The African American Warrant for Reparations: The Crime of European Enslavement of Africans and its Consequences

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/21/2009

Richard America(1993) told us in his brilliant monograph Paying the Social Debt: What White America Owes Black America that reparation for Europe's enslavement of Africans in the United States is an idea whose time has arrived. Almost a decade before the powerful book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (2000) written by Randall Robinson, America's book laid out the economic bases of the debt owed to African Americans. While the argument for reparations is a Pan African one, we are most interested in this essay with the discourse surrounding the enslavement and its consequences in the American society. There are those who will immediately say that the people of the United States will never accede to reparations. I am of the opinion that the discussion and debate surrounding reparations has never occurred until recently in any serious way and therefore this essay is offered as an attempt to raise some of the philosophical ideas that might govern such a discourse. Randall Robinson's The Debt has been one of the most popular and important books written on the general subject so far because he has captured the warrants for reparations in very clear and accessible language. What he has demonstrated is that while a paralysis of national will may exist at the present time, there is no lack of national guilt and interest in this theme. There is every reason for the United States to shape and frame the culture of reparations that shall become an increasingly powerful moral and political issue in the twenty first century. The highest form of law exhibits itself when a system of law is able to answer for its own crimes. Nothing should prevent men and women of moral and political insight from making an argument for an idea whose legitimacy is fundamental to our concept of justice. We must act on the basis of our own sense of moral rightness.

When Raphael Lemkin started in l933 to gain recognition of the term "genocide" as a crime of barbarity few thought that it would soon become the language of international law. When genocide was adopted as a convention in 1948 with an International Criminal Court to serve as the home for judging genocide it was a victory for those who had fought to put genocide on the world agenda. My belief is that the current discussions about reparation undertaken by scholars, political activists, and the United Nations will advance our own plan to place reparations at the front end of the agenda for redress for African Americans.

The Grounds of the Argument

The argument for reparations for the forced enslavement of Africans in the American colonies and the United States of America is grounded in moral, legal, economic, and political terms. Taken together these terms constitute an enormous warrant for the payment of reparations to the descendants of the Africans who worked under duress for nearly 250 years. The only remedy for such an immense deprivation of life and liberty is an enormous restitution.

When one examines the nature of the terms amassed for the argument for reparations it becomes clear that the basis for reparations is interwoven with the cultural fabric of the American nation. It is not un-American to seek the redress of wrongs through the use of some form of compensatory restitution. For example, the moral terms of the argument are made from the concept of rightness or righteousness as conceived in the spiritual and religious literature of the American people. One assumes that morality, based in the relationship between humans and the divine as well as between humans, constitutes a normal warrant for correcting a wrong, if it is perceived to be a wrong, in most cases. Using legal terms for the argument for reparations one relies on the juridical heritage of the American nation. Clearly, the ideas of justice and fair play while often thwarted, distorted, and subverted are representatives of the legal ideal in American jurisprudence. Therefore, the use of legal terms for the reparations argument is not only expected but it is also required for any thorough appreciation of the need for America to deal with the internal question of reparations. The Great Enslavement itself showed, however, how legal arguments could be turned upside down to defend an immoral and unjust system of oppression. Nevertheless, justice is a requirement for political solidarity within a nation and any attempt to bring it about must be looked upon as a valid effort to create national unity.

Of course, we recognize that justice may be both retributive and restorative. In one instance, it seeks to punish those who have committed wrong; in the other, it concerns itself with restoring to the body politic a sense of reconciliation and harmony. I believe that the idea of reparations, particularly as conceived in my own work, is a restorative justice issue. The economic case is a simple argument for the payment to the descendants of the enslaved for the work that was done and the deprivation that was experienced by our ancestors. To speak of an economic interest in the argument is typically American and an issue that should be well understood by most Americans. Finally, the political term is wrapped in the clothes of the American political reality. In order to insure national unity reparations should be made to the descendants of Africans. It is my belief that the underlying fault in the American body politic is the unresolved issue of enslavement. Many of the contemporary problems in the society can be thought of as deriving from the unsettled issues of enslavement. A concentration on the political term for reparations might lead to a useful argument for national unity.

Why Reparations?

One of the ironies of the discourse surrounding reparations for the enslavement of Africans is that the arguments against reparations for Africans are never placed in the same light as those about reparations in other cases. This introduces a racist element into the discourse itself. For example, even if a racist thought it, one would rarely hear the question, "Why should Germany pay reparations to the Jews?" Or "Why should the United States pay reparations to the Japanese who were placed in concentration camps during World War II?" If someone would even try to make arguments against those forms of reparations the entire corpus of arguments from morality, law, economics, and politics would be brought to bear on them. Furthermore, they would be embarrassed to have even thought those irreverent thoughts in the first place. This is as it should be in a society where human beings respect the value of other humans. Only in societies where human beings are considered less than humans do we have the opportunity for enslavement, concentration camps, and gas chambers. It might be observed that when humans are considered the same as other humans then the questioning of reparations becomes moot. We expect all of the arguments for reparations to be used in such cases. This is why the recent rewarding of reparations to the Jews for the Nazi atrocities is considered normal and natural. Any situation where humans are given the same values as other humans would result in a similar response. In Nazi Germany, Jews were considered inferior and had Germany won the war, any thought of reparations to Jews would have been unthinkable. It is because Nazi Germany lost the war and other humans with different values had to make decisions about the nature of reparations. One can make the same argument for the Japanese who lost their property and resources in the American West. A new reality in the political landscape made it possible for the Japanese to receive reparations for their losses. Eminent African and Caribbean scholars such as Ali Mazrui, Dudley Thompson, and others have argued for an international examination of the role the West played in the slave trade and the consequent underdevelopment of Africa. This is a laudable movement and I believe it will add to the intensity and seriousness of the internal discourse within the United States.

A strong sense of moral outrage has continued to activate the public in the interest of reparations. In early 2001 a lawsuit brought against the French National Railroad in the Eastern District of New York Court charged the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer with transporting 72,000 Jews to death camps in August 1944. The case was brought to the court on behalf of the survivors and heirs. Another French court held that French banks that hoarded assets of Jews had to create a fund of 50 million dollars for those individuals with evidence of previous accounts (New York Times, June 13, 2001, A-14). Similarly, on May 30, 2001, the German Parliament cleared the way for a 4.5 billion dollar settlement by German companies and the government to survivors or heirs of more than one million forced laborers. This is in addition to much larger awards to Israel and the Jewish people for the holocaust itself. The Swiss government has agreed to pay 1.25 billion dollars to those Jewish persons who can establish claims on bank accounts appropriated during World War II.

Whenever people have been deprived of their labor, freedom, or life without cause, except their race, ethnicity, or religion, as a matter of group or national policy, then they should be compensated for their loss. In the case of the Africans in the American colonies and the United States, the policy and practice of the ruling white majority in the country was to enslave only Africans after the 1640s. Prior to that time there had been some whites who had been indentured as servants and some native peoples who were pressed into slavery. However, from the middle of the 17th century to 1865, only Africans were enslaved as a matter of race and ethnic origin (Schuchter, 1970, pp. 210-211).

A growing consensus suggests that some form of reparations for past injustice on a large scale should not be swept under the table. We have accepted the broad idea of justice and fair play in such massive cases of group deprivation and loss; we cannot change the language or the terms of our contemporary response to acts of past injustice. Our recognition of reparations in numerous other cases, including the Rosewood, Florida and the Tulsa, Oklahoma, burning and bombing of African American communities in the early l920s, means that we must continue to right the wrongs of the past so that our current relationships will improve.

The Enslavement

Africans did not enslave themselves in the Americas. The European Slave Trade was not an African enterprise, it was preeminently and solely a European enterprise in all of its dimensions: conception, insurance, outfitting of ships, sailors, factories, shackles, weapons, and the selling and buying of people in the Americas. Not one African can be named as an equal partner with Europeans in the slave trade. Indeed, no African person benefited to the degree that Europeans did from the commerce in African people. I think it is important to say that no African community used slavery as its principal mode of economic production. We have no example of a slave economy in West Africa. The closest any scholar has ever been able to get to describing a slave society is the Dahomey kingdom of the 19th century that had become so debauched by slavery due to European influence that it was virtually a hostage of the trade. However, even in Dahomey we do not see the complete denial of the humanity of Africans as we see in the American colonies.

Slavery was not a romantic system; it was evil, ferocious, brutal, and corrupting in all of its aspects. It was developed in its greatest degree of degradation in the United States. The enslaved African was treated with utter disrespect. No laws protected the African from any cruelty the white master could conceive. The man, woman, or child was at the complete mercy of the most brutish of people. For looking a white man in the eye the enslaved person could have his or her eyes blinded with hot irons. For speaking up in defense of a wife or woman a man could have his right hand severed. For defending his right to speak against oppression, an African could have half his tongue cut out. For running away and being caught an enslaved African could have his or her Achilles tendon cut. For resisting the advances of her white master a woman could be given fifty lashes of the cow-hide whip. A woman who physically fought against her master's sexual advances was courting death, and many died at the hands of their masters. The enslaved African was more often than not physically scarred, crippled, or injured because of some brutal act of the slave owner. Among the punishments that were favored by the slave owners were whipping holes where the enslaved was buried in the ground up to the neck, dragging blocks that were attached to the feet of men or women who had run away and been caught, mutilation of the toes and fingers, the pouring of hot wax onto the limbs, and passing a piece of hot wood on the buttocks of the enslaved. Death came to the enslaved in vile, crude ways when the anger of the psychopathic slave owner wanted to teach other enslaved Africans a lesson. The enslaved person could be roasted over a slow burning fire, left to die after having both legs and both arms broken, oiled and greased and then set afire while hanging from a tree's limb, or being killed slowly as the slave owner cut the enslaved person's phallus or breasts. A person could be placed on the ground, stomach first, stretched so that each hand was tied to a pole and each foot was tied to a pole. Then the slave master would beat the person's naked body until the flesh was torn off of the buttocks and the blood ran down to the ground.

I have written this brief description to insure the reader that we are not talking about "mint juleps and Sunday afternoon teas" with happy Africans running around the plantation while white people sang and danced. Africans on the plantations were often sullen, difficult as far as the whites were concerned, hypocritical because they would smile on command and frown when they left the white person's presence, and plotting.

It is not my intention to enter the debate over Phil Curtin's numbers, except to say that I find the numbers quite conservative given the estimates made by other scholars and given the fact that Curtin has demonstrated a penchant for minimizing African agency. Curtin's estimate of the number of Africans brought to the Americas is 15 million. The figure has reached as high as 100 million in the estimation of some scholars. I believe that the numbers are only important to ascertain just how deeply the European Slave Trade affected the continental African economic, social, physical, and cultural character. However, for purposes of reparations the numbers are not necessary since there can be no adequate compensation for the enslavement and its consequences. The broad outline of the facts is clear and accepted by most historians. We know for instance that the numbers of Africans who landed in Jamaica and Brazil were different from those of Haiti and the United States. Yet the establishment of concrete numbers, that is, workable numbers in these cases and in the United States, is rather easy. I believe it is necessary to ascertain something more about the nature of the African's arrival in the American nation. What I mean is that at the end of the Civil War in l865 there were about 4 and a half million Africans in the United States which means that there had been a steady flow of Africans into the American nation since the 17th century. These Africans and their descendants constitute the proper plaintiffs in the reparation case. Hundreds of thousands of Africans labored and died under the reign of enslavement without leaving any direct descendants. We cannot adequately account for these lost numbers but we can account for most of those who survived the Civil War and their heirs. In fact, some of the l87,000 who fought in the Civil War did not survive, but their descendants survived. These also constitute a body of individuals who must be brought into the discussion of reparations. Thus, two classes of people, those who survived after the Civil War and their heirs and those who fought and died in the Civil War and their heirs are legitimate candidates for reparations. Indeed, the consequences of the residual effects of the enslavement must be figured in any compensation.

The Nature of the Loss

One of the issues that must be dealt with is, how is loss to be determined? Since millions of Africans were transported across the sea and enslaved in the Caribbean and the Americas for more than two centuries, what method of calculating loss will be employed? It seems to me that loss must be determined using a multiplicity of measures suited to the variety of deprivations that were experienced by the African people. Yet the overarching principle for establishing loss might be determined by ascertaining the negative effects on the natural development of people. What this means to me is that the physical, psychological, economic, and educational toll must be evaluated. What were the fundamental ways in which the enslavement of Africans undermined not only the contemporary lifestyles and chances of the people but also destroyed the potentialities for their posterity? I believe all of the issues of educational deficit, economic instability, poor health conditions, and the lack of estate wealth are directly related to the previous conditions of Africans in this system. Nothing can produce a collective national will but a redressing of the enslavement of African people.

Reparations and the Quest for National Will

Given the fact that African Americans constitute the largest single ethnic-cultural grouping in the United States and will maintain this position into the future, reparations for the enslavement of Africans will have positive benefits on the American nation. African Americans number approximately 35 million people. Occasionally one reads in the newspaper that the Hispanic or Latino population will soon outstrip the African population in the United States. This is an imprecise way of rendering statistics based on the United States census. While it is true that taken together in the aggregate the number of Spanish speaking Americans will soon outnumber the absolute number of African Americans. However, this is misleading because the Spanish speaking population includes more than twenty different national origin groups, plus individuals who identify with African, Caucasian, and Native American heritages. One finds, for example, among the Spanish-speaking population people from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, and numerous South American countries. Many of these people will self identify as white; others will self identify as black or African.

Africans are an indispensable part of the American nation: history, culture, philosophies, mission, and potential. It is insane to speak of America without the African presence and yet the deeper we get into the future the more important the nature of the relationship of Africans to the body politic will become. Reparations would insure: (1) recognition of the Africans' loss, (2) compensation for the loss, (3) psychological relief for both blacks and whites in terms of guilt and anger, and (4) national unity based on a stronger political will. These are intrinsic values of reparations.

Toward a Basis for Reparations

Reparations are always based on real loss, not perceived loss. Human beings must have been moved completely off of their own terms and against their wills forcibly and without mercy in order for reparations to be required. Take the case of the Japanese Americans who were taken from their homes in California and other western states during World War II. They were removed against their wills from their homes, their property confiscated and their children taken out of schools. The Japanese Americans lost in real terms and were consequently able to make the case for reparations. Their case was legitimate and it was correct for America to respond to the injustice that had been done to the Japanese Americans.

The case of the Africans in America has some of the same characteristics, but in many ways is different and yet equally significant as far as real loss is concerned. What is similar is the uprooting of Africans against their wills by a people who had determined that the African people were the natural target for human slavery. Also similar is the definition that whites created for Africans as culturally and intellectually inferiors. From this standpoint it was easy to brutalize, humiliate, and enslave Africans since, as whites had argued, blacks were inferior in every way. What is different about the reparations case for African Americans is that it is much larger than the Japanese American situation, it has far more implications for historical transformation of the American society, and it is rooted in the legal foundations of the country. I think it is possible to argue for reparations on the following grounds: (1) Forced migration, (2) Forced deprivation of culture, (3) Forced labor, and (4) Forced deprivation of wealth by segregation and racism. However, these four constituents of the argument for reparations are buttressed by several significant factors that emerged from the experience of the enslaved Africans. In the first place , Africans often lost their freedom because of their age. Most of the Africans who were robbed from the continent of Africa were between the ages of 15-20 years. This was therefore the robbery of prime youth. A second factor is based on the loss of innocence where abuse, physical, psychological, and sexual, was the order of the day in the life of the enslaved African (Williams, 1961). Thirdly, one has to consider the loss in transit that derived from coffles and the long marches, the dreaded factories where Africans were held sometimes as long as seven months while the Europeans waited for a transport ship, and the severe loss of life in transit where death on board the ships or in the sea further deprived a people. Fourthly, the factor of loss due to maimed limbs, that is, the deprivation of feet, Achilles tendons, and hands.

Thus, to have freedom, will, culture, religion, and health denied and deprived is to create the most thorough conditions for loss. The Africans who were enslaved in America were among the most deprived humans in history. It is no wonder that David Walker wrote in 1829 that the enslaved Africans were "the most abject" people in the world. The corollary to that statement was that "the White Christian Americans" were the most cruel and barbarous people who have ever lived.

The Reparations Remedy

One way to approach the issue of reparations is to speak about money but not necessarily about cash. Reparations will cost; it is not free. But it will not have to be the doling out of billions of dollars of cash to individuals although it will cost billions of dollars. While the delivery of money for other than cash distributions is difference from most other reparations agreements, it is possible for reparations to be advanced in the United States by a number of other options. Among the potential options are educational grants, health care, land or property grants, and a combination of such grants. Any reparation remedy should deal with long-term issues in the African American community rather than be a one-time cash payout. What I have argued for is the establishment of some type of organization that would evaluate how reparations would be determined and distributed. For example, the National Comission of African Americans would be the over-arching national organization to serve as the clearinghouse for reparations. The National Commission on African Americans would interrogate the reparations as a more authentic way of bringing the national moral conscience to bear on the education of African Americans. Rather than begin in a vacuum, the NCAA would consider various sectors of society, education, health and welfare, or economics and see how Africans were deprived by two and a half centuries of enslavement. For example, by the time Africans were freed from bondage in l865, whites had claimed all land stretching from sea to sea, and had just about finished the systematic "cleansing" of Native Americans from the land, pushing thousands to Oklahoma in the Trail of Tears or as in the case of the Oneida to Wisconsin in a trail of sorrow. Furthermore, there were already 500 colleges teaching white students a white self-esteem curriculum, this during a time when it was a crime for Africans to learn and illegal for whites to teach Africans to read or to write. One likely answer to the reparations issue is free public and private education to all descendants of enslaved Africans for the next one hundred and twenty three years, half the time Africans worked in this country for free. Students who qualified for college would be admitted and have all of their expenses covered by the government. Those who qualified for private schools would get government vouchers to cover the costs of their education.

The present educational deficit is not an individual deficit but a collective and national deficit. This is not the same as saying that Kim Su or Ted Vaclav came to this country and could not read, but they made it. Immigrants who choose to come to America are in no ways enslaved and they have different orientations and reasons for their own lives and support, even if only emotionally, from their countries of origin and often find here in the United States sympathetic citizens. Our coming was different and our struggle was epic because we were brought on slave ships and often worked nearly to death and where we did not die we wrote elegant and passionate phrases in our hearts and minds about justice and love. We African Americans are the children of the ones who could not be killed by the sun- produced heat-strokes, the bitter cold that gave us frostbitten hands and feet, the overseers lashes, the lynch mob's ropes, the stone thrower's venom, the bloodhounds' pursuits, or the petty violence of verbal and emotional abuse.

Despite the curious attempt to claim for all Americans the same heritage and the same history, the record of the country speaks for itself. From education to prison, the evidence of racial bias in interpretation of data as well as in the data themselves show that African Americans have been treated unfairly due largely to the previous condition of servitude. Thus we have been underdeveloped by the very society that supposedly set us free.

The bottom-line in race relations in the United States is the unresolved issues surrounding the institution of slavery. At the root of this irresolution is the belief that Africans are inferior to whites and therefore do not deserve compensation for labor or anything else. Indeed, it is this feeling that fuels the attacks on reparations for Africans as well. How whites feel about the condition of servitude forced on blacks and how we feel about that condition or how we feel about the attachment of whites to the perpetration of that condition are the central issues affecting race relations in this nation. Once we have overcome the problem of slavery we will have discovered the basis for reparations and indeed the end of guilt and anger.


Richard America (1993) Paying the Social Debt: What White America Owes Black America. Westport, Ct.: Praeger.
New York Times, June 13, 2001, A-14
Randall Robinson (2000) The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. New York: Dutton.
Arnold Schuchter (1970) Reparations: The Black Manifesto and Its Challenge. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
Eric Williams (1961) Capitalism and Slavery. New York: Russell and Russell.

African symbol