This week, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki stated that President Biden supports a study on whether the descendants of former slaves in the United States should receive reparations. The specific bill in question that calls for such a study has been awaiting a full vote by Congress for the last 30 years and has only recently been reintroduced for possible voting.
The idea behind the whole thing is as simple as it unpalatable to some. The nations of the west, at some point in their history, developed and enriched themselves off the wealth and free labour of those they enslaved. Even after slavery officially ended, the systemic disadvantages left behind in these countries and among these communities have continued to linger on to the present day. Thus, while the present-day descendants of those who were so-subjected to the inhumane practice of slavery in one form or another, while not being slaves themselves, do deserve compensation for the disadvantages so caused.
Major colonial powers have always had an uncomfortable stance regarding slavery and colonial reparations. As embodied by the UK, the general idea is to express regret but not apologise or such acts in the past. The reason is simple. Such colonial powers do not wish for such cases to become tangible with airtight legal terms of reparation. There is a general fear that any talk of reparations could come at a heavy cost to the former-colonial powers. This is one of the reasons why colonial revisionism caught on in the 19th and 20th century. Plenty of scholarly works produced with this purpose rejected the narrative of colonial powers stealing from their colonies and committing crimes against its people for generations. These colonial powers, as these thinkers stated, were a force of civilising good that brought the light of civilisation to the darker corners of the world. They contend that regardless of what costs the colonised country ultimately bore, what it received in return was priceless.
India, too, has had an experience of such revisionism where the so-called 'benefits' of the British Raj — the systems of bureaucracy, education, transport, the English language, etc., are supposed to be fair compensation for the drain of wealth and abject cruelty that India and its people were subjected to by our colonial masters. Depending on what you believe, this colonial past will continue coming in the way of India and UK building closer bilateral relations over time.
In the modern-day, even as nations have kept their silence, it became fashionable for certain private companies to confront their colonial past. These companies too set up some kind of fact-finding commission that makes promises but ultimately collapses before talks can get to the point of discussing compensations. That is not to say there has not been some success in holding companies responsible for their unsavoury past but it is true that such examples are rare and often requires the victims and evidence to still be relatively fresh.
What is needed, thus, is a more formalised, likely global answer to this problem. A global summit or specialised body may be organised to consider the specific practical aspects of how an effective system of compensation may be created. It is obviously not just about the money but the money is important too. A study done by Harvard during the pandemic claimed that adequate and timely slavery compensations made to the African American community could have reduced the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the community.
Ultimately, this is a problem that must be confronted by all parties, those that are guilty and those that were the victims. While the colonial powers can ignore or procrastinate on such issues with the hope that no legal base for such issues can be formed, this is not a long-term solution. There is an elephant in the room and looking away does not make it disappear. What is needed is a serious global conversation.