Gates points out that contrary to popular belief, Africans played a huge role in the slave trade and were largely responsible for its inception:
did slaves make it to these coastal forts? The historians John Thornton
and Linda Heywood of Boston University estimate that 90 percent of
those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold
to European traders. The sad truth is that without complex business
partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial
agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at
least on the scale it occurred.
Gates argues that reparations to the ancestors of those sold into and subjected to slavery are useless because portioning blame would be far too difficult. Coates does not necessarily disagree, but argues with Gates ‘crude black nationalism in reverse’. He writes:
The crude nationalist
asserts that slavery was a white racist plot, and blankmindedly assumes
that his racial truth of today, somehow also held true half a millenea
ago. Likewise, Gatesimplicitlyasserts that in trading slaves, Africans
somehow violated a common, fraternal “African” spirit.Thus Gates
laments “African selling other Africans into slavery,” and, in his Times
piece, shakes his head at the “sad truth” of African slave-trading.
What goes unasked is whether the Fanti, the Ga or the Mende of the past
even saw themselves as “African.”The crude nationalist and Gates come
out blaming different people, but both commit the fallacy of judging the
sins of the past via the racial tribalism of today.
I didn’t read into Gates piece the same way Coates did, but I do see where Coates is coming from. As an institution, slavery has massively damaged Black American’s standing in society and the need to have some sort of collective understanding about it is in my view, essential. African Americans are still suffering the consequences of slavery – they are amongst the poorest ethnic groups in America and suffer many related problems. There is still institutionalized racism, police discrimination and economic disenfranchisement and growing up black in America is unquestionably more difficult than being white. To counter this however, blame seems pretty useless. Writes Coates:
I don’t support reparations, I support all people grappling with all
aspects of American history–including the
role of people who looked like us, but are not us, in the
slave trade. Seeking that understanding because you’re looking for
someone to blame taints the process, it shades your vision, and before
long you’re ascribing identities to people who never claimed them.
There are, I think, parallels with the Israel/Palestine conflict. In my view a grave crime was committed against the Palestinians by Jewish settlers in the 1940’s. Their land was stolen and a state was created on it without their permission. However, rehashing history and portioning blame to those responsible does little to move the conflict forward. The Palestinians will never get most of their land back or recoup the massive damage done to their society over the generations. There are certainly steps that could be taken to ameliorate their situation (reparations in this case would actually be a good idea), but more broadly speaking, a concession from Israel that a crime was committed would do much to ease the current deadlock. Acknowledging and coming to terms with what your society has done to another is painful and difficult, but it goes a long long way in opening the dialogue for a new, fairer future.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.