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Why Gates is Wrong About Reparations

In a recent op-ed piece entitled “Ending the Slavery Blame-Game” in the New York Times, renowned African American literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. questions the idea that the U.S. government and corporations should pay reparations for slavery.

Professor Gates’s arguments aren’t original and they effectively absolve the U.S. and Europe of primary responsibility for slavery and other imperial crimes.

He claims that, in assigning guilt for the enslavement of some 12 million Africans, “There are many thorny issues to resolve before we can arrive at a judicious (if symbolic) gesture to match such a sustained, heinous crime. Perhaps the most vexing is how to parcel out blame to those directly involved in the capture and sale of human beings for immense economic gain.”

Why does Professor Gates find the seemingly obvious culpability of the U.S. and European colonial powers so vexing? He argues that since African kingdoms actively participated in the slave trade providing captives to the European slave traders, they share equal responsibility for the crime of slavery. Therefore, for Gates, it’s difficult to determine who should pay reparations, if anyone.

Gates looks to President Obama, given his African and American heritage, “to bridge the great reparations divide. He is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike on of the greatest evils in the history of civilization.”

While Gates never quite says so in his article, he for all intents and purposes opposes reparations because of this supposed shared guilt.

Gates has put himself in strange company. The ex-leftist and now right wing fanatic, David Horowitz, made essentially the same case against reparations in his notorious 2001 article “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks–and Racist Too.”

Horowitz’s first reason for opposing reparations is “There is no single group clearly responsible for the crime of slavery.” He argues, “Black African and Arabs were responsible for enslaving the ancestors of African Americans. There were 3,000 black slave owners in the ante-bellum United States. Are reparations to be paid by their descendants too?”

* * *

IT’S SHOCKING to say the least that Gates, a black liberal and recent victim of racist police harassment in Cambridge, Mass., should find common ground with a bottom-feeder like Horowitz who campaigns against Black Studies programs. The fact that Gates is a bedfellow with Horowitz, while it should trigger our suspicion and outrage, doesn’t refute his argument.

First of all, Gates’s main point that some African rulers were involved in the slave trade, which he presents as some new revelation, is common knowledge to anyone who has read even some of the voluminous literature on slavery.

As historian Eric Foner wrote in a letter in the New York Times:

Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes that African rulers and merchants were deeply complicit in the Atlantic slave trade. Despite Mr. Gates’s contention that “there is very little discussion” of this fact, it hardly qualifies as news; today, virtually every history of slavery and every American history textbook includes this information.

Gates is using known facts to make an absurd claim that European powers and African kingdoms have some kind of equivalent responsibility for slavery. In reality, Europe and the U.S. are primarily to blame for the horrors of slave catching, the Middle Passage and new world slavery.

Their demand for slave labor transformed the patriarchal slave system in Africa into a new and different system to supply chattel slaves for plantations. Of course, African rulers in various kingdoms participated in the process for their own purposes. So did a few thousand black slaveholders in the U.S.

To equate the main perpetrators of the system of modern slavery–the European and white American merchants and slaveholders–with its African bit players is simply illogical. It would be like equally apportioning blame between the U.S. and its puppet regime in South Vietnam for the killing of 4 million Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.

That’s ridiculous. The U.S., not its puppet, was responsible for that slaughter. In the same manner, Europe and America, not their African collaborators, hold primary responsibility for the horrendous crime of slavery.

Moreover, the vast majority of Africans and Black Americans in no way collaborated with the slave trade and exploitation of slave labor. Only a tiny number of African rulers and black slaveholders did. The vast majority of Africans and Black Americans were slavery’s victims.

Therefore, the U.S. and European states as well as the numerous corporations that participated in the slave trade should pay reparations to its Black American and African victims.

* * *

GATES’S ARGUMENT, while easily refuted, plays a pernicious role in domestic and international politics. Inside the U.S., Gates provides cover for the Obama administration’s failure to redress racial inequality in America. Black unemployment is at record levels, public education has become as segregated as it was in the 1950s, and as every study documents, Blacks face systematic discrimination in everything from housing to hiring and police harassment.

In this context, Gates decides to write a column arguing that Obama is in a special position to assert the equal culpability of whites and blacks for slavery and therefore against reparations to African Americans. Whether consciously or not, Gates strengthens the forces on the right who argue that we are in a post-racial, even post-racist, society where we don’t need special legislation and programs like reparations for African Americans and other racially oppressed groups.

Gates has joined a chorus of liberals who displace blame for conditions in Africa away from imperialism and onto African rulers. As Margaret Kimberly writes:

[S]everal years ago, Gates proudly showed the world how little he knew in the PBS documentary series “Wonders of Africa.” In the slave trade segment, Gates’s only moment of anger was directed at an Ashanti Prince. If Gates wants to wax righteously indignant, he should interrogate a member of the Brown family of Brown University. The Brown fortune was made through slavery, as were many others. Gates ought to give a Brown descendant the third degree on camera.

But Gates knows enough not to bite the hand that feeds him. Ensconced at Harvard, he’s not about to attack let alone demand reparations from the Ivy League institutions built on the backs of the slave trade. Instead, Gates wants to shift blame from its rightful place onto petty collaborators.

Bush and the right wing utterly failed to accomplish this when they bungled the debate over reparations by boycotting the Durban Conference on Racism. Gates hopes that Obama will better present the argument of equal culpability for slavery on both sides of the Atlantic to enable the U.S. to escape the demand for reparations.

Back in the real world, as Walter Rodney rightly argued in his classic book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, first the European slave trade and then colonization pushed Africa’s economic development backwards. That legacy of imperialism is largely responsible for the situation in many African countries today. No academic trickery or poetic rhetoric can obscure this fact.

But Gates’s argument for U.S. imperialism extends far beyond the case of African reparations. He’s trying to shift blame from American and European imperialism onto its victims right at the moment when demands are rising for reparations on many fronts.

African nations have called for reparations for slavery most dramatically in 2001 at the anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa. Haiti President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, before he was overthrown by a U.S.-backed coup in 2004, agitated for $21 billion in reparations from France, which forced the country it lost to a slave revolution in 1804 to pay for its loss of property–its ex-slaves.

The antiwar movement, the Iraq Veterans Against the War in particular, has raised the call for reparations for Iraq and Afghanistan for the destruction of those two societies. And the international movement against climate change, which recently held a summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia, just issued a demand for the industrialized world to pay climate reparations to the developing world.

In this situation, Gates is providing academic alibis for the U.S. and Europe to evade responsibility for their imperial crimes.

* * *

WE KNOW the U.S. and European governments and corporations–firms like FleetBoston Financial Corporation, Aetna Group Insurance and CSX railroad–who have the blood of slaves on their hands and profits from the slave trade in their coffers. They should be made to pay.

There is ample precedent for supporting these demands. The U.S. has made indemnity payments to Japanese Americans who were jailed in internment camps during the Second World War, to American Indians for the theft of their lands and mineral rights, and to Filipino veterans that fought with the U.S. Army during Second World War.

There’s also precedent for specific compensation for Black victims of racism. For example, in 1997, President Bill Clinton paid $10 million to Black victims and their families to compensate for syphilis experiments conducted on in 1930s by the Public Health Service.

The recipients of reparations shouldn’t be the black elite, but working-class Blacks whose slave forbears were the systems victims and who today suffer under the legacy of slavery in the form of racism and poverty. As Earl Ofari Hutchinson argues

Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan and other mega-rich blacks will not receive a penny in reparations. Any tax money to redress black suffering should into a fund for HIV/AIDS education and prevention and underfinanced inner-city public schools; should expand job skills and training, drug and alcohol counseling and rehabilitation, and computer access and literacy training programs; and should improve public services for the estimated one in four blacks still trapped in poverty.

Internationally, Africa, Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan–to name just a few–all deserve reparations from the U.S. and Europe. The struggle for reparations is a part and parcel of a larger fight to redistribute money from the bloated Pentagon budget and super-rich to the majority of society here and around the world.

If we can win reparations for slavery and imperialism, we can raise everyone’s aspirations to take the money back from those who have stolen it from us through exploitation and oppression. Contrary to the sophistic arguments of Professor Gates, the demand for reparations is therefore a key element in the fight for a whole new society that puts people’s needs before profit and empire.

ASHLEY SMITH writes for the Socialist Worker, where this originally appeared. He can be reached at:



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