Repa­ra­tion pay­ments

We need hard think­ing not pat an­swers

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - Robert Dingwall is a con­sult­ing so­ci­ol­o­gist. His most re­cent book is a trans­la­tion of Howard S. Becker: So­ci­ol­ogy and Mu­sic in the Chicago School, by Jean Pen­eff.

The cur­rent de­bates over repa­ra­tions for slav­ery, and other his­tor­i­cal acts that of­fend con­tem­po­rary sen­si­bil­i­ties, il­lus­trate the ex­tent to which uni­ver­si­ties are a soft touch when faced with such claims.

Al­most any grievance can mo­bilise the lib­eral con­science of some sec­tion of the fac­ulty or the stu­dent body. In­sti­tu­tional lead­ers tend to pri­ori­tise rep­u­ta­tional risk – and a quiet life – over in­tel­lec­tual rigour. A few schol­ar­ships or a named cen­tre are a small cost com­pared with the trou­ble that might be caused by push­ing back. The Univer­sity of Glas­gow’s re­cently an­nounced pro­gramme of “repar­a­tive jus­tice”, af­ter its in­ves­ti­ga­tion into its links with his­tor­i­cal slav­ery, is un­likely to break the bank.

And last week, other uni­ver­si­ties were urged to set up a £100 mil­lion repa­ra­tion fund.

A univer­sity should, though, be ask­ing more crit­i­cal ques­tions. Who are we com­pen­sat­ing for what? When might his­tor­i­cal griev­ances be con­sid­ered ex­tinct? What are the consequences of one kind of com­pen­sa­tion rather than an­other?

Slav­ery has never been a ho­mo­ge­neous so­cial in­sti­tu­tion. Enslave­ment ap­pears to have been a very com­mon prac­tice in an­cient so­ci­eties, but the treat­ment of slaves and their civic sta­tus var­ied a great deal. Even within the At­lantic trade, be­ing a slave in Brazil was dif­fer­ent from be­ing a slave in the US – which was, in turn, dif­fer­ent from be­ing a slave in a Bri­tish colony. Each had dif­fer­ent le­gal sta­tus and eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties.

More­over, the slave mar­kets of Africa were es­tab­lished long be­fore the ex­port trade de­vel­oped. If the Euro­pean traders ex­ploited the labour they pur­chased more suc­cess­fully than did their Arab and African part­ners, is this nec­es­sar­ily a rea­son to tax their de­scen­dants? Are the claims against the global North sim­ply an in­di­ca­tion that there are deeper pock­ets to pick?

We might also ask what dis­tin­guishes the At­lantic slave trade from, for ex­am­ple, the raids of 9th-cen­tury Vik­ings on Bri­tain and Ire­land, where large num­bers of peo­ple were seized rather than bought. We might ask a sim­i­lar ques­tion about the kid­nap­ping of peo­ple from Ire­land and south­west Eng­land for sale in North Africa by Bar­bary traders in the 16th and 17th cen­turies. Do these give rise to claims against the suc­ces­sor states by the de­scen­dants of those slaves, sup­pos­ing al­ways that we could iden­tify them?

What about peo­ple who were ex­pelled or fled his­tor­i­cal per­se­cu­tion? Do the de­scen­dants of the Huguenots who es­caped re­li­gious op­pres­sion in 17th-cen­tury France have a claim against the mod­ern French state for their lost busi­nesses? Are these claims ex­tin­guished sim­ply be­cause many of those refugees pros­pered in the more lib­eral en­vi­ron­ment of Lon­don? At some point, the tide of his­tory has to wash away the scars on the sand.

Ad­vo­cates of repa­ra­tions might also be care­ful what they wish for. When this is­sue sur­faced in the US in the early 2000s, a num­ber of con­ser­va­tives were very in­ter­ested in sup­port­ing it. They had al­ways seen equal op­por­tu­ni­ties leg­is­la­tion as an in­de­fen­si­ble state in­ter­ven­tion in the market. If black and Na­tive Amer­i­can peo­ple were com­pen­sated, this would be a per­ma­nent buy­out of their claims to spe­cial pro­tec­tion. It could be a way to lib­er­ate the market and roll back the state. In prac­tice, they may also have thought that most of the money would find its way back to tra­di­tional white in­sti­tu­tions, much as the car­pet­bag­gers – eco­nomic op­por­tunists from the North – ex­ploited the post-Civil War set­tle­ment in the Amer­i­can South.

Ap­plied to uni­ver­si­ties, some as­pects of equal op­por­tu­ni­ties poli­cies might come into ques­tion. If com­pen­sa­tion pay­ments had dealt with the his­toric eco­nomic dis­ad­van­tages of a spe­cific mi­nor­ity group, would it be jus­ti­fi­able to con­tinue in­clud­ing that group along­side oth­ers who were still dis­ad­van­taged, for eco­nomic or other rea­sons? If we have com­pen­sated black de­scen­dants of slaves from the Caribbean, why would we give them the same so­cial or le­gal pro­tec­tions as black peo­ple of free her­itage ar­riv­ing in the UK di­rectly from Africa?

We cer­tainly need a bet­ter pop­u­lar un­der­stand­ing of the ex­tent to which Eng­land, and Low­land Scot­land, have long been mul­ti­cul­tural and multi-eth­nic so­ci­eties – and of the ways in which pat­terns of ad­van­tage and dis­ad­van­tage be­tween those groups have emerged and been sus­tained. Univer­sity his­to­ri­ans have pro­duced a sub­stan­tial body of work that chal­lenges the sim­ple his­tory of an eth­ni­cally and cul­tur­ally ho­mo­ge­neous Bri­tish na­tion, but this has not per­co­lated into the wider cul­ture. Sim­i­larly, as Jeremy Cor­byn has re­cently ob­served, the pub­lic myths of the Bri­tish na­tion have ob­scured the darker sides of em­pire. Would rewrit­ing some of those na­tional myths ac­tu­ally be a more ap­pro­pri­ate form of com­pen­sa­tion than cash?

This is a ma­jor chal­lenge to the pub­lic en­gage­ment work of pro­fes­sional his­to­ri­ans, and their me­dia part­ners. How far will univer­sity his­to­ri­ans be will­ing to risk the in­evitable con­tro­ver­sies from crit­i­cis­ing both na­tional myths and mil­i­tant re­ac­tions? Will fu­ture his­to­ri­ans just be writ­ing peer-re­viewed mono­graphs for each other with the pop­u­lar market left to myth-mak­ers like Boris John­son?

The repa­ra­tions move­ment prompts im­por­tant ques­tions. While its own an­swers may be naive, the chal­lenge to schol­ar­ship and pub­lic en­gage­ment de­serves a se­ri­ous, em­pir­i­cally grounded and rig­or­ously ar­gued re­sponse.

What dis­tin­guishes the At­lantic slave trade from the Vik­ing raids on Bri­tain and Ire­land, where large num­bers of peo­ple were seized rather than bought?

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