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Political Theory Today

Janna Thompson, Should Current Generations Make Reparation for Slavery?

Should Current Generations Make Reparation for Slavery?

Janna Thompson


The British Parliament banned the slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery in the British Empire in 1833. France abolished slavery in its colonies in 1848, and slavery in America officially ended in 1865. But its legacy remains. Slavery profoundly affected the modern world. It brought prosperity to European countries and the United States. It devastated many African communities and reduced others to dependency, sowing the seeds that later led to the European colonisation of Africa. It produced racially divided nations scarred by a history of prejudice, discrimination, distrust and fear. It fuels conflicts about history and national identity. Generation after generation of citizens have inherited the effects of slavery and its aftermath. ‘The past is never dead’, as William Faulkner once wrote. ‘It’s not even past.’

What should we do about the legacy of slavery? An answer gaining currency in recent years is that citizens of former slave-trading or slave-owning societies and beneficiaries of slavery should make reparation to the descendants of slaves and to communities that have been harmed by slavery and the slave trade. The World Conference Against Racism (2001) ruled that reparation to Africa for the slave trade and colonialism should at least be a topic for discussion. Heads of governments in the Caribbean established a commission in 2013 to mount a moral and legal case for reparation for slavery and other injustices of former colonial powers. The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparation in America (N’COBRA) has been campaigning for reparation for slavery since 1987.

Demands for reparation are dismissed by most European and American leaders and rejected by many citizens. Why should present people take responsibility for a wrong that happened so long ago? How can descendants of slaves be entitled to reparation for slavery? And how do we determine how much (if anything) is owed?

Should current generations make reparation for slavery? The answer in this book is ‘yes they should’. But a case for reparation invites a critical response. Do you think that current generations owe reparation for slavery? Read this book and make your judgement.