Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Slavery: Blame, Guilt, Liability and Reparation

I am probably coming to this issues 7-8 years too late, but my interest was piqued as is often the case by an article by Naomi Klein in 'The Guardian' newspaper's magazine last Saturday. The article was about the racial policy of US President Barack Obama. It appears some people feel he has let down blacks in the USA or African-Americans as they tend to be called there now. I think a lot of people both black and white had fantastical expectations of what Obama wanted to achieve and certainly what he could achieve. At the time of the election I discussed the issues with some white Americans who were convinced the moment Obama came to power that the USA would somehow turn into Zimbabwe with blacks in control and the country facing hyper-inflation. It showed the lack of faith they had in democracy in the USA, its political checks and balances and also their ignorance of how established cultural attitudes are in the USA. This persistence of cultural attitudes now seems to be upsetting black Americans who appear to have expected Obama's government to have over turned decades of racism in a few months and suddenly open up vast opportunities for people. I suppose part of the problem is that Americans believe that the USA is a classless society and the 'land of opportunity' whereas in fact it has never been either of those things. I think Obama is moving fast to reform the USA and even if he simply gets his health care programme passed he will have gained an enduring place in history. However, as I have commented on before, there is harsh, hysterical reaction even to Obama's plans and it is clear that he will have to battle hard to get even this one policy into operation let alone achieve any greater changes in the USA.

Klein's article asked 'Has Obama turned his back on black America?', but immediately notes that even trying to introduce a Hispanic judge to the Supreme Court caused reactions that Obama was being racist towards the USA's white population. As I have noted before, this appears strange in itself to Europeans who would never consider white people from Spain and Portugal to be anything different from a white person from France or Germany. To some degree, the racial stratification that the USA so easily falls into betrays its history and a language which for so long used very precise racial categorisations, e.g. terms like mulatto or octoroon to define how many black ancestors a person had (in fact, portrayals of Obama still subscribe to this definition of a person by their blackness rather than any other racial input, because strictly Obama is not a 'black' person, he is mixed race; with one white parent).

Obama is always going to be attacked if any policy is seen as even going close to giving advantages to black people. To some degree this shows how distorted what is seen as acceptable in US politics and society as the previous president, George W. Bush was not hammered for policies that blatantly favoured the wealthy. Commentator Juan Santos argued that Obama would be compelled to remain silent about racial inequality in the USA in the way many blacks in the country are, it is a kind of contract with white society that they will be accepted if they do not stir up the issue. However hard Obama tries everything he does will be seen as Klein notes, 'through the lens of racial obsessions'. Right-wing radio presenter, Rush Limbaugh argued that Obama was wrecking the US economy (and he blamed the President not the global recession) so that blacks could benefit black people through more unemployment benefits and food stamps. How twisted the logic of that viewpoint is incredible. Limbaugh clearly thinks no black American can work for themselves nor have any aspirations to work, despite the number of black run businesses; he sees them as simply wanting state handouts. Such an attitude comes right out of the 1920s not the 2000s. Limbaugh is not a patriot because he disparages a large number of Americans to fit in with his distorted world view. I think this fear was summed up by the album title from rap group Public Enemy: 'Fear of a Black Planet' (1990). It is an irrational fear that denies the humanity of people no matter what their colour. However, such fears are clearly accepted and driving the actions of a whole swathe of Americans, no matter how irrational they are. I pity Obama in such a hostile environment but wish him well for the sake of millions of people.

The other thing which attracted my attention from Klein's article was her reference to the issue of reparations over slavery. Perhaps it is unsurprising that given such irrational, distorted perspectives bandied around as 'fact' in the USA by racists, that many blacks should find solace in harsh, somewhat irrational responses. The demand for reparations for slavery reached a peak in 2001-2 notably in Randall Robinson's book 'The Debt: What America Owes To Blacks' (2000) and at the Durban conference of September 2001 which Klein writes about. Robinson said that 'white society' had to 'own up to slavery and acknowledge its debt to slavery's contemporary victims'. Robinson clearly is ignorant of history. If he wants to help contemporary victims of slavery then he should travel to Middle Eastern states or China or Western Sahara where forms of slavery are still in existence. Of course, Robinson is an American, so assumes that the only things of importance happen to Americans. His use of the word 'slavery' does not refer to the pratice as it has existed in history but to a particular element of that history in the 18th and 19th centuries through which West Africans were brought as slaves to the Americas. In fact, he simply focuses on those who ended up in the territories of what is now the USA, whereas in fact more slaves went to Brazil (35.4% of the total shipped from Africa) and the Caribbean islands (18.4% to British American colonies outside North America; 17.5% to Spanish colonies which did include states that are now part of the USA, but also most of Central and South America) than to the USA (British North America got 6.45%; English-speaking America then got 3.25%; French America which included Caribbean as well as beofre the mid-18th century and briefly in the 19th century some North American regions got 13.6%), but of course being an American none of them are his concern.

Even if we stick with just the slave trade to North America, at the start of the 19th century Britain turned from being a leading slave trade nation to the most vigorous opponent of the trade and yet it was supportive of the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War 1862-5. So, should the British feel less guilt than other states because its government was proactive in ending slavery? Remember too, that to argue that white 'society' is responsible for slavery neglects the fact that Britain was not a full democracy until 1918 and states like Spain and Portugal were similarly not fully democractic until the 20th century. France was a democracy with slavery, but of course the bulk of the population of all of these states had no control over what the elites were doing especially overseas. To blame the bulk of the population of any European state when they had so little say in their states' policies is wrong. None of my family, I know for certain due to genealogical research, ever owned slaves or participated in the slave trade, so why should I 'own up to' the slave trade. Conversely, 29 kingdoms or other states in West Africa in the years of the Atlantic slave trade 1502-1853 collaborated in the export of people. Many Americans are shocked when they find that two days' walk inland from the slave ports are markets where African slaves were traded between Africans before being taken to the coast to be sold to first Arab then European traders. Should elites in West Africa, 'own up to' the involvement of their ancestors in the export of people to the Americas?

The other fact is that 'slavery' was not simply about the Atlantic slave trade. Around 40% of the Russian population before 1861, about 70-80 million people, were enslaved through the serfdom system. This compares to 3.95 million slaves in the USA in 1860 out of a total population of 31.4 million. Slavery was used in the Roman and Greek empires, by Arab states of North Africa and the Middle East, in the Chinese Empire as well as by modern European states. Of course, for modern day Americans, none of this is really that important. What matters for them is a basis for litigation. Yes, slavery was a crime against humanity, but neither the perpetrators nor the victims of the Atlantic slave trade are alive today. Yet, there has to be an emphasis on blame and resposibility even so long after the event as it is felt no debt, even a perceived moral one, can be paid in the USA unless it can be processed through legal procedures and lead to some financial settlement. This is why organisations such as the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America appeared. Whilst tabloid print and broadcast media played on the concept of payments to black individuals (how mixed race people would be addressed was not really analysed) those campaigning for 'reparations' saw group solutions. Yet, all of these approaches are based on the concept of one sector of society feeling guilt towards the treatment of another.

The bulk of people alive today in any country are the descendants of people who were exploited as workers or peasants. Millions of white Americans came from regions like Ireland and Poland where people were oppressed and the bulk of white immigrants into the USA were people fleeing economic exploitation in Russia or Italian or German states or poverty in Sweden; they were never slave owners. Why should these people feel guilt about what the elites did? Yet, for litigation in the USA there must be guilt, blame and hence liability, no matter how this ignores history. Even if you can point to a specific family involved in slavery like the Tate family of sugar producers in the UK, the people alive today are not the ones who owned or traded slaves. To try to compel the majority of white people to accept responsibility for something neither they nor their ancestors were involved with, is as distorted as me trying to sue the current government of Germany because my great-grandfather died early as a result of a poison gas attack he suffered on the Western Front in the First World War, some fifty years closer to us in time than when slavery in the USA was ended.

If we move away from the US fixation with the blame-litigation-compensation procedure, we can look more productively at persistent racism in societies and the inequalities in trade between the developed and developing worlds. Energy could be put into campaigns such as Make Poverty History, Fair Trade, the Jubilee Campaign to cancel Third World debt (which of course encompasses numerous African and non-African states), for scholarships for people for under-privileged households in the USA (and Caribbean states and Brazil) which would encompass the descendants of slaves as well as descendants of simply poor and exploited. To try to apportion blame for slavery in the past in fact distracts from critcism of current US policies and those of other states which lead to exploitation. Zimbabwe was a British colony where people were exploited but that gives no justification for how President Robert Mugabe is treating blacks and whites in that country now. To some degree seeking compensation in the narrow way that Americans consider all things it seems, no matter what their race, lets too many people off the hook for the future. If the abolitionist campaigners of the 19th century were alive today you can guarantee that they would not be bemoaning that slavery existed once, they would rejoice in the fact that it had gone and would move on to the next campaign, in many cases, I expect, they would be with those opposing capitalist exploitation. Of course, for any American to be seen as against capitalism is felt to be unAmerican, but in fact, the slavery that they are most indignant about was driven simply by capitalism's need for cheap labour that has no died, just mutated.

I accept that if an individual can show that their ancestor was exploited at the hands of another ancestor of someone today, there may be basis for compensation, but you cannot compel millions of people who had no hand in the exploitation process to be feel responsible just because a minority of people of the same ethnicity as them were involved. Even if you feel that is justified, then many black people should be compelled to feel equal guilt for supplying the individuals to slavery. If you begin to move down the path of 'racial guilt' as some of those seeking reparation seem to be doing then Mongolia had better look for the claims from those people whose ancestors suffered from the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. How many millions of dollars and how much guilt would the entire population have to pay up and feel to recompense them. By focusing on contorted issues of a kind of 'original sin' that white people cannot wash from them, we dangerously move away from attention of current suffering and real solutions that can rectify the situation. That, of course, plays into the hands of the wealthy of today, who feel offended if anyone considers reining in their current exploitation. We can remember the past and its evils, it is vital that we do so, but redistribution and opening up opportunities needs to address responsibility now not some umbrella blame for past events for which like the vast majority of white people my family had not involvement with and I feel no guilt for. Just as I was a member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in my own time, you can guarantee that in the 18th century, if I had lived, I would have been campaigning to end slavery. Reparations for slavery are a distraction tactic that pussyfoots around current US policies which are doing little to make things better for millions of people and in fact often treat West Africa little better than two centuries ago.

P.P. 16/09/2009: Interestingly, former US President Jimmy Carter, a supporter of Barack Obama, has said that he feels that opposition to Obama's reforms especially in health care stem from too many Americans not accepting that a (half-) black man can be legitimately in the White House (the so-called 'birthers' still argue that it is illegal given Obama's parentage). Whilst Obama is not going to comment on Carter's statement, I believe Carter is right and that whatever Obama did, for many people it would simply be wrong, not because of the policy itself but just by who carried it out.

The fact that Republican Senator Joe Wilson felt that it was permissible to heckle Obama with 'you lie!' during a televised address to Congress. His comment not only shows how the right feel it is legitimate to attack Obama even when doing so demeans the position of President, but how twisted they have become in their opposition to health reform. I have noted how they somehow liken it to Nazi and Soviet extermination policies and Wilson believes Obama would give free health care to illegal immigrants. Wilson has got caught up so much in the fantasy that Obama is some anti-Christ that he has forgotten all manners and has slighted the very decorum of government I assume he would have rushed to defend under Bush or if McCain had come to office. To some degree the political maturity I thought I detected when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama became the Democrat frontrunners may have been being too generous to US society.

To some degree just being who he is, is one of the greatest changes Obama has brought to the USA. Ironically, the bulk of people who whine about Obama's legitimacy would be suffering more in the current climate if John McCain had won.

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