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December 2002/January 2003
Reparations for African Americans: Making Up for 400 Years of Slavery

The Satya Interview with Tukufu Zuberi


Dr. Tukufu Zuberi is a professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and an expert on African Diaspora populations and the statistical analysis of race. His recent books include Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie (2001) and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: The Mortality Cost of Colonizing Liberia in the 19th Century (1995). Prof. Zuberi is currently working on the African Census Analysis Project at the University of Pennsylvania. Here, Rachel Cernansky asks Prof. Zuberi to discuss the movement to make reparations for 400 years of the enslavement of African people.

Can you give a brief overview of reparations?
Reparations is an issue about attempting to rectify a situation where an individual’s life has been impaired by a past injustice. Typically the character of this injustice is that some institution benefited unjustly by taking something from the aggrieved party; it could have been taking their life, their ancestors’ life, or taking resources from them or something of this nature. Reparations is an effort to look at these individuals and make them whole again in society, to make them a full citizen not marked by this past injustice.

What we’re really talking about is, how do we create an even playing field which was made uneven by the legacy of enslavement, and was reflected in Jim Crow and in the kind of segregation that was not made illegal until the 1960s, which was not even actively institutionalized until the 70s. How do you make this group of people whole again after so many centuries of being socially penalized for being who they are?

Is that really possible, to fix something that happened in the past?
No. If someone cuts another person’s arm off and then they’re required to pay millions of dollars as a consequence of it, they will never bring the arm back.

You have a situation, Africa was colonized and its resources were usurped for the development of Europe and the western world. You look at it now, and Africa is at the bottom of the world, in terms of health, income, development, banking, in terms of nutrition for its people. And if you go to Brazil, to Colombia, the U.S.—wherever—you find African descended people at the bottom of those societies, socially and economically. What do you do to make them whole after all of these centuries of holding them back?

African Americans are here as a consequence of the legacy of European enslavement of Africans, and they spent a couple of hundred years working for free. That free labor funded the industrialization of America, building the infrastructures of what would become American society. Following emancipation, they were relegated to a second-class citizenship that did not end until the latter part of the 1960s. So now, after generations of being excluded from full participation in society, they make substantial progress; the middle class grows in ways it had never grown before, they begin to get education, and participate in society in ways they never had before; electing individuals, becoming political players in their own right. Yet there has been a constant—and brutal—amnesia about what they suffered all of those years. It’s a racist amnesia, to forget. But it’s not a question of just having political democracy, you need economic democracy, and to even have the illusion of economic democracy in American society involves remedying this past misdeed.

For example, if you murder millions of Jews in Nazi Germany or some other place, then if you’re going to make those Jews whole, someone is going to have to kind of repay them. This is the whole notion of reparations. Or in the U.S. in the 1940s during WWII, if you put Japanese in concentration camps and you take their land and their businesses, you can never undo what was done. But what you can do is give them funds, which at least tries to set the record straight, and then recognize that the past injustice has inflicted a hardship on them, from which they still suffer. If you take the situation where Native Americans have been deprived of a just and legitimate use of their land and resources because of the colonial misadventure which created America, then to really reconstitute them would require some giving on the part of American society as an institution back to Native Americans.

How do you think reparation monies should be distributed?
I don’t want to preclude the simple idea of giving people a check, but I want to suggest that it would not be the most important aspect of reparations. What we really ought to be thinking about is something like a Marshall Plan for Africa—a program to enhance the infrastructure for communication, commerce, education, and health in Africa. A program that aids in the institutionalization of structures which allow and facilitate people’s participation in society, in the political and economic life of their country. The Marshall Plan was a plan instituted right after WWII, to help rebuild Europe [see Sidebar].

We have to undo the legacy of supporting the worst kind of political leadership in Africa, which the U.S. has a very dark history of; we have to get on a better track now. We also need to reconstitute neighborhoods which have been allowed to go fallow in the U.S.; to allow for an enhancement of access to intercommunication, of people’s access to computers. We need to make sure that individuals in the African American community are not left out of the communication revolution that’s taking place right now. We need to make sure that every child goes to a quality school, and is given an opportunity to fully participate in that educational institution. I go into elementary schools in north Philadelphia—this is 2002, we’re in the 21st century—and there are pipes exposed on the wall. They don’t have a computer that’s hooked up, it’s just sitting there in the corner of the room. It’s in New York, Chicago, San Francisco.

It’s embarrassing; the U.S. is the only industrialized country on planet Earth that doesn’t have a program which prevents its people from being in poverty. We don’t need to reinstitute the welfare program which Clinton killed; welfare makes sure people stay in poverty. What program, what transfer of monies to poor people do we have that takes them out of poverty? We need a plan aimed at eliminating poverty, rather than blaming people for being poor and creating jails to lock up their children. At this point, more African American men and women are in jail than are in college. So we need a plan which is focused not on building prisons but on readjusting the educational institutions; we need to eliminate the health disparities in the U.S.—that means building hospitals, not prisons. Building hospitals and increasing the number of students who can go to medical school, especially African American students, because those are the people who work in African American communities.

You hear a lot of people saying slavery was in the past, it stays buried there, and who don’t see connections between injustices now and then. How do you deal with that?

Nobody ever really thinks that, right? I mean, this is getting mixed in with the kind of racist ideas about what it means to be an African American. Nobody would claim that on 911, the ramming of planes with people on them should be simply forgotten about. It’s very fresh on everybody’s mind, and nobody wants to necessarily forget that.

It’s by having that knowledge of the past that people are willing to engage in the policies of today. So here we have the knowledge of the past of enslavement and it’s not that long ago, and then you want to argue that we should forget it? This is what people are saying. It’s kind of like them saying, “Okay I’m going to chop your legs off. When you heal, let’s race.” And some people will beat you because they’ll learn to run with their hands very fast, but most will not.

You have talked about the need for people to see other people’s struggles as their own, that suffering doesn’t stop with the individual. Can you talk about that a little more?
It’s very important for people to get to the point of having empathy for other people’s problems—to empathize with individuals who are suffering.

If you really want to understand this reparation issue, you’re going to need to have a global perspective. That means that you’re going to be sympathetic to issues which may be interrelated to your issue, but may be happening in a global context. So reparations for Africa is organically connected to reparations in the U.S., to reparations in Brazil, to reparations in the Caribbean. Like the abolitionist movement, this is really an international movement which all just people should be involved in—or at least supportive of.

How receptive to that message are people on both sides of the issue?
At this point, the movement is in a juvenile state, so people have not made all of the connections—institutionally or organizationally—that will elevate it to a much higher level of activity and success. And that’s not a criticism.

Does modern-day slavery come into your work at all?
Modern-day slavery is appalling and something that we must fight, something that must be ended immediately. It exists and we must destroy it, without question. A lot of people are not aware of it, but we need to fight it.

What have been the high points in the movement?
Definitely having it brought before Congress, and having Representative John Conyers, Jr. [D-MI] there to keep this on the agenda, have been extremely important. The current movement has a lot of very important implications because you have a debate and discussion going on, which you didn’t have before, about whether we should or should not have reparations, which has sparked interest amongst everyday people. The very fact that you have cases in court that are actually being adjudicated right now is definitely an important move.

If you’re going to suggest that you’ve got a democratic society, then you want to have open and free debate about issues. With reparations, you’ve got people on all sides of it: some who are very opposed to it and some who are very much in support of it. By opening it up to debate, we’re raising a fundamental question about the impact of the legacy of enslavement, the legacy of colonialism. As long as you’re not talking about it, you can act as if it has not had an impact on people’s lives, and you don’t have to pay much attention to its implications. You don’t want to be in a situation where the problems caused by enslavement remain at the front of your agenda—you want to get past enslavement. You may not want to forget about it, but you want to find a way to have the society forgiven for it.

How do you do that?
Well that’s how; part of it is to have a national debate over the significance of the issue, and how to make those people who have been injured by the practice made whole again.

To learn more about the African Census Analysis Project at the University of Pennsylvania, visit

The Marshall Plan

A model even now for economic reinvigoration, the Marshall Plan was an effort by the U.S. aimed at reducing the poverty, hunger, sickness, unemployment, and political instability of the 270 million people in 16 nations in western Europe whose economic infrastructures had been devastated by World War II. The Plan was intended to avoid the economic and social collapse in Europe that followed World War I and led to conditions that created the second world war. The U.S. also wanted to help western Europeans faced with the challenge of rebuilding their economic and political infrastructures in the face of a growing Communist threat.

The plan that economist George C. Marshall outlined at Harvard University on June 5, 1947 was revolutionary in that it required the recipients to develop a multilateral approach to their common economic problems. Officially called the “European Recovery Program,” the Marshall Plan was a comprehensive package of more than $11 billion in grants, loans and materials (plus $1.5 billion in loans that were repaid) that were targeted to boost economic infrastructure, particularly the iron-steel and power industries. The Plan aimed at: 1) increasing production; 2) expanding European foreign trade; 3) facilitating European economic cooperation and integration; and 4) controlling inflation (which was the program’s chief failure).

The Marshall Plan created European markets for American goods—it encouraged American businesses to invest in Europe by guaranteeing that their investments would be insured. It also restored European nations as global competitors with the U.S. By 1951, western Europe’s industrial production was 43 percent above prewar levels, its farm production was 10 percent higher—and its democratic institutions were secure.

George C. Marshall, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 for this plan, characterized it such: “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.” —B.G.


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