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How Are We to Repair the Historic Damage Done by Transatlantic Slavery? Background Reading: Reparations

Festival of Ideas
Cleo Lake and Alex Renton

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Should we pay reparations now for historic slavery?

Our online event with Cleo Lake and Alex Renton explores the inheritance passed to the descendants of slave owners and of the enslaved and how to make reparations for the past.

The following provides additional material on this subject. You can also read more on the website for Alex Renton’s book.

In July 2020 Councillor Cleo Lake called on Bristol City Council to form a commission to address reparatory justice, as reported in Bristol Cable and on BBC News, but was unsuccessful. She again called for a reparations commission in September, but the council debate was dropped, as reported in the Bristol Post. In March 2021 a cross-party motion in favour of instigating an atonement and reparations plan for the city’s role in slavery was passed at an extraordinary council meeting, as reported by Bristol 24/7. It was also reported in The Journal, which included the following quotes:

‘Racism and race inequality is still an inequality and a reality that needs to be addressed. The fact that there is complexity in it should not deter us from taking a first step down that path.’ — Mayor Marvin Rees

‘It highlights the long shadows cast by slavery and racism in Bristol and how this shapes our city’s discourse about inequality and exclusion amid modern concerns about institutional racial violence and the disproportionate effect of the coronavirus on our black and brown citizens.’ — Deputy Mayor, Councillor Asher Craig who seconded the motion

‘We believe the motion risks exacerbating some divisions by promoting a binary view of the world when the reality is much more complicated.’ — Councillor Steve Smith on behalf of the Conservative group

General Background Material

There is a basic introduction to the issues relating to reparations on the CBBC Newsround website.

Slavery: What are reparations and should they be paid? CBBC Newsround, 21 August 2020

‘UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has called for rich nations to make amends for “centuries of violence and discrimination” by paying reparations.

‘She said: “Behind today’s racial violence, systemic racism and discriminatory policing lies the failure to acknowledge and confront the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism.”

‘It’s also been argued that, as slavery helped the UK become a world power, some of this wealth should be given back to the descendants or countries where the slaves came from originally.

‘People have also said that views and attitudes from the time of slavery still have an impact on the present, holding back the descendants of slaves, and so money should be given to address this problem.’

In June 2020 the Caribbean Community Reparations Commission launched its CARICOM Ten Point Plan for Reparatory Justice which outlines a proposed path to reconciliation, truth, and justice for victims and their descendants.

Links to Articles

Some of these articles will require you to register at the relevant website before you can read in full.

The Case for Reparations’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, June 2014

‘Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say — that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.

‘What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.’

What Reparations for Slavery Might Look Like in 2019′ by Patricia Cohen, The New York Times, 23 May 2019

‘When James Forman, a civil rights pioneer who later served briefly as the Black Panther Party’s foreign minister, demanded $500 million in reparations in his 1969 Black Manifesto, he grounded his argument in an indisputable fact: Unpaid slave labor helped build the American economy, creating vast wealth that African-Americans were barred from sharing.

‘The question of reparations, however, extends far beyond the roughly four million people who were enslaved when the Civil War started, as Ta-Nehisi Coates explained in an influential essay published in The Atlantic in 2014 (and noted above). Legalized discrimination and state-sanctioned brutality, murder, dispossession and disenfranchisement continued long after the war ended. That history profoundly handicapped black Americans’ ability to create and accumulate wealth as well as to gain access to jobs, housing, education and health care.

‘For every dollar a typical white household holds, a black one has 10 cents. It is this cumulative effect that justifies the payment of reparations to descendants of slaves long dead, supporters say.’

From the Magazine: ‘It Is Time for Reparations’ by Nikole Hannah-Jones, The New York Times, 30 June 2020

‘To summarize, none of the actions we are told black people must take if they want to “lift themselves” out of poverty and gain financial stability — not marrying, not getting educated, not saving more, not owning a home — can mitigate 400 years of racialized plundering. Wealth begets wealth, and white Americans have had centuries of government assistance to accumulate wealth, while the government has for the vast history of this country worked against black Americans doing the same.

‘Reparations are not about punishing white Americans, and white Americans are not the ones who would pay for them. It does not matter if your ancestors engaged in slavery or if you just immigrated here two weeks ago. Reparations are a societal obligation in a nation where our Constitution sanctioned slavery, Congress passed laws protecting it and our federal government initiated, condoned and practiced legal racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans until half a century ago. And so it is the federal government that pays.

‘Reparations would go to any person who has documentation that he or she identified as a black person for at least 10 years before the beginning of any reparations process and can trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery. Reparations should include a commitment to vigorously enforcing existing civil rights prohibitions against housing, educational and employment discrimination, as well as targeted investments in government-constructed segregated black communities and the segregated schools that serve a disproportionate number of black children. But critically, reparations must include individual cash payments to descendants of the enslaved in order to close the wealth gap.

‘The technical details, frankly, are the easier part. The real obstacle, the obstacle that we have never overcome, is garnering the political will — convincing enough Americans that the centuries-long forced economic disadvantage of black Americans should be remedied, that restitution is owed to people who have never had an equal chance to take advantage of the bounty they played such a significant part in creating.’

‘The case for British slavery reparations can no longer be brushed aside’ by Afua Hirsch, The Guardian, 9 July 2020

‘A common complaint about reparations is the alleged unfairness of burdening today’s generation with debt arising from their ancestors’ wrongs. Yet where is the outrage that my generation contributed towards the more than £300bn in today’s money notoriously paid to Britain’s slave owners for the loss of their human “property”? Their compensation under the Slavery Abolition Act – comprising an astounding 40% of the national budget at the time – was so large that it wasn’t paid off until 2015.

‘The pattern is clear. Reparations have been paid to those who profited from African enslavement, rather than those who were enslaved. As the historian Ana Lucia Araujo has written, to this day no former slave society in the Americas, no former slaves or their descendants, and no African nation, has ever obtained any form of reparations for the Atlantic slave trade.’

‘”This Is About Justice”: Biden Ties Economic Revival to Racial Equity’ by Thomas Kaplan and Katie Glueck, The New York Times, 29 July 2020

‘In an address near his home in Wilmington, Mr. Biden made the argument that racial justice is central to his overall policy vision in areas like housing, infrastructure and support for small businesses, while aiming to draw a stark contrast with a president who has regularly inflamed racial tensions.

‘The plan fell short of some of the most ambitious proposals promoted by the left wing of the Democratic Party. Mr. Biden, for instance, did not embrace reparations for slavery or endorse “baby bonds,” a government-run savings program for children championed during the primary by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. Campaign officials said Mr. Biden had not ruled out eventually accepting such a plan, and that he was not opposed to a study of reparations.

‘But the proposal he released on Tuesday did emphasize the importance of closing the racial wealth gap, and outlined multiple prescriptions for doing so.’

‘What Price Wholeness’ by Shenette Garrett-Scott, The New York Review, 11 February 2021

‘I wonder: Who makes decisions about how these dollars are spent? Who sets the priorities? More important, who benefits? New doubts and old questions remind us again of the complexities of repaying moral debts. And moral debts need to be paid. Apologies, commemorations, and plans go only so far. To be of any consequence, racial justice should be tied to thick folds of currency and the peal of hard coin.’

House Panel Advances Bill to Study Reparations in Historic Vote’ by Nicholas Fandos, The New York Times, 14 April 2021

‘The renewed interest in reparations comes as Mr. Biden has positioned addressing racial inequities at the center of his domestic policy agenda, proposing billions of dollars in investments in Black farmers, business owners, neighborhoods, students and the poor. The White House has said Mr. Biden’s $4 trillion jobs agenda is intended, in part, to “tackle systemic racism and rebuild our economy and our social safety net so that every person in America can reach their full potential.”

‘The question of reparations to former slaves and their descendants has vexed and divided policymakers for generations, caught up in larger questions about the legacy of racism in America and white denial of the crippling effects of the slave economy. It presents thorny practical questions as well, like who should benefit, what form reparations might take and how to pay for them.’

The case against reparations for slavery’ by Lionel Shriver, The Spectator, 24 April 2021

‘Because reparations would be financed by taxpayers alive today who never practised or endorsed slavery, such payments would implicitly sanction the concept of heritable guilt. (How about heritable virtue, then? A tax rebate if your ancestors campaigned for abolition or fought for the Union in the Civil War.) US taxpayers come in a rainbow of hues as well, so these public funds would not be extracted solely from evil white people — who after the shouty, poisonous aggro bound to surround such a contentious programme would be tempted to declare: ‘All right, we’ve paid you off, so shut up already. No more BLM, no more moaning about “systemic racism”. We’re square.’

The Bristol Apology Debate 2006

A public debate was held at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol on 10 May 2006 about whether the city should apologise for its leading role in the transatlantic slave trade.  

Over 500 guests attended. The event concluded with a vote as to whether Bristol should formally apologise for its role in the slave trade. By a show of hands the vote was clearly in favour of Bristol giving a civic apology. A written questionnaire was taken from the audience and results of a BBC viewer and listener poll were also announced.

Should Bristol apologise for its role in the slave trade?

The Apology Debate audience poll:
62.8 %: YES
26.2 %: NO
11 %: Unanswered

BBC Bristol telephone and website poll:
8.9 %: YES
91.1 %: NO

The debate received local, national and international coverage.

‘City agonises over slavery apology’ The Observer

‘For generations Bristolians have gloried in the beauty of their city, with its graceful Georgian terraces, grand public buildings and honey-coloured churches. But this week they face a decision that has split the city – whether to apologise for the cruel trade that paid for so much that makes it beautiful. The front page headline in the Evening Post, Bristol’s local newspaper, was in no doubt. “It’s time the city said sorry” it shouted last week. But there is no consensus on the issue; on the contrary, the debate is stirring up anger and upset.’

‘Should we apologise for the wrongs of the past’ The Observer

‘The past has shaped who we are. We should not airbrush out the complexity. The British campaigned to abolish slavery at the same time as extending the empire. My parents are Indian and Irish; I wouldn’t be here without the rise and fall of the empire or the postwar NHS and its need for immigration. But we teach too little of our history; it could do more to inform contemporary debates about both who we are and the society we want to become.’ – Sunder Katwala

‘Slavery: is it time for an apology?’ The Independent

‘Paul Stephenson, a veteran civil rights activist in Bristol, said: “The whole concept of racism as we understand it has its roots in slavery. The way it demeaned the black man as less of a human being is where the concept of inferiority of black-skinned people came from and it was supported by people and powerful sections of society. There should be an apology and it shouldn’t stop there. Reparations should be made for the city to amend for that side of Bristol’s history. Bristol is a very rich city and those riches came from slavery.”’

The mythsfactsfeelings website includes some of the comments made during the debate by members of the audience:

‘We cannot deny, the wealth that not only Bristol but Europe had gained from the slave trade. And yes we cannot deny that there were some black people involved in the slave trade also. But one of the things which we deny all the time [or] seem to fail to notice is the psychological damage which the slave trade is responsible for and which we are still reaping the legacy of today.’

A Statement of Regret by Bristol leaders was issued in 2007 with the following wording:

‘We the signatories regret wherever and whenever inhumanity is exercised, but in 2007 we especially recognise the evil of the transatlantic slave trade. We cannot imagine the pain and suffering inflicted upon millions of individuals and families and the significant changes forced upon thousands of communities in Africa, the West Indies and other places by slavers of whatever race or faith. 1807 was the beginning of the end of slavery through the passing into law of the anti-slavery bill. We give thanks for those who struggled to initiate this change and look to a time when slavery of every kind is abolished.’

In 2019 the University of Bristol created a new role: Professor of the History of Slavery. Olivette Otele was appointed to this post, which received coverage in the Evening Post. Vice-chancellor Professor Judith Squires said:

‘As an institution founded in 1909, we are not a direct beneficiary of the slave trade, but we fully acknowledge that we financially benefited indirectly via philanthropic support from families who had made money from businesses involved in the transatlantic slave trade.

‘This new role provides us with a unique and important opportunity to interrogate our history, working with staff, students and local communities to explore the University’s historical links to slavery and to debate how we should best respond to our past in order to shape our future as an inclusive university community.’

Recordings of Related Events

The Underground Railroad, 14 November 2016

Award-winning writer Colson Whitehead, author of The Intuitionist, talks about his work, in particular his novel The Underground Railroad, which chronicles a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. (The new ten-part screen adaptation of The Underground Railroad is released on Amazon on 14 May).

Legacies of Guilt, 18 October 2017

How should cities address their difficult pasts? What needs to be covered when it comes to guilt? Most important of all, how do we make sure that these debates and actions create healing and better futures for all? To discuss the issues, historian and broadcaster David Olusoga joins Madge Dresser, author of work on slavery’s legacy in Bristol; poet and performer Vanessa Kisuule; and Tim Cole, Professor of Social History, University of Bristol, whose work covers the Holocaust and how it is memorialised.

#ThereISBlackinTheUnionJack, 20 October 2017

Asher Craig (Bristol City Council), writer, broadcaster and barrister Afua Hirsch, researcher Maya Goodfellow, Omar Khan (director of the Runnymede Trust) and writer and broadcaster David Olusoga explore issues of identity, inclusion and belonging in future cities.

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, 24 April 2018

Afua Hirsch offers a personal exploration of British identity, the everyday racism that plagues our society and our troubled relationship with our history. We believe we are a nation of abolition but forget that we are a nation of slavery. We are convinced that fairness is one of our values, but that immigration is one of our problems. How can we come to terms with our past and navigate our present? Hirsch tells the story of how and why this crisis of identity came to be and discusses race and belonging with historian David Olusoga.

Stories of the Windrush Children, 4 July 2019

For the pioneers of the Windrush generation, Britain was ‘the Mother Country’. They made the long journey across the sea, expecting to find a place where they would be welcomed with open arms; a land in which they were free to build a new life, eight thousand miles away from home. Award-winning writer and editor Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff explores the reality of their experiences, and those of their children and grandchildren.

Beyond Apologies: Past Guilt and Urban Futures, 16 October 2019

Looking at the experience of how other cities have dealt with the slave trade, the confederacy, the Holocaust, and the French colonial past, among other issues, this panel brings together writers, artists, academics and activists to debate how guilty cities should feel about their past and – critically – what cities do about this to create better futures for all.

Exploring Bristol’s Past to Understand the City Today, 18 November 2020

Our panel debates public history, who is remembered and why, and how and whether cities can learn from their pasts and make change happen. Two of the members of Bristol’s History Commission, Tim Cole (Brigstow Institute and chair of the commission) and Shawn Sobers (Associate Professor, University of the West of England), join writer and journalist Jane Duffus (author of two volumes of The Women Who Built Bristol) and Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, who has been involved in a range of memorial projects. Chaired by Jessica Moody (lecturer in Public History, University of Bristol).

Watch the panel discussion on Crowdcast

Small Island Read 2007

In its fifth year, the annual Great Reading Adventure led by Bristol Ideas brought together Bristol and South West England, Liverpool and the North West, Hull and Glasgow for a mass-read of Andrea Levy’s Small Island. This widely acclaimed and award-winning novel describes the arrival in post-war Britain of Black Jamaican immigrants, the descendants of enslaved Africans. The project was linked to the 2007 commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the passing of the Slave Trade Abolition Bill. Levy’s novel addresses the themes of identity, racial awareness, forgiveness, ignorance and survival with humour, high drama, anger and pathos, making it an unforgettable read and a fitting topic for discussion in 2007. All the main cities that worked on the project had historic links to the slave trade as well as to its abolition.

50,000 free copies of a special edition of the book were distributed along with 80,000 copies of an illustrated readers’ guide giving background information about Levy, slavery and migration.

Download the Small Island readers’ guide

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