Radical History Review 87 (2003) 5-18
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The Rise of the Reparations Movement
Reparations—for the transatlantic slave trade, slavery, sexual slavery, genocide, colonialism, apartheid, disfranchisement, and the multiple other forms of racial discrimination and exploitation—has surged to the forefront of antiracist advocacy in the black world, particularly in the United States. It offers an innovative and compelling way to move beyond inadequate and besieged civil rights discourses, to revive black-led global anticapitalist and anti-imperialist projects, and to radically intervene in the discourse of globalization. Indeed, in light of the expansion of international juridical forums and precedents, the recent rise of reparations is inseparable from the rise of globalization. The philosophical and tactical brilliance of reparations lies in its synthesis of moral principles and political economy. If the crimes and depredations inflicted on African nations and African descendants over centuries have relied on strategies of dehumanization in the service of power, profit, and conquest, then the efforts to identify, halt, and redress them must insist on explicit acknowledgment and repudiation of such strategies, alongside comprehensive material efforts to indemnify them. Rather than a retreat into narrow nationalism, as many have cast(igated) it, reparations represents the culmination of a long African American human rights struggle.
The biggest achievement in the rapidly growing reparations movement was the 2001 (finalized in 2002) declaration of the United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance that "slavery and the transatlantic slave trade are a crime against humanity." This document vindicates the long labors of Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, Monroe Trotter, Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, Mary McLeod Bethune, William Patterson, Audley [End Page 5] Moore, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Imari Obadele to use international bodies and the collective power of African and Asian nations to force the West to confront its own history. In the United States, the World Conference against Racism has drawn heightened attention to reparations initiatives already underway. The Reparations Coordinating Committee (RCC) and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA), working on behalf of 35 million American descendants of enslaved Africans, is preparing to file class action lawsuits against agencies of the federal and state governments. Reparations litigation against private corporations alleged to have profited from slavery has already begun. On March 25, 2002, in a U.S. district court in Brooklyn, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann and other plaintiffs filed suit against Aetna Life Insurance Corporation, FleetBoston Financial Services, and CSX Incorporated, a railroad giant, on the grounds that they "knowingly benefited from a system that enslaved, tortured, starved and exploited human beings." 1
Still, reparations is not a new demand in African American advocacy. In the nineteenth century, many former slaves expressed the view that the slave system constituted a theft of labor, life, and liberty that demanded an accounting. After the Civil War, landownership constituted a major goal of the former slaves who strongly supported the confiscation, division, and redistribution of large plantations. There were several federal attempts to do this, the most famous being General Sherman's Field Order #15, which divided plantations along the Atlantic Coast into forty-acre parcels to be distributed to 40,000 emancipated workers. However, these efforts to construct a foundation for a free labor system in the South—which were not necessarily motivated by a desire to compensate the former slaves for expropriated labor—were later reversed or defeated. In contrast, many slaveholders received compensation for the loss of their slave "property." The U.S. government compensated slave owners on the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and Haiti was forced to pay $150 million in compensation to the French after it achieved independence.
The federal government's betrayal of a promise to transfer land to the former slaves became a foundational story in the oral history of Reconstruction passed down in black families and communities into the twentieth century. Deadria Farmer-Paellmann—the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit against Aetna and the researcher who discovered that the company had written life insurance policies on...