International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Restorative Justice and the Legacy of African-American Slavery (1619-1865)

Last week in class the legacy of the African-American slave trade was briefly mentioned.  Does the United States (government, society and/or people) remain responsible for reconciling the vast human rights atrocities that occurred on US soil and continued for over three centuries through the oppressive Jim Crow and the Civil Rights eras?

This weekend I was listening to an NPR piece (part of the series “The Race Card Project”) that related the story of a woman in search of her slave owning family’s past.  The woman explains her guilt and disintegrating pride in her family history.  “At first this seemed OK to me because it was OK to her [the woman’s grandma],” the woman said. “But eventually I understood that the domination of another person’s free will was unacceptable.”

The piece prompted me to investigate issues of restorative justice as related to slavery in the US.  What does the US owe generations of slave decedents or the children of the victims of Jim Crow lynchings and Civil Rights violence?  What healing is needed and in what form (formal, informal, etc.) should such healing and reconciliation occur?  How might this healing improve current race/society issues?

In investigating these questions, I came upon an interesting research paper by Michael F. Blevins of the St. Thomas University School of Law (2005).  Blevins seeks to investigate the question, “Is it a strategic time to move forward with renewed commitment to ascertain more fully the truth about the realities and effects of slavery in the United States?” Blevins sets the complexities of the history of American slavery in current race and social theory, and religious and cultural movements.  Perhaps worth a read for those interested in restorative justice within the US (and questions regarding the temporality of this type of justice).

(On a related note, the recent award winning film, 12 Years a Slave, has highlighted many of these questions, and sparked an onslaught of socio-political articles on “movies about slavery” and depictions of American slavery more generally.  While the film itself could be considering an act of truth-telling and healing, it has also sparked heated conversations regarding the legacy of slavery, “white guilt,” etc.  My readings brought me to this one conversation posted in Sojourners, a faith meets social justice community site.  Many of the accounts are very personal and opinionated providing a first-hand look at how members of various communities (faith, race, and otherwise) struggle with the implications of an unresolved past.)

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2 responses to “Restorative Justice and the Legacy of African-American Slavery (1619-1865)

  1. aoforiappiah January 22, 2014 at 6:55 am

    It seems that more often than not, reparations are brought into the discussion of making amends for slavery, as a form of reconciliation or restorative justice. That being said, I do not think that the U.S. government will ever issue reparations simply for descendant of slaves. The Huffington Post has a pretty elaborate article by a professor outlining what he thinks reparations should look like. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/darron-t-smith-phd/a-new-case-for-african-am_b_4345768.html
    First, he proposes that education for African Americans and their offspring should be equally funded and that they should receive a free public college education. Second, they should receive free health care. Finally, “all blacks should be exempt from federal taxes for a minimum of 346 years or until the poorest black American has equal parity with the poorest white American in terms of employment, income, wealth accumulation, and improved educational and health-related outcomes.”
    When I first read this article I wasn’t quite sure if the author was being facetious, but it turns out the author is being quite serious. He definitely brings up good points: the failures of funding for the public education system, inequitable access to healthcare, lack of economic prosperity, etc. There are undeniable institutional failures. However, I think he is unfairly simplifying the problems of the black community. His plan simply isn’t feasible, and he’s basically proposing to put a Band-Aid on the problems of the black community. Interestingly, he concludes that “This three-part plan will allow black Americans the time to heal their communities and regain some sense of control and destiny in their lives.” He seems to think that reconciliation would be a byproduct of such a plan.
    Congressman John Conyers has a plan that is a bit more feasible. http://conyers.house.gov/index.cfm/reparations
    Conyers wants to establish a commission that investigates the effects of slavery, the subsequent racial discrimination, and the impact today. He does not explicitly propose reparations, at least not in the monetary sense. The bill has gradually gained more traction. Conyers thinks the hesitancy to pass the bill is analogous to the initial reluctance in passing the MLK holiday bill. He also believes its garnered opposition because some think slavery should be left in the past. So I guess one impediment to reconciliation and restorative justice for slavery and discrimination are those who claim it shouldn’t be discussed; it is one thing to not want to be involved in the conversation, but another to obstruct others’ efforts to have a dialogue. I do think such a commission would be a step in the right direction, especially for those who are products of Jim Crow. Those who feel they have been unfairly treated more recently would add to the dialogue as well.
    And, 14 nations of the Caribbean are suing Britain, France, and the Netherlands for reparations. Ironically, some are still members of the Commonwealth. I do question the extent to which compensating descendants of slaves would solve the endemic problems of slavery’s legacy. That being said, what might be a more effectual means of restorative justice for descendants of slaves? Dialogue, efforts toward reforming institutions, tracing ancestry, healing? Does one pave the way for the other?
    http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21587236-pressure-grows-compensation-caribbean-trade-blood-money
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2451891/14-Caribbean-nations-sue-Britain-Holland-France-slavery-reparations.html
    I also wonder why there is not as much blame placed on Africa. There is an overwhelming amount of blame directed to the West, but Africans are responsible as well, and they do acknowledge their complicity. African Presidents have apologized. An African American business man was able to trace his ancestry to Cameroon, and the head chieftain for the Cameroonian town of Bakou signed a statement of apology. Such encounters suggests that one form of reconciliation or restorative justice for slavery consists of going to the source, Africa; that being said, this isn’t feasible or desirable for everyone. And for those who are looking for material compensation, Africa really isn’t an option.
    http://www.nbcnews.com/science/descendants-genetic-quest-leads-african-apology-8C11467842

  2. jhgmitch January 22, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    The US obviously has not given the descendants of slaves any money, partly because slavery was legal at the time, and politically speaking monetary reparations is extremely unpopular idea and exists on the fringes of public discourse. The US has made progress relatively recently in granting “symbolic” reparations and doing more to honor the terrible price blacks paid for slavery. Apologies and symbolic reparations were hardly forthcoming. Only some Southern states (Maryland, Virginia, and Florida) have formally apologized. http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1603581,00.html http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/27/us/27florida.html And it was only in 2008 when Congress formally apologize for slavery and Jim Crow. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93059465 But Washington, of course, is where the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th-15th Amendments also came from; and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1800s, Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the 1960s. They even decided to start observing an official “Black History Month” (which is embarrassing: black history is American history). The most important project happening right now is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will be given a prominent location on the National Mall. http://www.nmaahcproject.com/ But big federal projects, which are mostly retrospective, raise the question: What can state and local governments do for communities who still feel victimized by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, and by racism still held privately by some members of society?

    The failure of the political movement for monetary reparations is in direct contrast to the unimaginable political success of affirmative action. Supporters of affirmative action, which includes most mainstream Democrats–though fewer and fewer liberals in my generation embrace the controversial policy–argue for affirmative action in language similar to arguments for reparations: the argument is basically that only affirmative action can undo the structural legacy of slavery. This argument is okay as far as it goes, but it does not make sense why some “minorities” (Latinos–who are mostly as white as I am) are grouped in with African-Americans under this policy and other minorities are not; it is also impossible to justify the appalling treatment of Asian-Americans under affirmative action. They too faced Jim Crow-esque discrimination in the 1800s and early 1900s as well as detainment (for Japanese) during the Second World War. Meanwhile, affirmative action practitioners and supporters have turned Asians (like the Jews in the 1960s) into victims of their own success. The very question of what is a minority–is it a racial group? an ethnic gorup? a cultural group? do recent African immigrants count as “black”? etc–and the question of why the minority rights movement has privileged certain minorities over others are important questions.

    A major theme of this course is that justice–what it is, who it should be given to, and by whom–is often more a political question than a legal one. Certainly the demands for justice for the descendants of slaves made by white and black activists are politically motivated; skeptics and opponents of these activists are also influenced by their political ideologies. It is concerning how human rights law has become a major tool for radicals and activists working to promote the interests of a specific minority or subgroup. Gay people have perhaps achieved the most success in western countries (see: Lawrence v. Texas, United States v. Windsor, and numerous laws). But the gay rights movement is only one high-profile and politically popular example. The “trans rights movement” and other movements which have sought to capitalize on the success of the gay rights movement face more political (and even legal) obstacles. Advocates for conservative interpretations of international law, and of U.S. constitutional law, will always be seen as anti-progressive and insensitive. However, it is worth asking whether it would not be better if major decisions about what is just and unjust–which aren’t just decisions but victories for some and defeats for others–are made by accountable, democratically elected bodies rather than by federal judges, Justices, or the international community.

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