Stanford Review - Archive - Volume XXVII - Issue 3 - Opinion
US Correct to Boycott Racism Conference
by Chris Desmond
The World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia And Related Intolerance (WCAR), sponsored by the UN and held in Durban, South Africa, fell apart after the US and her allies failed to convince Arab League states to rescind demands for offensive language about Israel in the conference declaration. This is sad not merely because of the irony of an anti-racism conference harboring racist motives, but also because it denied African and Western nations the opportunity to hold meaningful talks about reparations for slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Nations in Africa, with the notable exception of Nigeria and Senegal, have been pushing for an apology and reparations from the United States and the European Union for the slave trade. They have even partially succeeded: the EU offered a modest apology for colonialism and slavery during WCAR, but steadfastly avoided mentioning any form of recompense. While this is an honorable gesture, the United States should not follow suit.
No European state ever meaningfully practiced African slavery at home, hence they stand to lose less from such an apology. The United States, before and after her independence, was home to millions of slaves for over two hundred years. Spurred on by WCAR, many black leaders here are now pushing for reparations for slavery, with plans ranging from individual cash payments to African-American families, to infusions of funds into community building programs, urban revitalizations, and education. Estimates of damages run from 100 billion to nearly one trillion dollars.
The more reasonable among these leaders point to the current status of blacks in the United States and ask that money be used to fund programs to lessen inequality here. Currently, the median household income of blacks in this country is around 60 percent of what it is for whites, and only fifty percent of black families qualify as "middle-class". Although these are both improvements over the past, it is clear there is a long way to go, and therefore an increase of social programs to combat urban poverty is a worthy goal.
However such an increase has nothing to do with the guilt and debt of slavery: it is simply the actions of a country seeking the greater good for all her citizens. To call such undertakings "reparations" would set them in monetary terms, and cause them to ignore other problems of inequality that should be tackled concurrently, particularly in the criminal justice system. It would also lead to lawsuits from recent immigrants, asking why they should have to pay for the crimes of a country that was not theirs at the time.
The other inherent problem with the United States offering reparations today is that, in doing so, the country admits it is still legally liable for crimes committed 150 years ago. This could lead to class-action lawsuits initiated by lawyers seeking further billions of dollars, hoping to earn billions for themselves on contingency. The cost of fighting these lawsuits alone could be better used to combat racism and inequality today. Furthermore, it implies that there is no statute of limitations on the crimes of a nation. Imagine Israel suing the Egyptian government for compensation for hundreds of years of Hebrew slavery in the Fertile Crescent.
Finally, the idea of African nations claiming grievance from the slave trade is simply laughable. Not only were many tribal leaders of early colonial Africa complicit in the slave trade, but slavery is still relatively widespread in Africa to this day, in Ghana, the Sudan, Mauritania, and Benin. And past infusions of aid into Africa have done more to enrich warlords than help the people who undeniably need our help. Abdoulaye Wade, the first democratically-elected President of Senegal after four decades of socialist rule, correctly called demands for reparations "childish". As the London Times remarked dryly, "Other African leaders, few with mandates as democratic as Mr. Wade's, were furious. And after their verbal attacks on him, mobs in the capital of the Ivory Coast set about looting Senegalese shops. So far, however, there has been no offer of compensation from the Ivory Coast."
It is sad and noteworthy that the most vociferous supporters of the reparations movement here in the US are trial lawyers. While any effort to combat racial inequality at home would be welcome, the US government should refrain from an official apology until we can be sure that it would close a painful chapter in our history without opening a new one.
Chris Desmond is a senior majoring in English.
Page last modified on Thursday, 02-Mar-2006 00:12:50 MST.