Evils of history will not be expunged with cash

January 5, 2007

Righting the wrongs of slavery must focus on improving the future, not on atoning for the past, says John Torpey

A commission of inquiry at Brown University in the US recently completed an intensive three-year examination of the institution's roots in the ill-gotten gains of slavery. But beyond a contribution to the historical record, one wonders how fruitful such an exercise can really be.

It found that a significant portion of Brown's early funding came from the slave trader John Brown and that some of the university's buildings were built with slave labour. Then again, any US institution that existed before the end of the Civil War would have benefited in some way from the existence of slavery.

Similarly, the slave trade was a source of considerable wealth in the UK before its abolition 200 years ago and, indeed, surreptitiously for many years thereafter. Some of these riches seem to have found their way into the building of institutions such as Bristol University and Liverpool's University College. But, again, could any entity involved in trade with the Americas at this time have been able to claim innocence of slavery?

One might argue that slavery did lasting damage not only to those enslaved but also to the economic health of those regions based on the trade. To be sure, there is no way to make sense of racial inequality in the US without some reference to slavery. But one might note that it also resulted in enduring harm to the part of the country that harboured it, now among the poorest and most educationally impoverished in the US.

The bigger question today is, why the great preoccupation with atonement? There is no doubt that this past deserves the most extensive possible treatment by historians. Scholars must explore the nature and significance of slavery, clarifying for us its everyday manifestations and its political-economic ramifications. Yet historians are not necessarily the best people to advise us on contemporary social policies.

We should also be proud that we have left those ways behind; slavery now constitutes a "crime against humanity" precisely because, in our world, it is no longer regarded as acceptable. This is a historical novelty: slavery and other forms of unfree labour have been more or less ubiquitous in human history until the dawn of the modern era in about 1500. Since that time, "free labour" came to be increasingly the norm, if by no means always the reality.

Against this background, the practice of slavery seems increasingly unintelligible, and hence worthy of condemnation. More generally, and despite its persistence, discrimination on the basis of race has similarly come to be unacceptable since the end of the Second World War. The earlier reality of racial slavery - another historical anomaly compared with the long history of slavery - again seems to us particularly inscrutable and odious.

But we should recall that these judgments are themselves historical in character. After all, anti-capitalists regard so-called free labour as another form of slavery: the difference from traditional slavery, as Alexis de Tocqueville understood it, was that the worker was now subject not to any one individual master, but to the class of masters as a whole. If some future communist world were one day to arrive, our own patterns of life and labour would come to seem reprehensible as well.

The chief difficulty is in making amends for these past wrongs. There has been much talk in recent years of "reparations", whether that means cheques to individuals or more general efforts to acknowledge and atone for the sins of the past. It is not obvious how this could be done. The construction of memorials to slavery is perfectly sensible, calling our attention to the unjust ways of the past. But that would do little to rectify economic inequalities. And even if those economic injustices caused by slavery were to be rectified, the descendants of slaves are not uniformly badly off. It is always harder to compensate the descendants of those wronged than the wronged themselves.

Ultimately, the effort to right these wrongs must be oriented towards tomorrow, not yesterday - that is, the project of fixing the injustices of the past must be conceived as one in which we strive together towards the never-to-be-reached goal of equality for all. We cannot make the slave of history go away, any more than we can wish away the enclosure of the commons. What we can do is to ameliorate their effects in the present.

John Torpey is professor of sociology at the graduate centre, City University of New York, in the US. He is author of Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics , published by Harvard University Press, £21.95.

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