Compensation Counts

An Activist Speaks on Reparations and the UN Conference Against Racism

Of the factors reportedly keeping the Bush administration from embracing an upcoming international summit on racism, the discussion of compensation for descendants of slaves has apparently bitten the dust. The administration's eagerness under any circumstances to submit its domestic policies to worldwide scrutiny seems dubious. Still, the U.S. threat to skip the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, beginning August 31 in Durban, South Africa, was enough to strike reparations from the official agenda at a negotiation session two weeks ago in Geneva, Switzerland. More concessions are likely to come.

In an interview with the Voice, Adjoa A. Aiyetoro—founding member of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA), former director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, and former staff attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department—reacts to the reparations rollback and raises some issues the Bush camp doesn't want brought up.


What does the reparations movement want?One, we want an acknowledgment of the horrific and inhumane transatlantic slave trade, of slavery, and of the vestiges of that. And two, we want some reparations that address the continuing vestiges of the transatlantic slave trade and of slavery.

You participated, as a nongovernment observer, in the most recent negotiations in Geneva over wording of the official document to be ratified at the UN conference. Before then, a large coalition of Third World nations seemed determined to keep reparations on the final agenda. What changed?There are some who are backing down, but there are some who are not. There was a strong group, led by the United States and Great Britain, that said they would not support reparations language, and that group remains. But there was also a strong group that supported it, including the Africa group, all of the Latin American countries, and the Asia group. It was split along the basis of color.

What happened last week is, the term "compensatory measures" remains in brackets;it's not an official part of the agenda. South Africa has not backed off of reparations. Nigeria has not backed off of reparations. The Africa group has not unanimously backed off of reparations. Reparations is not off the table. That is where the mainstream press has really gotten it distorted, and I'm sure that distortion has been created in no small part by the United States government.

Some reports say that the reparations issue died when its critics raised the existence of non-European slave traders as a compromising factor for your side. Do they have a point?The United States and Great Britain want to hide behind other forms of slavery to absolve themselves of having to deal with their own involvement in one of the most heinous crimes against humanity in history. We're not saying there was no other involvement of any other people; we all know there were some African individuals, and perhaps some African governments, that were in collusion with those who enslaved us. Does that mean that those who enslaved us are no longer guilty? If I were kidnapped from my house by my neighbor, and my neighbor's friend held the door open for him, does that mean my neighbor is not guilty?

How would reparations work? Who would pay, and who would receive?That all has to be worked out. In addition to paying the African descendants of slavery some token monetary awards, as have been given to the Japanese and Jewish communities, there should be, most importantly, structural changes. The biased drug laws in the U.S. criminal punishment system have to be eliminated. We have to look at whether we could ever have a death penalty that could be devoid of racism in this country. We have to look at what kinds of changes are needed in terms of structures of wealth, health care, voting rights—elements of self-determination.

Are reparations advocates, as your critics say, living in the past?There's a fundamental principle that what you don't resolve in history will come back to haunt you. You cannot address the current conditions of African Americans without looking at what created those conditions in the past.

Look at the criminal punishment system. The federal Sentencing Commission itself said there is little reason for the difference in sentencing structure for powder cocaine and crack cocaine, and the only real thing that it does is create and maintain a racial imbalance in who we are prosecuting and sending to prison. That's the federal Sentencing Commission, not a left-of-center organization that's attempting to get reform of the criminal punishment system. In the period of slavery, laws were created that targeted people of color. There is a continuing disparity in the severity of punishment.

Look at racial profiling. It continues the slave codes where a black person could not walk down the streets and not be stopped to make sure that he or she was either on official business of the master or had his or her official papers. In the black codes that went after slavery, the laws that dealt with vagrancy were specifically targeted at the black community. They didn't stop young white people from hanging out without any visible means of engagement. They stopped black people. We continue that all the way up until today. The police are not stopping white people driving BMWs; they're stopping black people who are driving BMWs.

Look at the economic situation, the gap in wealth between blacks and whites. Less wealth has been transmitted to blacks. For more than 350 years, my ancestors worked in the hardest of labor and received no remunerations for it. When they were, in quotes, freed, by the 13th Amendment, they brought nothing into this so-called free life but their own bodies.

The 40-acres-and-a-mule legislation did not pass. The efforts of ex-slaves arguing for a pension for freed Africans went by the wayside. So when you look at wealth in this year, you can't look at it from the perspective of what the black people have not been able to do today. In fact it is a credit to Africans and their descendants that despite the horrific conditions under which we were forced to live in slavery and after, we have come as far as we have.

How large is the reparations movement?It started as a movement that was very large back at the time of the ending of slavery. The leaders of the ex-slave pension effort counted upwards of 600,000 members. Marcus Garvey led a movement that included reparations, and there were thousands of people who joined that movement. At the founding of N'COBRA in 1987, there was a strong core of people—most of them identified as nationalist, but some of us, like myself, identified as being leftist. And there were some liberal and even conservative black folks. We have brought in organizations such as the NAACP, the National Bar Association, civil rights groups, almost all of the U.S. congressional black caucus. Now that the movement has been embraced by mainstream black America, it's growing by leaps and bounds. It now has become a critical mass.

What is the future of the reparations movement beyond Durban?We're working to develop lawsuits, some against the United States government, and we're looking at corporate defendants. This movement didn't start with the Durban conference, and it's not going to end with the Durban conference.

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