Trade and the systematic and calculated extermination of the indigenous peoples of the Americas - reparations, as in fundamental and comprehensive social, economic and political justice, indeed, historical justice for the descendants of African slaves and native American peoples.

This scene played out in the conference room of the beautiful Buccament Resort on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent on March 10, 2014; the occasion - the 25th Inter-Sessional Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community.

There was applause at the end of the professor's report. Not a single dissenting voice was heard from a group of leaders whose politics ranged from conservative through liberal to progressive. The CARICOM heads of government then proceeded to unanimously adopt a 10-point program for reparatory justice for the region.

This breakthrough plan calls for a formal apology for slavery, debt cancellation from former colonizers and reparation payments to address the persisting "psychological trauma" from the days of plantation slavery.

"For over 400 years Africans and their descendants were classified in law as nonhuman, chattel, property and real estate. They were denied recognition as members of the human family by laws derived from the parliaments and palaces of Europe. "This history has inflicted massive psychological trauma upon African descendant populations. This much is evident daily in the Caribbean. Only a reparatory justice approach to truth and educational exposure can begin the process of healing. Such an engagement will call into being, for example, the need for greater Caribbean integration designed to enable the coming together of the fragmented community," stated the CARICOM Reparations Commission.
Read the rest here.
Comment: I have always been fascinated by arguments for reparations.  In large part the emphasis is based on the recognition that structural damage persists.

Detractors often express the knee-jerk reaction that reparations punish those who were not connected to the atrocities of the past.  This is a thin reading and understanding of how inequality is structured and how it persists.

That said though there is nothing really radical about a call for reparations.  In fact, reparations represent a more conservative argument for redress - where conservative is a reading bent on change within a system.

A revolution on the other hand would be the alternative in that its emphasis would be on complete systemic change or rupture.

What reparations movements often overlook is the subservience of asking beneficiaries of atrocities to fix the past and its persistent inequities.  And, when there is a measure of success the changes or fixes are almost always never enough - or even go far enough in spirit.

What we often have is a tense negotiation between political and economic interests at the very least.

The TRC in South Africa and Affirmative Action represent forms of reparations.  Most folks would be surprised by this because the colloquial understanding is of paying an agreed amount for injustices - like reparations after a war, for example.

But at its center, the reparations argument is about seeking redress.  The problems though remains the context within which the redress or remedy is to be decided.

For this reason, reparations is really not aimed at taking back the past and seizing what was lost or stolen.  More likely, reparations is dependent on keeping the system within which is agitates very much intact and drawing an approximation of benefits in the current epoch.

And, this approximation cannot be real in that it cannot exactly or even closely decide on what was lost or damaged.

How does one decide on a dollar amount for the losses and atrocities suffered as a result of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, for example?

Still, elites fighting over power in any one system will use the reparation argument to project what was lost and what is needed to remake or remedy the past.

Sadly, these same elites often miss the metaphorical boat and get lost inside the very system they are critiquing.

The outcome is that reparations is a seasonal - if you will - grab at attention that almost never goes very far from the platitudinous call for change.

Disaffected people don't need negotiated handouts is my thinking.  As Frederick Douglas once said: "power concedes nothing without a demand"

The point of argument here is not about the substance of repair that is needed but rather the systemic formula of reparations that does not nearly go far enough.


Ps. See "The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic: May 21, 2014).

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