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Healing Wounds: Intersections in the fight against slavery, racism and poverty

Healing Wounds: Intersections in the fight against slavery, racism and poverty

As a society we are still learning how to live equally and fairly. As such, there remain several different ways that we allow our neighbours to be treated poorly, abused and stripped of their basic human rights. Poverty is permitted to flourish even in the richest of countries. Racism persists despite the spread of knowledge across socioeconomic groups and international borders. And Slavery, although (in most cases) it does not outwardly resemble that institutional slavery of the infamous Atlantic slave trade which brought millions of Africans to the Americas, still festers around us, poisoning our collective soul as it taints almost every aspect of our daily lives, even in the most democratic of countries.

We tend to be fond of making it a “mission” to tackle these issues, or of waging a “war” to “combat” these societal ailments, but what does it actually mean to be anti-poverty, or anti-racism, or anti-slavery?  And, as we work to heal the harms caused by these abuses, how do we, as a people, actually move on? Some will say that acceptance and acknowledgement are key, that there must be recognition of the ugly truths. Historically, sometimes that acknowledgment has taken the form of monetary compensation.

Understanding the connections

Perhaps if there are underlying connections between these three forms of human rights abuse, and others, then similar prescriptions for healing can be applied broadly to help unravel them all.  Although each of these issues carry their own weighty baggage, it could be argued that all of these versions of abuse, stripping an individual of their basic human rights, have the same effects, including:

Financial gain at the expense of others 

Most of the wealth held by the oldest companies came from forms of slavery and rights abuse, and unfortunately, some still do. Before the abolishment of slavery, or the implementation of the basic labour rights which granted some safety and protection in the workplace, as well as the banning of child labour, most manufacturers enjoyed tremendous profits because of the meager resources spent on the welfare of their employees.

Defining these “others” as an outgroup 

The beneficiaries of exploitation often rationalise their actions by defining themselves as separate from those being taken advantage of, placing them in an “outgroup”.  Sometimes this is defined by race, or class, or nationality, the common factor being a shift in mindset that makes it acceptable to treat someone with less respect and dignity because they are perceived to be different. This type of attitude straddles a thin line that can easily lead to dehumanising members of the outgroup. This dehumanisation makes it easier to rob people of basic rights. For example, contrary to the present day, where we understand that children deserve even greater protections because of their vulnerability, historically, children were deemed to have less importance than adults, which made their exploitation acceptable.

Institutionalised disenfranchisement 

To make this system of financial benefit off the abuse of others sustainable, workers are kept in a state of need. Economic abuse (low, or no salary), coupled with social and/or race related bigotry reinforces the status quo.  

The status quo soon cements itself into the very fabric of society.  People are remarkably good at adapting, and most of us are hardwired to resist change.  A system of behaviours is gradually accepted as custom and tradition, eventually becoming codified (directly, and indirectly) into the laws, and built into institutions. It does not necessarily have to happen in a nefarious way, but the system becomes rigged to keep people where they are. Those who are stripped of their human rights have restricted abilities to vote (if permitted at all), and if allowed to participate in society’s institutions, do not have the same access to representation and justice (i.e., wealth becomes a factor in determining election winners and court verdicts). Virtually disenfranchised, there are few options remaining to change this system.

Fortunately sooner or later, society as a whole, recognises how we fail our most vulnerable, and efforts are made to change the status quo. But although it may be acknowledged, what is to be done about the harm inflicted?

Is it enough to say ‘I’m Sorry’?

Like it or not, we live in a capitalist world, and when seeking to defend the human rights of our most vulnerable and help people recover and move past the abuse, we often must look to how the economic welfare of an individual has been affected by the harm done to them. The concept of damages is common in legal cases, as the courts understand that often, financial restitution is essential for justice to be carried out.

In the past, reparations have also been applied in situations where people who have had their human rights stripped in the most horrific ways, including the Holocaust, the Apartheid regime, The Tuskegee experiments, and the internment of Japanese Americans.  Losing sides of wars are often punished with reparations, although in the case of Haitians who fought for their independence from France (literally, to no longer be slaves), the winners were actually forced to buy their freedom, in essence paying for their human rights. 

As mentioned before, we are all part of a consumer-based world that revolves around the buying and selling of services, goods, and property.  Unless willing to go to great lengths, each of us, by enjoying basic conveniences such as clothing, food, and shelter, might unwittingly be complicit in the human rights abuse of millions of others.    

So, what do we, as a global society owe these people, if anything?

Where do we go now?

We need to learn from our past mistakes.  This may sound like trite and common place wisdom, but it is nonetheless true.  Humanity must learn not only to do better, but to want to do better.  Is it right to compel companies to pay reparations to acknowledge how their past human rights abuses helped to create their current wealth? Or rather, should we create a world where self-regulation, and taking up that kind of responsibility is applauded and rewarded?

Unfortunately, most of us may have contributed to the abuse and slavery of people around the world in some way, but does that mean that we all should contribute to pay reparations to these people? Or should we take steps so that, going forward, we no longer are part of this destructive behaviour?

Whatever we do, it is clear that action must be taken.  A conversation must begin.  An honest conversation, that acknowledges past and current hurts, and takes an open view towards creating a better world, one that preserves the Freedom of us all. 

The Freedomer App (for which we are currently closing a fundraising campaign), provides a platform for this conversation.  It is a tool with which we as consumers can take some responsibility for our participation in these abusive systems. With the Freedomer app, we can educate ourselves and find opportunities to do better.  We can voice our opinions and connect with others to make a difference.

The onus for action doesn’t lay on any particular group, it rests upon all of us to work together to build a world made in freedom. That means the beneficiaries working alongside the exploited – there can be no bystanders.  Hopefully, this is the moment in human history where we take that step forward, together.

This article was authored by Ray DeSouza, writer at slavefreetrade.