When it comes to reparations, I'm of the same mind as President Obama. The leader of the "free world" reportedly agrees with them in theory but believes that actually disseminating reparations to the ancestors of slaves wouldn't be a workable practice, according to the New York Times.
In an op-ed for that paper, Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates attempts to further explain why giving reparations, or compensation, to African Americans because of how the government profited from slave labor would be a very messy undertaking. That's because Africans played a role in fueling the transatlantic slave trade.
Gates writes: "The historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90% of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred."
Gates then goes on to presume that most reparations supporters don't know that Africans played a role in the slave trade. However, he provides no evidence as to how he came to that conclusion. I, for one, have known for years that Africans sold slaves to whites, and I'm no reparations activist. After all, African involvement in slavery is one of the arguments trotted out by those who claim that whites and white supremacy should be let off the hook for slavery. But in his editorial, Gates argues that African Americans have instead excused Africans for selling slaves.
Discussing the ways black Americans have pardoned Africans for their role in the slave trade, Gates writes: "Excuses run the gamut, from 'Africans didn't know how harsh slavery in America was' and 'Slavery in Africa was, by comparison, humane' or, in a bizarre version of 'The devil made me do it,' 'Africans were driven to this only by the unprecedented profits offered by greedy European countries.'"
As someone with one black American parent and one Nigerian parent, I certainly don't wish to excuse African involvement in slavery. But I think that Gates failed to point out that slavery was practiced in societies all over the world for centuries. The slavery practiced in the United States, however, was unprecedented due to the role white supremacy played in the "peculiar institution." In the U.S., slavers tied dark skin to slavery, which led to the dehumanization of generation after generation of people solely based on their racial ancestry. While Africans involved in the slave trade may have seen the harsh conditions Westerners kept their captives in, they did not and could not have known that slavery would be used to devise and perpetuate a white supremacist ideology.
In his editorial, Gates also neglects to mention that it's pretty common knowledge that in the U.S., a portion of Native Americans and, even, African Americans kept slaves. But reparations activists aren't interested in pursuing these people nor are they interested in pursuing the Africans who contributed to the slave trade. Reparations activists are interested in holding the corporations and institutions that can be clearly linked to slave labor responsible.
Gates winds down his piece by arguing that "the problem with reparations may not be so much whether they are a good idea or deciding who would get them; the larger question just might be from whom they would be extracted."
But reparations activists have indeed pointed out from whom they want to extract compensation. In 2002, for example, a former law student filed a federal lawsuit seeking billions of dollars in reparations from companies such as FleetBoston Financial, the railroad firm CSX and the Aetna insurance company, after finding evidence linking them to the slave trade, CNN reported. Although some activists seek direct payment from the U.S. government for reparations, activists haven't wished to hold African governments responsible. And how could they, considering that African countries themselves are composed of numerous ethnic groups. One ethnic group may have sold members from another (within the same country) into slavery. To boot, when we identify who's responsible for establishing the borders and boundaries that separated Africa into countries, we cannot do so without turning to the Europeans who colonized Africa. Add in the impoverished state that many African countries are in at present, and it makes little sense to pin the slave trade on African governments. I doubt that any reparations activist wants to cause more suffering to those of African descent.