Racism, Capitalism: Are Reparations Impossible?

Mireille Fanon Mendès France
In December 2014, the UN General Assembly proclaimed in its Resolution 68/237 the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). This Decade should have aimed at encouraging states to eradicate the social injustices produced by history and to combat racism and racial prejudice and discrimination that people of African descent and Africans continue to suffer. It would also have been an opportunity to discuss and act on the issue of reparations. But once again, this was impossible; yet, last December, some states seemed ready to propose a resolution on reparations. So far, nothing has changed …

Last June, during an emergency debate requested by African countries following the murder of George Floyd, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, declared herself in favor of “reparations in various forms [2]”. What will become of this recognition? One more statement to placate minds? Let’s not forget that when she ruled Chile, Michelle Bachelet continued to apply the anti-terrorist laws from the Pinochet dictatorship against the Mapuche people struggling against expulsion from their lands.

It is clear that at present, no multilateral institution is demanding reparations for crimes against humanity and genocide committed during the transatlantic slave trade, enslavement and colonialism. States know very well that asking for reparations for these crimes, or accepting that organizations or states ask for them, would force them to question the structures of the dominant system, which in the white liberal capitalist system is impossible. That is why there is a consensus to leave the process of reparations out of the political process. The dominant are content to consent to memorial events, plaques, and perhaps in the near future, streets or statues. For now, they will go no further. There have been initiatives such as the Slave Route, but this is not part of a demand for reparations, and perhaps the underlying issue was in the minds of those who worked on such a project. However, is it not more a question of establishing geographically, through education, the historical facts that have shaped today’s society? This is not insignificant, and humanity needs to go much further if it wants to be reconciled with itself.

The question of reparations was brought up at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance [3], but the former slave and colonialist states used this demand introduced by African states to delegitimize the entire conference; and through a subterfuge which only the colonialists are privy to, the question of Palestine was used to refuse any debate on reparations and also of course on the illegal occupation of Palestine.

Some states, in spite of all these pitfalls, are trying to bring reparations to a political level; for example, in 2013, CARICOM heads of government created the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC) and put in place a 10-point Plan of Action[4] for restorative justice as a basis for discussions on reparations.

In January 2015, the Jamaican Parliament supported a motion in the House to request reparations from Great Britain. In 2007, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the transatlantic slave trade a “shameful trade” and a “crime against humanity”. He acknowledged, and it is worth noting, that Britain’s “international pre-eminence” was “partly dependent on a colonial system of slave labour”. In 2015, during the visit of his successor, David Cameron, to Jamaica – the first in 14 years – the latter, acknowledging that “slavery was abhorrent in all its forms”. In terms of reparations, he conceded 25 million pounds in aid to build the new Jamaican prison (he had proposed that Jamaicans convicted in Great Britain serve their sentences in Jamaica). To this sum, he added, for the entire Caribbean, 300 million pounds for the construction of infrastructure, while emphasizing that “I hope that, as friends who have gone through so much together since those darkest of times, we can move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future”.

He concluded his speech by saying that he hoped that this visit would “reinvigorate ties between the countries, and that it is time to concentrate on future relations rather than centuries-old issues”. Of course, there is no excuse for crimes against humanity and even less discussion of the 10-point action plan proposed by the Caribbean heads of government.

It should be noted in passing that politicians on all sides are quick to apologize and express regret for the war crimes and genocide committed against the 6 million people during the Second World War, but so little for the tens of millions of people uprooted from their continent, killed, raped, dehumanized and deprived of their dignity by a system that has never, in its ideological aspects, ceased to poison relations with the Other, to destroy the sense of otherness among humans.

We are still here.

For some, it is enough to return works of art that have been looted, thinking that restitution is worth reparation. But make no mistake about it, it is only a decoy.

In the face of violence against black bodies – whatever it was and whatever form it takes – there is no alternative but to confront the issues related to legitimate demands for reparations. Of course, we can return the works of art stolen by the colonizing countries, but this will never restore dignity to the offended, dehumanized and desacralized bodies of our ancestors; it will never return the stolen and looted lands; it will never put an end to the bad development of the African continent and of the Afro-descendants who are considered non-beings and live in the peripheral areas granted to them by those who have never ceased to oppress them. It is good to return the stolen works, and it should have been done before, but it can never settle the matter. What is behind the theft of objects is something else, and this was rightly emphasized by the authors of the report Restoring Africa’s Heritage: Towards a Relational Ethic: 5] “it is not only objects that have been taken, but reserves of energy, creative resources, deposits of potential, forces for generating alternative figures and forms of reality, powers of germination; and (that) this loss is immeasurable because it entails a type of relationship and a mode of participation in the world that is irremediably obese”.

By enslaving, dehumanizing and raping millions of Africans, Europeans have effectively broken “reserves of energy, creative resources (…), powers of germination”. So much so that one can, with the transatlantic slave trade, slavery and colonization, speak of a metaphysical catastrophe inaugurated with what has inappropriately been called ‘the great discoveries’.

As for the objects, one is entitled to think that if this has not yet been done, it is simply because the former colonizer cannot/will not confess to being a criminal colonizer; it does not matter that the French president in Algeria spoke out against colonialism[6]: “It is a crime. It is a crime against humanity. It is a true barbarism, and it is part of this past that we must face up to, and apologize to those to whom we have committed these acts”[7].

Apologies yes, decolonial acts that re-found humanity, certainly not!

One could naively think that making amends when it comes to human beings should go without saying; reparation for the crime of genocide is well inscribed in European DNA when it comes to crimes committed by Whites against other Whites, as Aimé Césaire (Discourse on Colonialism) pointed out with regard to the Second World War: “it is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of the man in itself, it is the crime against the white man, it is the humiliation of the white man, and of having applied to Europe colonialist methods which until now only applied to the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the negroes of Africa[8]”.

But no, the French state demonstrates its lack of interest in the descendants of the enslaved by prioritizing objects to the detriment of Beings who, for centuries, have seen their humanity contested on the juridical, scientific, philosophical, theological, economic and psychological levels.

All of this contributes to the updating of perverse and colonial relationships, but does not touch in any way on the question of reparations for crimes against humanity and genocide. These restitutions of objects should not obscure the process of reparations.

Ultimately, it is not only a question of reparation for the crimes of murder, robbery and looting, it is essentially a question of reparation for the crime done to humans and therefore to humanity. Since the so-called “great discoveries”, this humanity has turned to deadly policies. We must be aware of this. It is from this date that the politics of race – a socially constructed concept – was endorsed as a means of dividing humanity, which constitutes a crime against humanity itself, against blacks, against the indigenous peoples of South and North America; a crime that whites, without realizing it, have also committed against themselves. In this way, they have confirmed their position of domination; specifically, the fact that they have granted themselves functions of domination, as Robert Kurz identifies them [9]. Indeed, nothing authorized them and nothing authorizes them today to think themselves superior; only their apprehension/conception of the world and of the relationship they developed from their self-proclamation of Superior Beings coming from their Eurocentric perception of Modernity authorized them to declare themselves above all those they met for the first time.

But let’s return to the episode of the so-called “great discoveries”. Rather than speaking of “great discoveries”, in fact, it should be pointed out that from 1492 onwards, humanity experienced a “great catastrophe”, both metaphysical and demographic. In this regard, we must reject the narrative aimed at portraying the human catastrophe set in motion during the Second World War as the only ordeal in the history of mankind. “The possibility of the impossible” had already taken place 5 centuries earlier. In spite of this ” possibility of the impossible “, many historians, philosophers, intellectuals and politicians have done and continue to do everything possible to take away the horror of this human catastrophe and make it look civilizational and even beneficial to humanity. They are coming to terms with the facts, even if, for some,[10] it means being part of a negationist consensus.

As early as 1492, with the arrival of the first settlers, the pillaging of resources, the theft of land, the murder of the natives and the installation of trading posts, all with the support of banks such as JP Morgan Chase, Credit Suisse and the Bank of France, the foundations of globalization were laid.

The products enjoyed by the populations of sovereign territories were acquired by the violence of the new barbarians; their natural resources aroused interest and envy because they enriched those who brought them in.

Thus, in order to bring more and more to their respective kings, murderous settlers[11] justified, as early as the 15th century, enslavement, thus authorizing the use of human beings exclusively for their disembodied labor force, so that the difference between labor force and labor would be annihilated so that the surplus value would generate the maximum profit for the settlers.  The capitalist system thus laid its first foundations.

The colonist-slaver alienates both the Being, who becomes a Non-Being in the decolonial sense, his labor power and his life. He established the legitimacy of having the power of life and death over human beings because of their race for his own benefit.

Incidentally, it should be pointed out that “slavery in France was not based on any legal tradition; since the collapse of the Roman Empire, France had risen up against all forms of slavery [12]”.

Capitalism will continue to entrench its ideology by ensuring maximum profit for those who claim to possess the functions of domination over the bodies of blacks and indigenous people; and all this is possible and does not have to be justified since they have deprived those they dominate of all humanity and dignity. This was the birth of structural racism.

The settlers have never ceased to legitimize their actions with deception and trickery, setting up a system that allows them to circumvent any attempt to free the enslaved from the infamous status imposed on them by those who had appropriated the functions of domination. Regardless of the voices raised against these barbaric methods, their best ally, Colbert (whose statue has just been sprayed with red paint by a militant of the BAN [13]), honored as the founder of democracy, offered them the Black Code -1685-, specifying, in its article 44, the epistemological place where the enslaved were to be kept “let us declare the slaves to be movable (…)”. This is what the so-called Great Discoveries made possible: annihilation, through reification, of the indigenous and black bodies.

However, what authorized the so-called dominants to take on these functions with violence and barbarism?

When we speak of enslavement, we speak of dehumanization, of denial of the right to life, of loss of identity in the name of a supposed superiority of the whites. We are talking about a body that no longer belongs to the one who inhabits it and who lives in it, and which is not only the property of the master but a commodity. So the Whites decided that they were Beings and the Others whom they dominated were Non-Beings.

This relationship to the Other, even after the abolition, has never ceased to be permeated with indignity by the supporters of an ideology permeated by both structural racism and capitalism, which can only be maintained through a violent, dominating relationship to the Other in order to extract ever more profit from them.

This state of affairs was reinforced at the time of the abolitions. The rulers of many slave-owning and colonizing countries considered that they owed a debt only to the owners of the enslaved and not to those who had been enslaved for more than 400 years. Thus France paid compensation[14] to the colonists who abandoned the slaves, because they had no other solution, having to work as precarious workers on the plantations of their former masters, for a miserable wage.

We must stop being naive and understand that the capitalist system in which we live was born from the division of humanity imposed by the ideology of race as a social marker. In Libya, when migrants[15] are sold as our ancestors were, it moves us for a time, but no one, especially not France, which proclaims itself the homeland of human rights, campaigns to the international community to put an end to this ignominy. On the contrary, it continues to sell arms[16] to one of the camps claiming power. One would think that those who believe in capitalism still do not see the perverse and deadly link between slavery and Blacks, between Blacks and race and between race and class.

What we must do through the process of reparations is to restore humanity to the dominant, violent, inhuman humanity that rules by imposing its Euro-centric Modernity and its phantasmagorical belief in white supremacy. The Whites have lost the sense of the Other, the Love of the Other, by enslaving the Blacks of Africa and killing the natives. Frantz Fanon therefore called not in vain “(Let me be allowed) to explore and seek man, wherever he may be. […] […] Superiority? Inferiority? Why not simply try to touch the Other, to feel the Other, revealing the Other to me? […] [17]”.

Until we go through this process, our humanity will be an orphan of itself, vainly trying to invent new rights when the essential need is to end the biological racism that has impacted the deep structure of the former slave and colonizing states. We may be told that this type of racism does not exist or that it is only racial discrimination of the individual type. If the police allow themselves to commit crimes against black bodies – I also include Arabs – it is because this racism is deeply rooted in the collective unconscious of our societies – structural racism that functions as a system – one only has to study the number of incarcerations, of unemployed people, inadequately housed, the number of young people leaving the educational system, the number of countries whose wealth is plundered and whose peoples live in great poverty, to understand, if we want to understand, that it is precisely due to the presence in the ideology advocated by capital and the financialization of the world, of a dominant perception of Beings over Non-Beings.

We must also look at what is happening in terms of population in the islands still colonized by France; Martinique and Guadeloupe, among others. How many Guadeloupeans and Martinicans had no choice but to leave their island to find a job in France? Parallel to their departure, how many French people came to take jobs that Martiniquais or Guadeloupeans could/should have taken? And how many positions of responsibility are held by whites while West Indians have all the required skills?

Interestingly enough, it is this 1% of the liberal capitalist system that maintains 99% of the population in Non-Being zones. Among these Non-Beings, are all who share the deadly history of humanity linked to the transatlantic slave trade, slavery and colonialism and who are, de facto, at the bottom of the ladder. What would be important, if we want a humanly sustainable humanity, would be for all those working on the issues of debt, money laundering and corruption to link this work to the inescapable need for reparations. Otherwise, once again we are content with a cautery on a wooden leg.

This stage of reparations is a humanly necessary step if we want to address not only the question of being human and not an enemy, where there is no longer any reason to think of the other in terms of hierarchy, so that international relations are no longer hegemonic, but anchored in an international law that is neither destructured nor delegitimized by those who consider themselves masters of the world because they are white.

It is clear, therefore, that reparations is a political process that forces us to analyze the founding elements of capitalism and globalization and their consequences for racialized people. If these stages are disqualified or sidelined, as there is a tendency to do, there is a good chance that neither education, commemorative dates nor decolonial strolls will suffice. Just another cautery on a wooden leg!

Structural racism will continue to permeate social, cultural, economic and environmental relations. It must be admitted that we have gone from the Black Code to the Indigenous Code and iniquitous trade or military agreements that allow foreign powers to occupy land to establish military bases without this being questioned by those in positions of domination.

With the “closing” of this sequence of slavery, because the expected profits no longer provided what the states and the slavers hoped for, the doors were opened to colonization, mainly of the continent from which the enslaved came, as a logical continuation of the same system. This system persists, specifically with regard to the invisible black bodies that are silenced to obviate any possibility of claiming their right to dignity.

To conclude, if we want to end structural and systemic racism, as many governments and heads of international institutions claim, we must seriously question structures of globalization and capitalism in the light of race and class, especially since, following the financial crisis of 2008, we understand that capitalism is not the victim of a momentary crisis but of an internal contradiction that is leading to its inexorable collapse. One can legitimately wonder if this contradiction is not based on the will to leave millions of people in the zone of Non-Being, especially since those in positions of domination have wanted to prove, through violence and barbarism, that they alone should benefit from the profits of capital by setting up a racial system that is humanly unworthy?

In this context, can one also question the role played by anti-capitalists or alterglobalists who have never questioned the role of capitalism and globalization in the perpetuation of structural racism, and therefore the impact of structural racism in the maintenance of capitalism? No alternative to capitalism can be built without tackling the sources of structural racism.

Can structural racism be eliminated by abandoning capitalism? Is it possible to get out of capitalism when capitalist living conditions are recognized as the only possible option? Can the demands of black bodies for dignity and life be sufficient to commit them to abandoning the capitalist ideology that keeps them on the side of death?

Can the demands of black bodies for dignity and life be a catalyst for encouraging inhuman humanity to abandon the capitalist ideology that maintains them on the side of death?

This is an outstanding question that can only be answered if Africans and Afro-descendants agree to unite in a decolonial approach to the question of reparations and to address the question of a new humanity in which the universal is revisited not in the light of dominant liberal thought but in the light of dignity in a decolonial perspective.


1] Organizations in the Caribbean and South America, including Jubilee South (http://www.jubileesouth.net) and PAPDA (Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development) https://grassrootsonline.org/who-we-are/partner/haitian-platform-to-advocate-alternative-development-papda/ have launched a cycle of 5 debates to launch the “Life Before Debt” campaign. The Frantz Fanon Foundation participated in one of these debates.

2] June 17, 2020; https://www.nouvelobs.com/manifestations-pour-george-floyd/20200617.OBS30185/esclavage-colonialisme-la-responsable-de-l-onu-michelle-bachelet-plaide-pour-des-reparations.html

3] Durban 2001, 31-7/09

4] https://caricom.org/caricom-ten-point-plan-for-reparatory-justice/

5] https://bj.ambafrance.org/Telecharger-l-integralite-du-Rapport-Sarr-Savoy-sur-la-restitution-du

6] February 2017

[7] https://www.lemonde.fr/election-presidentielle-2017/article/2017/02/15/macron-qualifie-la-colonisation-de-crime-contre-l-humanite-tolle-a-droite-et-au-front-national_5080331_4854003.html

8] Aimé Césaire – discourse on colonialism -1955 ; Editions Présence africaine

9] Read Marx. Karl Marx’s most important texts for the 21st century. Choisis et commentés par Robert Kurz”, La Balustrade, Paris, 2002, pp. 123-127.

10] https://www.lesinrocks.com/2019/06/04/actualite/idees/christine-angot-et-lesclavage-un-discours-ideologique-et-non-informe/

11] Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, among others…

12] Article Mireille FMF, 2015

13] Anti-Negrophobia Brigade; https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2020/06/24/la-statue-de-colbert-vandalisee-devant-l-assemblee-nationale_6043986_3224.html

14] Decree of April 27, 1848; Article 5: “The National Assembly will regulate the portion of the compensation to be granted to the colonists. »

15] https://fondation-frantzfanon.com/en-libye-nos-freres-vendus-aux-encheres/

[16] https://www.lepoint.fr/afrique/armes-francaises-en-libye-ce-soutien-que-paris-ne-peut-plus-cacher-12-07-2019-2324181_3826.php

17] Black skin, white masks, Le Seuil Editions; 1952