Molefi Kete Asante
The African American Warrant for Reparations: The Crime of European Enslavement of Africans and Its Consequences
Until lions have historians, hunters will be heroes.
- Kenyan Proverb
In his 1993 monograph Paying the Social Debt: What White America Owes Black America, Richard America makes a forceful argument that reparation for Europe's enslavement of Africans in the United States is an idea whose time has arrived. Almost a decade before the powerful book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, written by Randall Robinson in 2000, America laid out the economic bases of the debt owed to African Americans. While the argument for reparations is a Pan-African one, we are most interested in this essay with the discourse surrounding the enslavement and its consequences in the American society. There are those who will immediately say that the people of the United States will never accede to reparations. I am of the opinion that the discussion and debate surrounding reparations has only recently occurred in any serious way; therefore, this essay is offered as an attempt to raise some of the philosophical ideas that might govern such a discourse.
Randall Robinson's The Debt has been one of the most popular and important books written on the subject so far because he has captured the warrants for reparations in very clear and accessible language. What he has demonstrated is that while a national paralysis of will may exist at the present time, there is no lack of national guilt and interest in this theme. There is every reason for the United States to shape and frame the culture of reparations that shall become an increasingly powerful moral and political issue in the twenty-first century. The highest form of law exhibits itself when a system of law is able to answer for its own crimes. Nothing should prevent men and women of moral and political insight from making an argument for an idea whose legitimacy is fundamental to our concept of justice. We must act based on our own sense of moral rightness.
When Raphael Lemkin started in 1933 to gain recognition of the term "genocide" as a crime of barbarity, few thought that it would soon become the language of international law. When genocide was adopted as a convention in 1948 with an international criminal court to serve as the home for judging genocide it was a victory for those who had fought to put genocide on the world agenda. My belief is that the current discussions about reparation undertaken by scholars, political activists, and the United Nations will advance our own plan to place reparations at the front end of the agenda for redress for African Americans.
The argument for reparations for the forced enslavement of Africans in the American colonies and the United States of America is based in moral, legal, economic, and political grounds. Taken together these ideas constitute an enormous warrant for the payment of reparations to the descendants of the Africans who worked under duress for nearly 250 years. The only remedy for such an immense deprivation of life and liberty is an enormous restitution.
When one examines the nature of the terms amassed for the argument for reparations it becomes clear that the basis for them is interwoven with the cultural fabric of the American nation. It is not un-American to seek the redress of wrongs through the use of some form of compensatory restitution. For example, the moral ideas of the argument are made from the concept of rightness as conceived in the religious literature of the American people. One assumes that morality based in the relationship between humans and the divine provides an incentive for correcting a wrong, if it is perceived to be a wrong, in most cases. Using legal ideas for the argument for reparations, one relies on the juridical heritage of the United States. Clearly, the ideas of justice and fair play, while often thwarted, distorted, and subverted, characterize the legal ideal in American jurisprudence. Therefore, the use of legal strategy in securing reparations is not only expected but required by Africans receiving compensatory redress for their enslavement. The Great Enslavement itself showed, however, how legal arguments could be twisted to defend an immoral and unjust system of oppression. Nevertheless, justice is a requirement for political solidarity within a nation and any attempt to bring it about must be looked upon as a valid effort to create national unity. Simply put, no justice, no peace.
Recognizing that justice may be both retributive and restorative, it seeks to punish those who have committed wrong and it concerns itself with restoring to the body politic a sense of reconciliation and harmony. I believe that the idea of reparations, particularly as conceived in my own work, is a restorative justice issue.
The economic case is a simple argument for the payment to the descendants of the enslaved for the work that was done and the deprivation that was experienced by our ancestors. To speak of an economic interest in the argument is typically American and an issue that should be well understood by most Americans. Simply put, Africans in America are owed back wages for nearly 250 years of uncompensated work by their ancestors and another 130 years for laws and behavior that continue to affect them economically.
Finally, the political aspect of reparations is wrapped in the clothes of the American political reality. In order to insure national unity reparations should be made to the descendants of Africans. It is my belief as well as that of others that the underlying fault in the American body politic is the unresolved issue of enslavement. Many of the contemporary problems in society can be thought of as deriving from the unsettled issues of enslavement. A concentration on the political term for reparations will lead to a useful argument for national unity.