By C. ben-David
“I have said in the past – and I’ll repeat again – that the best reparations we can provide [Black Americans] are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed” (Barack Obama, August 2, 2008).
In a controversial pamphlet that appeared in many American college newspapers in 2001, highly published author and Guggenheim Fellow, David Horowitz, lists “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery are a Bad Idea for Black People — And Racist Too” that generally apply to St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) as well. Though the reparations movement was always dead on arrival in the United States, as the opening quote from Obama suggests, and moving at a snail’s pace in the Caribbean, it is still high time Vincentians heard a counter-narrative to polemical prattle from Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of SVG, and Mr. Jomo Thomas, Speaker of the SVG House of Assembly.
For the sake of argument, if nothing else, here is my heavily borrowed adaptation of Horowitz’s points:
- There was no single group responsible for slavery. African slavery was well established long before the post-Columbian trans-Atlantic trade in human cargo. This foundation was the springboard, beginning in the early 16th century, for Africans and Arabs to attack, capture, enslave, and transport captives to coastal holding facilities from whence they were shipped here and elsewhere in the Americas. But even at home, Chatoyer, our so-called “national hero,” is reputed to have owned slaves, a common practice in many places in the New World long before Christopher Columbus landed in The Bahamas in 1492. Are reparations to be extorted from the descendants of all these disparate people, too? Equally important, the Atlantic slave trade and the institutionalisation of Caribbean bondage, as heinous as these now seem by contemporary moral and legal standards, were protected by private-property contract law, not crimes against humanity, when they were carried out. The Holocaust, to which Black slavery is speciously compared by reparation supporters, breached even the racist Nuremburg laws of Nazi Germany, which is why it was carried out with such secrecy.
- There was no single group that benefited from Black slavery. The claim for Vincentian reparations is premised on the false assumption that only White people benefited from slavery. The fruits and legacy of slave labour created wealth not just for White people in Great Britain and SVG but for Black slavers in Africa, and Black and mixed-race Vincentians as well, some of whom also owned slaves. Even the descendants of slaves benefited from the infrastructure and other development that slavery brought with it, including access to land and a diverse array of vocations. The long-term result is that per capita GNP of SVG is now higher than most of the West and Central African countries that exported slaves to our country. How many of our Black people would gladly accept repatriation — one of the laughable demands of CARICOM’s 2014 “Ten Point Action Plan for Reparatory Justice” — to their ancestral homelands?
- Only a small minority of White Vincentians and hardly any in Great Britain ever owned slaves. On a per capita basis, actual slave owners in Britain and SVG were far and few between. Why should the descendants of those who had little association with slavery, as well as the millions of Black people now living in Great Britain who migrated there from the Caribbean and Africa, owe a “full formal apology” — the most important CARICOM demand since it carries with it the full weight of contemporary legal liability — to Black Vincentians? Why also should the millions of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Asia who now live in Great Britain be held accountable for the sins of long dead Englishmen?
- SVG is today a multi-ethnic nation, many of whose citizens have no direct or indirect connection to slavery. Most of the slave owners who actually lived here soon returned home to Britain, often after their estates proved unprofitable or fell into bankruptcy. Since Emancipation in 1838, waves of free Blacks, East Indians, Portuguese, and poor Whites from Barbados, people with no connection to or direct benefit from slavery migrated to SVG as indentured or free workers. Why should the descendants of these people, along with more recent migrants from Syria, Lebanon, Taiwan, and China, plus white retirees from North America, be implicated in the reparations movement or, worse still, seen as benefiting from the unproven “legacies” of Vincentian slavery.
- The historical precedents used to justify the reparations claim do not apply. The historical examples generally invoked to justify the reparations claim are payments to: (1) Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, (2) Japanese-Americans interred during WWII, (3) African-American victims of racial experiments at Tuskegee University, and (4) Aboriginal children forced to attend Indian Residential Schools in Canada. Black slavery reparations would be the only known case of compensation to people who were not immediately affected as individuals. Any comparison to the Holocaust is particularly outrageous because its goal was to murder as many Jews and other “undesirables” as possible as quickly as possible, a criminal offense under German law, while the aim of slavery was to keep as many Black people as possible alive so they could breed as much as possible and have their productive labour exploited as much as possible under what was a perfectly legal system.
- The reparations argument is based on the unfounded claim that the people of SVG and the country as a whole continue to suffer from social pathologies and economic adversity directly caused by slavery. No evidence-based attempt has been made to prove that Black people now alive in SVG have been adversely affected by a slave system that was voluntarily terminated by Great Britain nearly 200 years ago. But there is plenty of evidence that the allegedly historically-determined hardships visible today are ones that tens of thousands of Black Vincentians were able to overcome. Our Black middle- and upper-class form a prosperous cohort that keeps on growing in size and wealth. Much of this growth has occurred over one or two generations as a result of hard work, innate intelligence, and ambition. The Black middle- and upper-classes in the diaspora are even more prosperous: Black West Indians in America have average incomes equivalent to the average incomes of Whites (and nearly 25 percent higher than the average incomes of American-born Blacks). How is it that slavery adversely affected one large group of descendants but not the other? Doesn’t this say that extant social and economic adversity are a product of self-inflicted, poverty-enhancing, life-style choices like single motherhood and indifferent parenting, a trait identified by the Prime Minister as adversely affecting our well-being as a people, and character flaws such an unwillingness to “get up and get,” a negative trait pointed out decades ago by Sir James F. Mitchell? These personal traits are certainly exacerbated by the comparatively poor economic conditions and meagre opportunities for advancement in our country that only tiny geographical size and a lack of valuable resources can actually And why does the presence of the adverse effects of slavery vary so much from one ex-slavery Caribbean country to another if not because of different post-slavery social and economic conditions?
How can any government or tribunal be expected to agree with demands said to be rooted in a slave system that disappeared 20 generations ago based on unsubstantiated assumptions and no hard evidence? Or should we — the court of public opinion — the British government, and any manner of civil or criminal court, blindly accept, without any supporting evidence, Prime Minister Gonsalves’ (post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy) assertion that, “… the legacies of underdevelopment which exist today … are undeniably [my italics] traced to native genocide and African slavery?”
- The reparations claim is just another attempt by greedy politicians and radical intellectuals to control the minds Black Vincentians by collectively labelling and falsely stigmatising them as hopeless losers unable to overcome the adversity of a system of bondage that ended so long ago. This sense of grievance and entitlement is neither a constructive nor healthy message for Black and pretend-black leaders to be sending to our people. To focus our passion and energy on what some long dead White people — with the direct help of thousands of Black Africans without whom the slave trade could never have flourished — did to our ancestors nearly 200 years ago will re-victimize us with a crippling sense of inadequacy. As for the politicians, their beggar mentality is surely a post-slavery affliction.
- Reparations to SVG have already been paid. The hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure development, direct aid, trade and tariff preferences on agricultural products, and migration opportunities since the end of slavery have more than compensated for any material loss our people may have suffered because of slavery.
- What about the debt we Black people owe to SVG? Slavery existed for thousands of years in most societies before the Atlantic slave trade was born. But in the 225 years of its existence in SVG, there was never an anti-slavery movement in the world until white Christians — Englishmen and Americans — created one. If not for the righteous anti-slavery zeal and military power of white Englishmen and Americans, the slave trade would not have been brought to an end. Meanwhile, slavery is still alive and well today in several African countries. Where is the gratitude of our pro-reparation leaders for the gifts of freedom, past and present, including our democratic laws and Constitution, not to mention a world-class system of education (currently being dismantled in the name of a bogus “education revolution” for whose deficient legacy concerned parents should be suing the government), Great Britain has bequeathed to us? Who could deny that Black people in SVG are far better off in every possible way than their counterparts in much of Africa, including countries that were never colonised by European powers?
- The Caribbean reparations movement is an attempt by Black politicians to scapegoat the former European colonial powers for what are their own homegrown shortcomings. There is no better way to hide the many failures of contemporary leadership — the continued impoverishment of so many people; high unemployment and underemployment; poor medical care, treatment, and health outcomes; inadequate infrastructure (including filthy schools full of mold and broken windows); sky-high indebtedness; high crime rates; etc. — than to blame them on the sins of our British colonial masters. Why is SVG still a relatively poor country by global standards? Slavery. Why is the country so much in debt? Slavery. Why is there so much sexual abuse? Slavery. Why can’t a bright young woman with 10 subjects find a job? Slavery. Why are there so many young Black men in prison? Slavery? Why did I butt my neighbour’s husband? Slavery.
What is the solution to these seemingly intractable problems? Reparations, including “debt cancellation,” another outrageous CARICOM demand meant to absolve our leaders of the sin of profligate spending only meant to keep them in power.
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