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October 11, 2001 Reparations for past slavery face legal and economic hurdles



by Sylvain Comeau

The issue of reparations for slavery is not going away, but activists will have to jump through hoops and over hurdles to reach that goal.

One obstacle is conflicting views on the form that reparations should take. “There seem to be as many visions of reparations as there are activists for this issue,” Clarence Mumford told the conference.

Mumford is a professor emeritus of black studies and history at the University of Guelph, and was one of the speakers at the Conference on the Rights of Minorities of African Descent in the Americas, held at Concordia over the last weekend of September. It was designed as a follow-up to the international conference on racism held in Durban, S.A., in late August.

One of the current proposed models would see reparations come in the form of black-held businesses.“In this particular version,” Mumford said, “the management of enterprises derived from reparations would not be invested in individual business persons, but rather in the African-American and African-Canadian people as a whole. Public and collective institutions would be founded to administer these enterprises. Those who like this design think it would enable the establishment of two economic systems within one country.”

However, Mumford said, these black enterprises would inevitably yield to the larger economy.
“Any collectivist-leaning, black-partial economy arising out of reparations would have to function within the parameters of the macroeconomy. It is hard to imagine how it could avoid being dominated. Inevitably, the collective system would be integrated financially in the white corporate economy — and eventually swallowed up entirely.”

Legal hurdles remain the single biggest obstacle, particularly in the U.S., where the most advanced campaign for reparations is underway. A group called the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA) is leading that battle.

NCOBRA lawyers argue that the U.S. government has failed to meet the requirements of the 13th amendment of the American constitution, which states that the government must stamp out the vestiges of slavery.

“That dereliction has passed the stigma of slavery down to the living descendants of slaves. But to win a serious hearing, this kind of case must survive a living minefield. Claims for damages must somehow circumvent the statute of limitations; it must also not be dismissed by a court as frivolous.

“Finally, the claimants must dodge the stipulation requiring claims of damages to come from the actual injured party; somehow they have to get around this, even though the last slave is long since dead.”

English common law, which is the basis of both the Canadian and American legal system, is not friendly to collectivist legal action. “The legal code is biased in favor of personal settlements involving specific live plaintiffs; it does not tally well with the claims of an entire people.” As a result, some activists favor taking a political route toward reparations and bypass legal avenues.

Cikiah Thomas, a community activist in Toronto who is involved in the reparations movement, pointed out that reparations are nothing new.

“People think that it’s a new phenomenon, but in fact, reparations were paid to American and British slave owners under emancipation, not to the slaves themselves. Since slaves were seen as property, slave owners were rewarded for their crimes and the barbarism that took place on plantations,” Thomas said.