Monday, February 24, 2020


Article Index

F. The Impact of Moral Outrage on African Reparations

In assessing the potential for slavery reparations, the impact of international moral outrage on the success of Holocaust reparations should not be overlooked. For that reason, the likelihood of reparations for African states may be expected to be directly proportional to its similarity with the Holocaust situation. On its face, it appears that the Africans have suffered to a similar degree under slavery and colonization as did the Jews under the Nazis. Certainly, the dual horrors of slavery and colonization oppressed and subjugated a comparable number of persons as the Nazi Holocaust. The duration of that suffering was also far greater that the six years of World War II. Therefore, the carnage of slavery and colonization can be fairly characterized as an African Holocaust.

However, there may be a fundamental difference in the lack of intent to harm the African people in the same way the Nazis intended to harm the Jews. There were certainly legitimate political and economic reasons for the countries in the West to engage in colonization. No European country could afford to withdraw unilaterally from the race to colonize, or fail to utilize fully new colonies through slave labor without sacrificing its own security at home. It is much more difficult for courts or countries to accept an assignment of moral culpability when there is no clear evidence of malice. At most, the colonial powers are guilty of recklessly disregarding the interests of the African states when pursuing their own survival.

Likewise, a significant difference exists between the Allied Powers laying blame on a handful of surviving Nazi leaders and laying blame on generations of their own ancestors. This point helps to illustrate precisely why the reparations issue, particularly in a courtroom setting, tends to exaggerate tensions. If the issue was raised entirely in a political setting, the West would have room to maneuver. It could empathize with the descendants of former colonial subjects and propose measures to offset the lingering effects of colonization without necessarily making a formal apology or publicly accepting blame. Similarly, proponents of the reparations movement could obtain the economic relief they seek in the form of debt forgiveness with much less opposition from the West, assuming African states forego a formal apology and acknowledgment of wrongdoing by European nations. By keeping their options open in treaty negotiations, the Western and African states can reduce tensions and concentrate on a realistic evaluation of the merits of the reparation claims and the secondary benefits of, for instance, a stabilized African market for European goods.

However, when the issue is presented in the form of litigation, the stakes are raised. Even though the parties can still negotiate a settlement, any settlement is, at least in the eyes of the observing public, both an admission of responsibility and an acknowledgement of the moral legitimacy of the reparations cause in proportion to the amount of the settlement. In litigation, the parties are engaged in a type of formalized battle that removes political alternatives. The motivation to fight for the cause itself and to win a moral victory in the form of a formal apology is more likely to move to the forefront in litigation. Likewise, the slave-trading states will be encouraged to avoid an apology at all costs in order to prevent any admission of guilt.The net effect is that each side will be more likely to be consumed by the desire to hold the moral high ground, or to obtain a perceived moral victory or vindication at the expense of the real objectives. For the African states, there is a greater risk that tempers will flare, as they did at the World Conference Against Racism. As a result, they will not receive the debt forgiveness they so desperately need. The West, of course, wants to put the entire issue to rest, but not at the price of its dignity and cultural heritage. England, for instance, even in its post-colonial state, is not prepared to sacrifice the legacy of the British Empire because of the nostalgic sentiments and feelings of national identity that underlie the retention of its monarchy. Similarly, the United States has reason to fear that a settlement with African states regarding slavery could open the floodgates to reparation actions by African American descendents of former slaves in the United States.

There may be some very good arguments for why the West should not be held responsible for colonization and slavery. Of course, no Western democracy that considers itself to be morally sophisticated would ever make such arguments. An open defense of slavery would have the same public consequences as a defense of the Nazis. However, it is not entirely clear that slavery or colonization is a transcendent moral evil comparable to the extermination of the Jews, for which all people at all times should be held accountable. Slavery was a thriving institution long before the United States or the Roman Catholic Church existed. It did not become morally reprehensible until we, as a civilization, decided it was morally reprehensible. In the United States, that recognition of the reprehensibility of slavery took four bloody years of Civil War and a constitutional amendment. The remnants of colonization lasted even longer.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law


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