Facing racism, repairing history

Carmela Gross, HORSE, BANDO series, 2016
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By THOMAS PIKETTY*

To repair society from the damage of racism and colonialism, it is necessary to change the economic system

The wave of mobilizations against racism and discrimination poses a crucial question: that of reparations in the face of a colonial and slave-owning past that definitely does not pass. Whatever its complexity, the issue cannot be avoided forever, neither in the United States nor in Europe.

At the end of the Civil War, in 1865, Republican Lincoln promised emancipated slaves that after victory they would obtain “a mule and 40 acres of land” (about 16 hectares). The idea was to compensate them for decades of mistreatment and unpaid work and allow them to face the future as free workers. Had it been adopted, this program would have represented large-scale agrarian redistribution, mainly at the expense of large slaveholders.

But once the fighting was over, the promise was forgotten: no compensation text was adopted, and the 40 acres and the mule became the symbol of Northerners' deception and hypocrisy – so much so that [film] director Spike Lee used the expression ironically to name their production company. The Democrats regained control of the South and enforced segregation and racial discrimination for another century, until the 1960s. Again, no compensation was enforced.

Strangely, however, other historical episodes gave rise to different treatments. In 1988, Congress passed a law granting $20.000 to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Compensation was applied to people still alive in 1988 (about 80.000 people out of 120.000 Japanese Americans interned from 1942 to 1946), at a cost of $1,6 billion. A similar compensation paid to African-American victims of segregation would have a strong symbolic value.

In the United Kingdom and France, the abolition of slavery was always accompanied by National Treasury compensation [paid] to landowners. For “liberal” intellectuals like Tocqueville or Schoelcher, it was a no-brainer: if we deprive these owners of their property (which, after all, was acquired in a legal context) without fair compensation, then where would we end up on this dangerous escalation? As for former slaves, they had to learn freedom by working hard. They were entitled to nothing but the obligation to enter into long-term employment contracts with landlords, the lack of which would lead to imprisonment for vagrancy. Other forms of forced labor were applied in the French colonies until 1950.

When the British abolition [of slavery] in 1833, the equivalent of 5% of the national income of the United Kingdom (today 120 billion euros) was paid to 4.000 owners, with an average remuneration of 30 million euros, the origin of many fortunes still visible today. Compensation was also applied in 1848 to the owners of [Island of] Réunion, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Guyana. In 2001, during the debates surrounding the recognition of slavery as a crime against humanity, Christiane Taubira unsuccessfully tried to convince her fellow deputies to create a commission charged with reflecting on compensation for slave descendants, in particular with regard to access to land and property, always very concentrated among the descendants of the planters.

The most extreme injustice is undoubtedly the case of Saint-Domingue, which was the jewel of the French slave islands in the 18th century, before revolting in 1791 and proclaiming its independence in 1804 under the name of Haiti. In 1825, the French state imposed a considerable debt on the country (300% of Haiti's GDP at the time) to compensate French landowners for the loss of slave holdings. Threatened with invasion, the island had no choice but to comply and pay this debt, which the country dragged like a shackle until 1950, after many refinancings and interest paid to French and American bankers.

Haiti is now asking France to return this unfair tax (30 billion euros today, not counting interest), and it's hard not to agree. By refusing any discussion of a debt that the Haitians had to pay to France for wanting to stop being slaves, when the payments made from 1825 to 1950 are well documented and are not contested by anyone, and that compensation for the spoliations that took place during the two world wars, there is inevitably a risk of creating an immense sense of injustice.

The same goes for the issue of street names and statues, like the one of the slave trader that was recently pulled down in Bristol. Of course, it won't always be easy to draw the line between good and bad statues. But, as with the redistribution of property, we have no choice but to rely on democratic deliberations to try to establish fair rules and criteria. To refuse discussion is to perpetuate injustice.

Well beyond this difficult but necessary debate on reparations, we must also and above all look to the future. To repair society from the damage caused by racism and colonialism, it is necessary to change the economic system, based on the reduction of inequalities and equal access for all to education, employment and property (including through a minimum inheritance), regardless of origins, for both blacks and whites. The mobilization that today brings together citizens from all over the world can contribute to this.

*Thomas Piketty is director of research at Ecole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and professor at Paris School of Economics. Author, among other books, of Capital in the XNUMXst century (Intrinsic).

Translation: Aluisio Schumacher [posted on website Major Card]

Originally published in the newspaper Le Monde [https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2020/06/13/thomas-piketty-affronter-le-racisme-reparer-l-histoire_6042710_3232.html]

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