ourEconomy: Opinion

Delivering reparatory justice means uprooting the legacies of colonialism

Reparations are not charity or aid – but an acknowledgment of responsibility by industrialised nations that they should pay their just dues

Keston K. Perry
30 August 2021, 4.20pm
Image by Ermina Takenova, all rights reserved

I was born in Trinidad and Tobago – the southernmost Caribbean island nation that has been colonised by the Spanish, French, Dutch and, most significantly, the British.

I grew up without much money. My mother worked numerous low-paying jobs to support me and my siblings. When I was 13, she migrated to the US and became a domestic worker, sending us money to buy food and to support our education.

I was fortunate to benefit from public scholarships and a chance to escape intergenerational poverty due to increased revenues from Trinidad and Tobago’s oil and gas reserves, which once produced up to 60% of the British empire’s oil output.

The Caribbean plantation economy was designed to brutally extract and export natural resources such as sugar, oil, bauxite, coffee and cocoa, among other commodities that were all primarily dependent on enforced African labour and, later, Asian indentured labour.

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This legacy of colonialism still permeates the land and air – and our bodies. Centuries of monocrop cultivation, soil exhaustion and inadequate infrastructure have made Trinidad and Tobago and other Caribbean islands more susceptible to annual flooding, landslides, tropical storms and water shortages.

Today, Afro- and Indo-Trinidadians and Tobagonians are more predisposed to premature death by non-communicable diseases (such as heart disease, diabetes, strokes and cancer), as well as COVID-19, than the white population. Meanwhile, the island’s elites continue to enrich themselves and their international allies in the finance, tourism and oil industries.

To institute a comprehensive reparative economic agenda we need an international approach

Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica rank among the top ten in the world for police-related killings per capita. Police violence is on the rise too: in recent years, police-related killings in the country have increased by an alarming 86%.

This police system is a colonial relic, established to punish Black enslaved and indentured peoples when their resistance threatened plantation profits.

However, last year’s worldwide Black Lives Matter protests have led to demands to dismantle this racial capitalist system. It was an amazing call to action by Black peoples and allies calling for reparatory justice in the face of state-sanctioned violence that devalues our collective existence.

Today, the forces working against these movements are becoming more complex. Witness the current backlash against critical race theory, and claims that the UK is not institutionally racist – even as demands for reparatory justice continue.

Yet much of the discussion around reparations continues to be limited to national issues and does not reflect the common struggle by Black people against white supremacy in postcolonial and settler colonial societies. To institute a comprehensive reparative economic agenda – and to uproot the legacies of colonialism and violence – we need an international approach.

Transnationalism is vital

The struggle by Black, Indigenous and people of colour everywhere for liberation and self-determination is universal, as well as distinct according to individual circumstance.

In the US, the reparations discussion is often fixated on a national framework – making monetary claims to the federal government for its responsibility for enslavement and Jim Crow segregation. This ignores how slavery was a region-wide affair. For example, the US participated in slave trading and provided military and economic support for British colonies in the Caribbean; today, it continues to dominate the global economy and has occupied many Black-majority countries such as Haiti.

The more radical elements of the reparations movement in the US, led by the Movement for Black Lives, includes Black immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa. I find this form more convincing because it acknowledges the pan-African paradigm and transnational repercussions of global white supremacy.

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In the Caribbean, reparations for native genocide and Black enslavement are demanded from a former (some argue enduring) colonial power. While the Caricom Reparations Commission – represented by the heads of Caribbean states seeking reparations from the UK and other European ex-colonial powers – includes elements of a transnational reparations framework, I am doubtful whether these ruling elites can be the legitimate arbiters of this agenda.

We must ensure that local community needs are prioritised, while remaining vigilant about not simply contributing to the existing extractive and unequal economic system. And we need to organise across boundaries and borders. The outcomes for pan-African communities will probably be undercut if we do not connect our struggles.

Reparations must centre on climate change

A national framework for reparations is also unviable in an era of climate breakdown that disproportionately affects Caribbean, Black and Indigenous communities.

US, British and European states advanced Black dispossession abroad and at home through trillions of dollars worth of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and their disproportionate carbon emissions. Fossil fuel companies should also contribute directly to a reparations agenda. ExxonMobil, Shell, BHP Billiton and BP are among 100 other fossil fuel producers who have contributed more than 71% of total greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

These reparations funds should empower institutions related to care, food, renewable energy and low carbon work. Instead the government of the UK – which is one of the largest cumulative emitters of greenhouse gases – decided to close its Department for International Development and cut its international aid budget by 30%.

Reparations are not charity or aid, but an acknowledgment of responsibility by industrialised nations that they should pay their just dues.

We need to organise across borders and in our local networks. We need to discuss how colonialism shaped our societies; how our peoples and resources built industrial Europe; and how they are now sacrificial lambs to climate disaster, state violence, hostile borders and poorly organised health education and food systems.

Only through connecting our struggles in solidarity can we advance true liberation and reparatory justice.

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