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Healing Wounds: Reparations for Historical Injustices

Healing Wounds: Reparations for Historical Injustices

Last month, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) released an official statement acknowledging and apologising for the history of its inheritance. JRF has admitted that the origin of its trusts is stained by practices that benefited from colonial slavery. As an anti-poverty care provider, operating in the UK to provide housing for the less fortunate via its Housing Trust (JRHT), this is an important first step towards reparation and a more equal future. 

JRF disclosed that one of the historical practices of its overseas operations involved the purchase of raw materials produced by enslaved workers. It states that it is committed to researching its history to make sure it can reach out to every party that was harmed, and to educate itself and others about levels of involvement in discrimination, racism, and slavery. It also commits to embedding race equality within its networks, emphasising that one cannot be anti-poverty if not also anti-racist. 

Poverty and racism are part of the same chronicle. Take the abolition of slavery in the United States. While the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, a clause in the amendment made an exception in case of punishment for a crime in which the party has been duly convicted. This loophole was largely exploited, with African Americans being arrested en masse for extremely minor crimes – including crimes such as ‘vagrancy’ or being unemployed! The effect of this mass incarceration, exploitation of labour and lack of opportunities has been the creation of a class gap which persists. And to this day, work opportunities are still subject to racial bias, no matter the worker’s qualification.

This is so grounded in our culture that we sometimes forget to question its absurdity. What JRF is doing by apologising is drawing attention towards historical guilt. We cannot expect to eradicate misery without seeing its roots. Recognising one’s own faults is subversive, it inspires the changes within. But a simple “sorry” note is not enough. An apology is only accepted when actions are taken. Recently, the city of Los Angeles has been discussing the restoration of a family’s land that was seized during the Jim Crow laws era. The African American family owned a resort reserved for their community’s leisure in Manhattan Beach, California. Today, the return of the land, how this can be done, and by what means, is under discussion. Reparation is imminent in this case, although an official apology has not yet arrived from authorities.

So how can we right past wrongs? Reparations may be individual or collective, and consist of various elements: an acknowledgment and apology for historical injustices, compensation and guarantees of non-repetition. The compensation is only fair justice. The apology, and a guarantee to do better, is educational.

Take the case of Germany and Namibia. After years of negotiation, Germany has just recently settled an agreement with the government of Namibia on reparations for the genocide of some 75000 people during the colonial era. Germany will fund several social projects in Namibia, directly benefiting the descendants of the victims. But these terms were only accepted once Germany’s president, Frank Walter Steinmeier, agreed to formally apologise in the Namibian parliament. The Namibian government understands that reparations will only have a deep impact if they educate. Not only for the past oppressor, by making its society today come to terms with its role in a historical injustice, but also to empower victims regarding their value and worth. By means of a successful reparation process, a former oppressing hand admits human rights abuses, officially apologises, tries to socially and financially compensate the victims for the damages, but most importantly, recognises the richness of the society and culture that was harmed. It takes a lot more than just “sorry, here’s a check.”

We must remember, it is not just brands, companies, mega-corporations, and countries that benefited from colonial slavery, but also individuals. So we must all educate ourselves on being the change we want to see. Because we are not only talking about historical reparation for colonial slavery. We are also talking about modern slavery which exists today, and which still feeds on the same principles of racism, discrimination and exploitation of labour, leading to human rights abuses and poverty among the most vulnerable in our societies. Thankfully, we currently live in a time where we have easy access to information. And in our globalised and interconnected world, consumers have more influence than ever. By virtue of our choice, educated consumers can drive social change, by calling for modern slavery risks within business practices and supply chains to be mitigated. That’s exactly what the upcoming Freedomer App seeks to deliver, through creating a platform for consumers to collectively take a stand against exploitation, slave labour, and social inequity.  Increasingly, we understand that if we remain impartial in the face of oppression, we take the side of the oppressor. James Baldwin said, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” And it’s about time that everyone understands the price that the exploitation of people has been charging from all of us.

This article was authored by Andre Kavalieris, Content Developer at slavefreetrade.