In the face of racist violence, denied rights, crimes perpetrated over several centuries whose consequences are still being felt, demands for justice and reparations are regularly put forward. They are even more so since June and the protests related to police crimes in the United States. In this interview, conducted at the beginning of February 2020, Mireille Fanon makes concrete statements about a reality that has been denied for too long, even though they might have seemed radical only a few months ago.
Kairos: Has WGEPAD(1) had a draft resolution on reparations in its work?
Mireille Fanon: At present, no multilateral institution is calling for reparations for the crimes against humanity and genocide committed during the transatlantic slave trade, slavery and colonialism. States know very well that to ask for reparations for these crimes or to accept 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. This is why there is a consensus to keep the reparations process out of the political sphere. We consent to memorial events, plaques and perhaps soon to streets or statues. There are initiatives like the Slave Route, but this is not part of a demand for reparations, perhaps in an underlying way, this question was in the minds of those who worked on such a project. But one may wonder if, starting from this project, it is not more a question of situating, through education, geographically the historical facts that have shaped the present society? This is no small thing, but humanity needs to go much further if it wants to reconcile with itself.
The issue of reparations was brought up at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (Durban 2001), but the former slave and colonialist states sought every possible means, including the issue of Palestine, to delegitimize this demand by African states so that the whole conference would fail.
From 2011 to 2017, the issue of reparations was carried by some WGEPAD members, primarily two, to the point that it was hotly debated. This demand was finally heard, but it is still the subject of political politics and therefore of power relations between certain states. The most virulent against any discussion are the Westerners and depending on the wind the other countries are either for or against.
At the Caribbean level, were there not any relaunches?
In 2013, the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) Heads of Government established the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC) as this was a key issue for them. A 10-point action plan for restorative justice was developed and endorsed by government leaders in March 2014; it serves as the basis for discussions on reparations.
In January 2015, the Parliament of Jamaica supported a motion in the House to seek reparations from Britain. Let us remember that in 2007, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, called the transatlantic slave trade a » shameful trade » and a » crime against humanity ». He recognized ‑and this is worth noting, as we keep pointing out that the former slave and colonialist countries owe their wealth to the trade of enslaved people and the systematic plundering of the territories they acquired through theft and violence, which in law is a crime‑, that the » Britain’s « international pre-eminence » has been » partly dependent on a colonial system of slave labor .
In 2015, during a visit to Jamaica by Tony Blair’s successor as Prime Minister, the first in 14 years, David Cameron, acknowledging that » slavery was abhorrent in all its forms(2) « , conceded, in terms of reparations, £25 million in aid to build Jamaica’s new prison. Shortly before, he had proposed that Jamaicans convicted in Britain be sent back to Jamaica to serve their prison terms. To this sum, were added 300 million pounds for the whole of the Caribbean for the construction of infrastructures, while underlining well 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.(3)« According to him, the purpose of the visit was to » reinvigorate ties between the countries, and that he wanted to concentrate on future relations rather than centuries-old issues(4) « . But, of course, he made no apology for the crimes against humanity committed.
Let us note in passing that we never cease to hear apologies and regrets for the war crimes and genocide committed against the 6 million people during the Second World War, but so little for the more than 10 million people torn from their continent, killed, raped, dehumanized and deprived of their dignity by a system which has never, in its ideological aspects, ceased to poison relations with the Other, to destroy the sense of otherness between humans. We are still there.
Concerning the Savoy-Sarr report entitled Restituer le patrimoine africain, don’t you think that this may be a « soft » way to approach the question of reparations for crimes committed during colonization?
No, because if that were the case it should have happened already. In the face of violence against black bodies, in whatever form, 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 give back the dignity to the offended, dehumanized and deacralized bodies of our ancestors, it will never give back the stolen and plundered lands, it will never put an end to the maldevelopment of the African continent and of the Afro-descendants who are considered as non-beings and live in the peripheral areas granted to them by those who have never stopped oppressing them It is good to return the stolen works, and it should have been done already, but it can never be in full settlement.
It is not only objects that have been stolen, as the authors of the report Restituting African Heritage: Towards a Relational Ethic(5) underline: » It is not only objects that have been taken, but reserves of energy, creative resources, deposits of potential, forces of generation of figures and alternative forms of reality, powers of germination; and this loss is immeasurable because it entails a type of relationship and a mode of participation in the world irremediably obsolete « .
By enslaving, dehumanizing, and raping millions of Africans, Europeans have effectively broken « … reserves of energy, creative resources (…), powers of germination .
One can think that if this has still not been done it is simply that the former colonizer does not want to admit to being a colonizer and does not find anything reprehensible in this policy of domination over beings; it does not matter that the French president spoke out, in Algeria, against colonialism in 2017: » This is a crime. It is a crime against humanity. It is a real barbarity, and it is part of the past that we must face and apologize to those towards whom we have committed these acts « . Apologies, yes, but decolonial founding acts with the objective of changing relations with the Other, certainly not.
However, through the legal arguments of concealment and laundering, is there not a way to open the debate on reparations for the crimes committed during colonization?
Why not? In any case, all of this helps to expose the perverse and colonial relationships, but does not affect the issue of reparations for crimes against humanity and genocide. This could be complementary, but we must be very careful not to mask the repair process. Until now, having followed many debates on illegal debt in different contexts, I can only note that reparations have never been addressed. It is not only a question of repairing the crimes of murder, theft and plunder, it is essentially a question of repairing the crime done to the human being and consequently to humanity. This humanity has tipped over into mortifying policies since the so-called « great discoveries ». It is important to be aware of this. In fact, rather than talking about « great discoveries », we should specify that from 1492 onwards, humanity experienced a great metaphysical and demographic catastrophe. In this regard, we must reject the storytelling that aims to make the human catastrophe of the Second World War the only event in the history of humanity. » The possibility of the impossible « For five centuries, many historians, philosophers, intellectuals and politicians have done and continue to do everything in their power to give another interpretation of this catastrophe, even if it means coming to terms with the facts. Even for some(6) to be part of a negationist consensus.
This murderous colonial epic endorsed the politics of race — a socially constructed concept — 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.
What we owe through the reparations process is to restore its human humanity to a dominant, violent humanity — an inhuman humanity — that governs peoples by imposing its Euro-centric modernity and its fantasized belief in white supremacy. The whites have lost, by enslaving the blacks of Africa and killing the natives, the sense of the other, the Love of the other, that is what Frantz Fanon calls for: » May I be allowed to discover and want man, wherever he may be (…) Superiority? Inferiority ? Why not simply try to touch the other, to feel the other, to reveal the other to myself? « (7)
As long as we do not go through this process, our humanity will be orphaned of itself, will vainly try to invent new rights, while the essential need is to end the biological racism that has impacted the deep structure of the former slave and colonizing states.
It may be argued that this type of racism does not exist or that it is only individual racial discrimination. Let’s take the police, if they 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. This structural racism functions as a system — one only has to study the number of incarcerations, the number of people without jobs, poorly housed, poorly cared for, the number of countries whose wealth is plundered and whose people live in great poverty to see, if one wants to, that it is indeed the presence, in the ideology advocated by capital and the financialization of the world, of a dominant perception of beings over non-beings. What is interesting to note is that it is these 1% of the liberal capitalist system that keep the 99% in zones of non-being. Among these non-beings are all those who share the history of this deadly humanity with the transatlantic slave trade, enslavement, colonization and colonialism and who are, de facto, at the end of the scale.
If humanity is to be humanly sustainable, all those working on issues of money laundering and corruption should link this work to the inescapability of the fundamental need for reparations. Otherwise, once again, we will be satisfied with a cautery on a wooden leg.
This is indeed what the Savoy-Sarr report underlined, does it not mention an obligatory passage through repairs? This step is humanly indispensable if we want to address not only the question of the human — human and not enemy — where there is no longer any reason to think of the other in terms of hierarchy, and if we want international relations to be no longer hegemonic, but respectful of 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, then, that reparations are a political process that forces an analysis of the foundational elements of racialization and its relationship to capitalism, but also the consequences for racialized people. If these steps are disqualified, as there is a tendency to do, it is a safe bet that neither education, nor anniversary dates, nor decolonial walks will suffice. Structural racism will continue to permeate social, cultural, economic and environmental relationships.
The « closure » of the enslavement sequence, which no longer provided what the states and slaveholders hoped for in terms of profit, opened the doors to colonization. The end of the slavery sequence because of skin color, the independence acquired most often in blood and the noise of weapons did not put an end to the paradigm of domination based on what North Americans call the color line. The sequence of the colonization of the continent from which millions of beings had been enslaved was passed. Ideology has only changed its object, and still so little. We’re still here.
Could we compare the period of the abolition of slavery (knowing that there were other forms of serfdom) to the colonial period, which was then prolonged by the debt-system and the tutelage of international financial institutions?
I would first like to point out that one cannot/should not consider slavery as a form of serfdom. No, we are talking about dehumanization, denial of the right to life, loss of identity in the name of a supposed superiority of whites. We are talking about a body that no longer belongs to the person who lives in it, that is not only the property of the master, but a commodity.
In the case of the coloniality of power that is exercised in the context of international relations, it is clear that black bodies are just tolerated. One only has to look at how the continent is viewed. This is an affront to a humanity that claims to work for dignity and equal rights, and even more for the universality of rights. This is yet another lie!
The debt does not pose the same problem; it raises the question of a debt supposedly owed by poorly developed peoples to those who rob and kill them, if necessary. This type of debt was put in place by the former colonizers to maintain their yoke on the people; but a yoke presented as « democratic », for the good of the people, for transparency and against corruption. The violence of the colonial yoke has been transformed into a form that is more acceptable to the peoples of the North, who still too often look at the peoples of the South in a paternalistic manner, to say the least.
Working on the debt perhaps implies questioning the origin of this process. It will be discovered that the slave states, at the time of the abolitions, in the course of the 19th century, considered that they owed a debt only to the owners of the enslaved and not to those who had suffered for more than 400 years this enslavement. Thus France paid compensations(8) to the colonists leaving the former enslaved, because they had no other solution, forced to work on the plantations of their former masters, for a miserable wage. They have become the precarious workers of their former tormentors. The debt consists in bringing to their knees, and especially in leaving them in this position, the peoples who would have the will to demand an account of the lands that are stolen from them, of the natural resources that are plundered by transnationals and of the economic policies that are imposed on them through structural adjustment programs or iniquitous agreements. The most emblematic case is that of Haiti. It is the victims of slavery who are kept in a status of immoral precariousness and it is the formerly colonized countries that have to pay debts to their former colonizers. Nothing has changed and humanity has not changed the paradigm of domination that is part of a production relationship in favor of the slaveholder and the colonist.
Let’s 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 and even more as a right to life. Slave-owning colonists had the right to life and death over enslaved people; the Black Code drawn up by Jean Baptiste Colbert (1685), whose statue has just been repainted in red by an activist of the BAN(9)specifies the epistemological place where the enslaved were to be kept ». declare the slaves to be movable(10)(…). This is what the so-called « Great Discoveries« have allowed.
In Libya, when migrants(11) are sold like our ancestors were, it moves for a while, but nobody, and especially not France, self-proclaimed fatherland of human rights, campaigns for this ignominy to stop; on the contrary, it sells weapons(12) to one of the camps. In the United States, in Brazil, in France, in Europe more generally, it is the Afro-descendants (in this term I include all the people from the African continent, from the North to the South) who are the first victims of police violence.
When you definitively announce, » Black people are seen as inferior and not considered human ‚ » you build a putative unconscious around that.
I am not the one building this putative unconscious; it has been there de facto for over 400 years. It translates into the invisibilization of black bodies, the silence on their claims for their right to dignity. Their alternative: death. And this is sadly what we are forced to see when we analyze the number of incarcerations, school dropouts, victims or problematic health or job loss or underemployment in many former slave and colonialist countries.
We have seen further evidence of this with the coronavirus(13) which affects the most precarious, and mainly African-descendants and African-Americans.
Have there been any attempts at dialogue between the different working groups to work together?
We are not yet at the point of convergence of struggles. All those who claim to be anti-racist should define exactly what they mean by anti-racist. Everyone claims to be anti-racist. It is another thing to assume to be part of a process totally dependent on political anti-racism. That is to say, I do not only denounce class discrimination, but also racialization of Afro-descendants and Africans who are indeed racialized people. This is not and never has been the case for whites. When we hear intellectuals assert that a new form of racism is emerging: that affecting whites, we think we are dreaming in front of such nonsense and such ignorance of what it means to be racialized. The particularity of the system that installed the transatlantic slave trade, enslavement and colonialism is that it was built on the paradigm of domination in which whites took on the functions of domination as defined by Robert Kurz.
Interview by Robin Delobel, retranscription by Dounia Dorkenoo
- WGEPAD : groupe de travail d’experts sur les personnes d’ascendance africaine.
- « L’esclavage était odieux sous toutes ses formes ».
- « J’espère que, en tant qu’amis qui ont vécu tant de choses ensemble depuis ces temps les plus sombres, nous pouvons aller de l’avant et continuer à construire pour l’avenir ».
- « revitaliser les liens entre les pays, et qu’il souhaitait se concentrer sur les relations futures plutôt que des questions vieilles de plusieurs siècles. ».
- Peau noire, masques blancs, Le Seuil, 1952.
- Décret du 27 avril 1848 ; article 5 « L’Assemblée nationale réglera la quotité de l’indemnité qui devra être accordée aux colons. »; http://www2.assemblee-nationale.fr/14/evenements/2016/abolition-de-l-esclavage-1794-et-1848/1848-l-abolition-definitive#node_32613.
- Brigade anti-négrophobie; https://la1ere.francetvinfo.fr/statue-colbert-taguee-devant-assemblee-nationale-paris-845972.html.
- Le Code noir, article 44.