They are the crimes for which no one has ever made amends. The transatlantic slave trade enslaved between 10 and 12 million Africans. Historians estimate that 15 to 25% of the men and women packed into the slave ships died before they reached the Americas. The only people ever to be compensated? Slave owners and traders, to make up for their lost earnings when slavery ended. Today, generations later, the white majorities in the US and former colonial powers including the UK continue to benefit from the wealth generated by slavery. The descendants of enslaved Africans continue to suffer poverty and prejudice. Millions still face discrimination and limited access to education and jobs. Some say that only a broad programme of reparations – not just financial compensation, but acknowledgement of the crimes committed and the lasting damage caused – can begin to make up for the atrocity of slavery and bring an end to the systemic injustice millions of people still face.
That would be a disaster, critics of reparations say. The whole idea is flawed. These were crimes committed by and to people long since gone. The costs would cripple economies and hurt the people reparations would supposedly help. Tensions between community groups would only worsen and some on the Right would use reparations as a rallying point to criticise already vulnerable and economically weak minority groups and countries. And good luck finding consensus on constructing a system to decide who gets what; no one would be happy and social tensions would only worsen. Instead of looking backwards, we should all focus on fighting racism now. We have enough pressing problems with discrimination in 2019. Let’s not make them worse by opening old wounds.