Can reparations for slavery ever be a reality?

OPINION - As Caricom moves forward with its specific mission, it has to address why the general consensus is resistance to the very idea that those of African descent should be compensated in the first place...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

With the latest announcement of plans by the Caribbean Community Reparations Commission, an association of eight Caribbean governments, to move forward in seeking reparations from Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Norway and Sweden for slavery and genocide, the reparations discussion has been reignited, with many wondering if little or any success will come from the effort.

After all, few African-descended initiatives of this nature have succeeded. To ensure a better outcome, Caricom, as the group is known, has hired the British law firm Leigh Day which got hundreds of Kenyans, who were tortured by the British colonial government in the 1950s and 1960s, a reported settlement of £4.5 million.

While Leigh Day has not won any settlements for reparations of this nature, it is not unprecedented action. In 1989, President H.W. Bush signed legislation making way for the United States to pay out more than one billion dollars to over 110,000 Japanese it placed in “War Relocation Camps” during World War II following Pearl Harbor. Through the Luxembourg Agreement of 1952, Germany has paid out over $70 billion for the Holocaust.

These settlements are indeed possible, but efforts by African descendants to get reparations have fallen short. Various calls for French restitution to Haiti for the monies it was forced to pay after successfully defeating the French in what is arguably the only successful slave uprising on this side of the world has resulted in no such action.

From 1825 to 1946, Haiti paid what is estimated to be $21 billion in today’s monetary value, despite winning the war. But because France had more political currency, they could determine the terms even though they lost. Given Haiti’s ongoing challenges since its official independence in 1804, that sum could surely have gone towards developing its nation and assisting its own population instead of greening French coffers. This travesty is certainly one that Caricom has prioritized.

But, with all the undisputed information about the injustices committed against those of African descent, especially in the Caribbean whose current population is largely the result of the slave trade, why haven’t the European powers involved paid up? Britain alone brought over 3.1 million Africans between 1662 and 1807, when it ended its participation in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Even those who point to the role some Africans played in the kidnapping of other Africans who were enslaved throughout various parts of the world are forced to acknowledge that those Africans did not benefit as substantially as European nations like Portugal and Spain, who used slave labor to establish long-lingering footprints in what was then the New World to them.

Most Caribbean and African nations have been under their own rule for just half a century and are only recently celebrating such milestones in the aughts. In fact, African descendants dominate the Caribbean now because of the slave trade. With well less than a hundred years of self-government, how is it possible for previous colonial powers not to compensate these nations?

Yes some enjoy friendly relationships with their former colonial governments and informally receive financial support, but does that filter to the average person in these nations? Does it help these nations compete on a larger scale?

In the U.S., talks of reparations are rarely taken seriously despite longstanding efforts to attain them. Former slave Callie House was a leader in the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, launched in the 1890s, that specifically targeted $68 million collected in taxes on Confederate cotton during the Civil War to compensate ex-slaves. But even with this targeted focus, House found herself incarcerated on trumped-up charges of fraud.

As Caricom moves forward with its specific mission, it has to address why the general consensus is resistance to the very idea that those of African descent should be compensated in the first place. When we know that slaves were forced to perform back-breaking labor for free, as well as frequently beaten, tortured and raped, why are reparations an issue? When we know that Africa was drained of its people and that many didn’t even survive the Middle Passage, why are talks about reparations treated as folly? In fact, someone thought it funny to falsely report that France had agreed to pay reparations to Haiti.

The truth of the matter may be that entirely too much money is involved. If European nations like France, Britain, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands in particular began to tally up their crimes and place a price on them, the amount might truly bankrupt them. How does a nation measure its debt to another it developed through such grave exploitation and continued to rule through colonialism? How does a nation compensate another for the millions of dreams it deferred or potential it cut short for centuries, not decades? Where would Africa be today had not her greatest resource—her people– become the foundation for enriching nations beyond imagination?

Right now Caricom, which will be led by St. Vincent Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves in 2014, plans to negotiate with these nations but will seek legal action if necessary. If they are successful, the ripple effect could be huge, inspiring India, Brazil and many, many others to follow suit. If they do not succeed, it will sadly be more of the same. Somehow the world consensus is that the conditions of these nations today are not tied to past atrocities [and some could argue ongoing atrocities] and therefore deserve no redress. At the end of the day, more than money is at stake.

Getting people, let alone nations who have been ingrained with the belief that African descended people are less than equal to Europeans, to believe that African descendants deserve compensation is the battle that has to be waged and won before any financial restitution will even be considered.

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha