By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 09, 2016
In academic and political lectures, when I refer to the negative psychological and economic impact slavery has had on black people, my questioners usually retort: “You have to bring up slavery again?”
The same people who object to my bringing up slavery’s impact upon black people have no objections when Jews urge their people: “Never forget!”
This raises the question: Why should black people forget about slavery when Haiti, well into the 20th century, paid reparations to France for having fought for and won their freedom? In 1825, threatening an invasion, France sent a flotilla to Haiti to compel Haitians to pay a ransom of 150 million gold francs for their freedom. It was reduced subsequently to 90 million gold francs or US$40 billion in today’s currency. In 2010, 90 leading academics, authors, and human rights activists, in an open letter to president Nicolas Sarkozy, “urged the French government to pay Haiti for the 90 million gold francs Haitians were forced to pay France for their independence” (London, Guardian, 16 August 2010).
We ask, “Why is Haiti so poor?” and why France has refused to “settle the debt that [the French] have with Haiti,” as President François Hollande promised he would in 2015. Necessarily, there is a causal connection between these two acts which many contemporary observers fail to acknowledge.
But God never sleeps as my mother used to say. From 19 to 29 January 2016, the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, at the invitation of the US Government, visited the US to examine the conditions of African Americans. On September 29 the committee presented its findings to the UN Human Rights Council pointing out the link between slavery and the continuing injustices African Americans still undergo.
In 1775, as this remarkable document noted, African Americans constituted 25 per cent of the US population. Although African Americans were granted their freedom in 1863, Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation “perpetuated political disenfranchisement, social and economic exploitation, violence and overall subjugation of people of African descent until the 1960s”.
Today, the 43 million African Americans constitute about 14 per cent of the United States population. However, for many their condition continues to be a living hell. Although crime rates have been decreasing over the last 20 years, “the federal and state prison and local jail population has soared to over 2.2 million people, with another seven million on parole or probation. African Americans are over-represented in the penitentiary system, accounting for 36 per cent of sentenced federal and state prisoners. African American women constitute 21 per cent of the imprisoned female population”.
Individuals with criminal records find it difficult to get jobs, housing, health care and welfare benefits. One-third of African American males are unable to vote because of this vicious system. In Florida, Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky one-fifth of African Americans can’t vote because of previous convictions. In Maine and Vermont, white states, even prison inmates are allowed to vote.
Even the education system is identified as a contributor to this repressive system. “In school curricula, the historical facts concerning the period of colonisation, the transatlantic trade in Africans, and enslavement…are not sufficiently covered in all schools. The curricula in some states fail to address adequately the root causes of racial inequality and injustice.”
In spite of US attempts to attend to these inhuman conditions, the report notes that “the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality…remain a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for the people of African descent”.
Just to remind its readers of the continuing hardship African Americans experience, the experts remind us: “Contemporary police killings and the trauma that they create are reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching. Impunity for State violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency”.
In its recommendations, the experts urged the US “to consider seriously applying analogous elements contained in the Caribbean Community’s Ten-Point Action Plan on Reparation, which includes a formal apology, health initiatives, educational opportunities, an African American knowledge programme, psychological rehabilitation, technology transfer and financial support, and debt cancellation”.
They also recommend that all states reinstate “the voting rights of persons convicted of a felony who have completed their sentences”. In previous presidential elections, as in this one, their votes can be decisive in terms of who becomes the president of the United States.
Conventional wisdom suggests the US will not take these recommendations seriously. That a UN report has made the link between slavery and the present condition of black people is enormously encouraging. At the very least, it reminds the descendants of slavery that we ought never to forget the tremendous injustice that was done to our foreparents.