Return to Recent Articles menu

Reparations Without Talking About Capitalism

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

18 August 2020

Now and again proposals for reparations for slavery and other historic legacies that continue to affect groups of people arise.  There is no doubt slavery is not part of the past, in the sense that the effects and racism continue to be felt and are part of the lives of many people.  The debate usually centres on slavery in the USA, but it is not the only country in which demands are raised and not all proposals are the same.  In that country, one of most recent and eloquent proponents is Ta-Nehisi Coates.  As with many of the identitarian arguments, he gets it right when it comes to describing some elements of reality, but his proposals are divorced from, not only reality, but also history.  In his famous article on reparations, published in the magazine The Atlantic, Coates analyses what slavery was.  According to him, even in the 20th Century, Blacks fled the south of the USA as their ancestors had done in search of a relative freedom in the north.  Blacks, whilst they worked the land, lived under a system of perpetual debt and those who dared to rebel, placed themselves in danger.  What he describes is true.  He also cites a report from the Associated Press which details a small part of the theft of land that Black inhabitants of the south suffered.  What he narrates is just a part of it, the report itself acknowledges that there are more stolen lands that could not be gone into detail on due to a lack of documentation, but there is an undeniable fact:

In 1910, black Americans owned at least 15 million acres of farmland, nearly all of it in the South, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census. Today, blacks own only 1.1 million acres of farmland and are part owners of another 1.07 million acres.

The number of white farmers has declined too, as economic trends have concentrated land in fewer hands. But black ownership has declined 2 1/2 times faster than white ownership, according to a 1982 federal report, the last comprehensive government study on the trend.(1)

In the few cases that they could investigate, they found in 107 cases of theft of land, involving 406 Black owners, that they lost 24,000 acres, including urban plots and shops.  Almost all of that land is now in White hands.(2)  The methodology used to take over the land, is something very well known to any Colombian, legal trickery, legislative manoeuvres, corruption and of course violence.  One of the cases cited by Coates, could have taken place yesterday in Colombia, but it is from 112 years ago in the USA (and in passing it is worth pointing out that in the USA they care little about the violence in Colombia, as they identify with it).
After midnight on Oct. 4, 1908, 50 hooded white men surrounded the home of a Black farmer in Hickman, Ky., and ordered him to come out for a whipping.  When David Walker refused and shot at them instead, the mob set fire to his house, according to contemporary newspaper accounts. Walker ran out, followed by four screaming children and his wife with a baby in her arms. The mob shot them all, wounding three children and killing the others.  Walker’s oldest son never escaped the burning house.

No one was ever charged with the killings, and the surviving children were deprived of the land their father had died to defend. Records show that Walker’s 2 1/2-acre farm was simply folded into the property of a white neighbor, who soon sold it to another man--whose daughter owns the undeveloped land today.(3)

An emotive tale, instantly recognisable to any Colombian peasant.  In Colombia such stories are so common, no one doubts the concentration of land in the country.  Thousands upon thousands of people suffered that fate in the years of The Violence.(4)  The words of the Colombian poet, Carlos Castro Saavedra illustrates this reality.

HAVE YOU not thought of an immense night?
(a Colombian night)
And a peasant waiting in the middle of it
waiting on a bullet
for all the family?

If you have not, then think!
and you will see that the houses begin to cry
through the eyes of the windows.
You just don't know what to say
nor do with your hands.

That violence used to take over land is part of Colombian reality and it is not in the past but in the present.  The Movement for Victims of State Crime (MOVICE) carried out a study on this phenomenon in mining areas.  Up to December 31st 2016, 100,158 requests for land restitution had been made under Law 1448 of 2011, known more popularly as the Land Restitution Law and there were judicial warrants issued on 200,000 hectares.  However, very little of this land was returned to its original owners and the Santos government (2010-2018) tried to introduce an article in its National Development Plan that set out that in the parts of the country in which it established that a National Interest Plan existed, that in those places they couldn't return land, though that article was later overturned by the Constitutional Court.(5)

Another study found that just in the counties of San Diego, Becerill, El Copey, Agustín Codazzi and Chiriguaná in the department of Cesar, 375 families has los 9,063 hectares.(6)  In Urabá we find that the Black communities, 20 years after many legal battles, occupations and struggles with the paramilitaries have still not got their land back; as in the mining areas, the land is the hands of large national and international companies, such as Uniban o Chiquita Brands, which acknowledged it had financed paramilitary groups.  The majority of this land is also in the hands of Whites from the USA, Europe and other parts.

The Forjando Futuro Foundation found, having revised 5,732 court judgements representing 9,591 cases that 66 companies had been sentenced to return land.  Amongst them, various subsidiaries of DOLE, and a subsidiary of the Irish multinational Smurfits and the US mining company, Drummond.  More than 60% of the land stolen belonged to small landowners with an area between 1 and 20 hectares.(7)  It is worth pointing out that despite going through so many files, the figures cited by this foundation like the ones used by A.P and Coates are just the tip of the Iceberg and in many cases, as the MOVICE found in its study, the judges even when they find that there was a theft do not always order the land to be returned.  To date only 377,970 hectares have been returned, which is not even 5% of all the land stolen and 69% of the cases resolved there was no contest from any company or individual.

Furthermore, according to a report presented by human rights organisations to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, just 17% of the land restitution cases is are "forwarded to a criminal investigative body to punish those responsible i.e. 83% of land theft cases and forced displacement remain in impunity.  And of those cases forwarded to the Chief Prosecutor's Office there has been no significant progress in the criminal process regarding investigations and punishment."(8)

According to "the Commission for the Monitoring of Public Policy on Forced Displacement  [it] estimates that up to 2010, at least 6,638,195 hectares had been stolen or forcibly abandoned by the displaced population by that time" and it is calculated that around 3.8 million people had to abandon their land or had it forcibly taken from them.(9)

It is worth stating that although Coates does not speak much of the present (in fact he has a cut off point in time), Blacks own barely 1% of the land in the USA despite being 13% of the population and there exists an increasing concentration of land in the hands of Whites.  In 2019, 100 landowners in the USA held 40 million acres, an increase from 30 million acres in 2009.(10)  Coates doesn't talk about this as this is the Obama period and according to Coates, they were eight years of Black power in the USA.  The stupidity of the position falls under its own weight but it is worth pointing out.

Coates also points to practices such as the sale of houses, where Blacks were charged more and in worse conditions than Whites with sales through private intermediaries and not through the banks.  In fact, Coates cites many indicators and historical fact and their current impacts and is right about all of it, at least as far as the statistics are concerned.  Some of these practices may be in the past, but their impacts are in the present, many of the historical practices transformed over time in order to try and achieve the same, division between Whites and Blacks, segregation in housing, in work, in schools even in swimming pools.  When they tried to integrate public swimming pools in the South, the solution for the racists was to stop funding public swimming pools and nowadays you have to go to a private pool which depends on the neighbourhood where you live, if there are private pools, whether they are segregated areas in practice or not.  There are always ways of perpetuating racial and economic divisions and Coates has also written about the mass imprisonment of Blacks in the United States, something which is partly the result of the policies of his dear Democratic Party and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

A more recent example is the economic crisis we have been living through and the housing crisis that affects the whole world, particularly minorities.  The foreclosures in that country were world news, especially in 2008 in the midst of the banking and real estate crisis.  A Black person in the USA is 3.3 times more likely to be a victim of a foreclosure than a White person, and given banking practices, the word victims is the most appropriate.  Coates criticises Wells Fargo and Bank of America for their depredatory lending practices, but he has no criticism of the banking system in and of itself, which affects everyone, everywhere.  The implication is that there is such a thing as a just mortgage, when the root problem, both for Blacks and Whites is their income level and the injustice of ALL mortgages in the entire world.  Banks are leeches even when they do not discriminate.

In the second quarter of 2019, house owners in the USA owed 10,440,000,000,000 dollars! (11) and every three months 250,000 families are victims of a foreclosure.  In their study on these types of events, race and ethnicity Gruenstein Bocian et al found that 56% of those who lost their houses between 2007 and 2009 were Whites, but calculated that 8% of Blacks and Latinos that took out a loan lost their homes compared to 4.5% of Whites and for loans given between 2005 and 2008, there were 790 evictions for every 10,000 loans to Blacks, 769 for every 10,000 Latinos and 452 for every 10,000 Whites.(12)  And one thing we all know in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, is that 46% of US families do not have enough liquid cash to survive three months and that 52% of workers live pay cheque to pay cheque, according to official figures.(13)

The 2008 crisis left whole countries, such as Ireland and Greece, bankrupt.  Both countries, under pressure from imperialist countries, took on the debt and guaranteed the losses of US, British, German and French investors who didn't lose a penny.  In Colombia, in the absence of a banking crisis, the UPAC-UVR system led to the loss of tens of thousands of people losing their homes in the country.  In 2015, it was calculated that 1,500,000 families were at risk of eviction.(14)  The discrimination that Coates refers to, occurs within a depredatory system, something which he does not want to acknowledge.  There are no good banks, as the old saying from Brecht goes, a bigger thief is he who founds a bank than he who goes into one to rob it.  But Coates omission is hardly surprising, his idol Barack Obama received funds from many banks and other financial institutions for his campaign.  In the electoral campaign of 2008, year in which Obama won his first presidential election and the year of greatest mortgage crisis, the democrats received from the financial institutions, insurance and real estate companies $278,019,697 dollars, compared to the $263,143,299 dollars received by the republicans.  It is worth pointing out that Coates is part of a group of intellectuals who feathered their nest in the Obama years.

The main problem with Coates analysis is that he is incapable of seeing a solution outside of capitalism and as the good bourgeois he is, he discounts it outright.  He states that maybe "after a serious discussion and debate... we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans."  He cites the example of reparations paid to Jews after the Second World War and how just 29% of Germans thought they should be repaid, although his praise of reparations made to the state of Israel is undignified as Israel is a state that does exactly what he denounces, it is a state founded on the basis of murder, displacement and the theft of millions of Palestinians.  Every time a Black person or organisation wants to struggle against racism, against the historic legacy of slavery, or the modern practices of capitalism in the USA, they are under no obligation to point out that these problems also exist amongst other groups.  They have the right to talk about their own problems, but when it comes to proposing solutions they do have to take into account the socio-economic context of the rest of the population, of the political policies that affect the entire population.  The problem with Coates and right wing identitarians like him is that they don't want to make any real changes to capitalism but just rather tweak it at the edges.

The demands for reparations don't just come from sectors in the USA, but also in the Caribbean.  It is not surprising as slavery was much more important to their economies than the USA and unlike that country the Caribbean countries are not world powers.

In 2014 the Caricom nations (Caribbean Community) ratified a plan to present lawsuits against various European countries and begin a campaign for reparations. It is important to understand the history of slavery in the Caribbean.  The Puerto Rican academic José Atiles describes it very well.  It is not a mere mistake of some individuals but a systemic event which involved states, royal families and even corporations.

... both the British Crown and British and European corporations used law, legal and civilization discourse in the processes of extermination of the Caribbean indigenous people and the plunder of their land in such a manner that they were an early manifestation of what we have termed colonial state crimes.  An important aspect of these practices is that the majority of the lands stolen by the British army passed into private hands and / or the hands of companies that would implement a plantation economy on the islands, i.e. the colonisation of the Caribbean and the extermination of the indigenous was possible thanks to a corporate structure and a web of public-private relations that privileged the interests of the British political and economic elites and the colonists in the Antilles.  Thus we can argue that law played a key role in the process of colonisation and extermination of Caribbean peoples over three centuries.(15)
Some, including Atiles have criticised the initiative as been too legalistic and may depoliticise the demands.  It is true, but if we look at this campaign's demands, which at the start at least was a campaign of bourgeois governments from the Caribbean, we can see that they are light years ahead of the demands of people like Ta-Nehisi Coates.  They at least, acknowledge there is a structural problem that cannot be resolved with a cheque in hand for each individual.

The Caribbean governments' demands are to be found in a 10-point programme, the first point being something Coates could agree with: acknowledging what happened and a public apology.  Although as Atiles says, it is unlikely that they will do so, as to acknowledge the past has current political and economic implications.  However, the structural aspect is very positive.

There are some points which are problematic such as the right of return to Africa.  So much time has passed, it is doubtful as to how viable it is, besides a democratic demand of open borders for all.  As with the descendants of slaves in the USA, the arrival of Black yanks to Africa would entail many problems similar to White yanks arriving with a green chequebook in hand, just as the North American and European companies do at the moment.  The other points, however, are important, even bearing in mind the criticisms of Atiles and others.

They demand that European states contribute economically and scientifically to resolving health problems arising from slavery and colonialism.  Such a demand in the USA would mean going further than Obamacare, and would place the health business in doubt, not just for Blacks but for the entire population, to the detriment of health insurance companies, private hospitals and of course the donors to Obama's campaign, as well as bourgeois types such as Coates.  They also demanded the eradication of illiteracy amongst the Caribbean peoples paid for by European states.  Once again in the USA they would have to face a root problem within the educational system, something that neither Obama nor Coates ever aimed to do.

Illiteracy has undermined the possibilities of development implemented by the Caribbean states and represents one of the most important obstacles to economic and social development.  The Caribbean governments have allocated more than 70% of their budgets to dealing with health and educational problems left by colonialism and slavery.  As an act of decolonial justice the European governments have the duty to participate in these literacy efforts by the Caribbean people. We believe that if the European states deal with the health and education demands, as we see the mobilisations for reparations, they would be making a gesture that would help achieve justice for the years of exploitation and denial of a human treatment for the Caribbean colonial subjects.(16)
They also include psychological programmes, exchange programmes with Africa and a transfer of technology, as at the end of the day as many, from Marx to an endless list of academics and left activists, have explained, the industrial revolution is a product of slavery, that James Watt, without the investments of slavers in his technology would never have amounted to much.  It is time to revert the flow of technological development.  Furthermore, they demand the cancellation of the Caribbean states international debts.  Coates for his part does not touch the issue much, although he talks a lot about theft.  He complains about the excesses and arbitrary acts of the banking system with Blacks in the USA, but he never touches the banking system as such.  With the Caribbean states the debts are not minor ones, but are a fundamental issue that goes beyond particular and / or historic debts for the region, any debt cancellation initiative places the entire banking system in doubt, including the banks that donated to Obama and his acolytes.  All banks are thieves; all their boards are gangs engaged in joint conspiracy to commit crime.  All of their products are criminal acts.  This does not just include Goldman Sachs, but even banks that claim they are Black banks like One United.  However, banks are banks, there are no good and bad banks, they are all leeches, they are all part of the capitalist financial system.

Coates reaffirmed his position on reparations in an interview with The New Yorker in 2019.

The case I make for reparations is, virtually every institution with some degree of history in America, be it public, be it private, has a history of extracting wealth and resources out of the African-American community.  I think what has often been missing...  that behind all of that oppression was actually theft.  In other words, this is not just mean.  This is not just maltreatment.  This is the theft of resources out of that community.(17)
He is not wrong.  It is true that the institutions extracted wealth from the Black communities in the USA.  His problem is that he does not understand or want to accept what that means.  It is worth remembering that Coates, as the Black academic Cornel West stated, is the neoliberal wing of the struggle of Black communities,(18) and as such he doesn't want to accept that what takes place is the normal functioning of capitalism.  Proudhon, the anarchist wrote a text entitled What is Property? more popularly known by the famous phrase from the text "Property is theft".
If I were asked to answer the following question: What is slavery? and I should answer in one word, It is murder, my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argument would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death; and that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why, then, to this other question: What is property! may I not likewise answer, It is robbery, without the certainty of being misunderstood; the second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first?(19)
Marx would later criticise his concept of property, as theft can only exist if property already exists and Proudhon only criticised large scale property, not property in and of itself, but for our purposes here, Proudhon sees in slavery an economic relationship of property and that the capitalist system of property is part of the same slave system or flows from it.  For Marx the issue was even simpler, as Marx talked of surplus value, that is the appropriation of the wealth created by workers, be they workers who are nominally free or slaves.  The measure of the value of a product is labour time, so surplus value is the accumulated product, in the form of profits of the labour time paid i.e. if to generate his salary a worker must work one day, the other four or five, depending on the country, what he works is appropriated or extracted by the capitalist.  It is also theft, though Marx did not like moralistic phrases, but fortunately Coates and his ilk are not capable of placing the debate on a different plain.

All capitalists steal, extract wealth be it in the form of labour or in rent, interests etc.  What Coates describes happened to the entire working class in the USA and the rest of the world and this has not changed.  He is incapable of seeing the capitalist system in front of his eyes, not even when he describes it so eloquently.  Only when he talks of police violence can he describe what reparations might look like, but in general he mocks those who ask the question.  But the question is real, as he sees everything in individual and not systemic terms, then someone pays and someone receives, it is a valid question.  Barack Obama on his father's side is the descendent of an non enslaved African, but on his White mother's side there are slavers.(20)  So does he pay or receive?  It is a stupid question really.

Coates and others, completely ignore the violence waged against the indigenous of the USA.  It is true that Lincoln promised land to the freed slaves and he broke his promise, but that land that they were going to get was stolen from the Indigenous by Whites.  In the USA, Great Britain and Colombia the slavers were economically compensated for the loss of their property and loss of profit.  Nothing was given to the slaves.  At that time, it would have been useful to calculate how much each person was owed and pay them.  Now it would be impossible and completely ignores the economic structure.  This is why the demands of the Caribbean countries are bourgeois demands, not anti-capitalists ones, but they have an advantage over Coates, they demand structural changes from the states that participated in it.  They talk of states, not of the capitalist system as such, but it is a huge advance on the bourgeois moralism of Coates.

Capitalism owes almost the entire world for the extraction of surplus value.  It also owes the world for the violence waged and this is not in the past.  In Libya there are open air markets for the sale of African slaves.  It is the result of the interventions by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and in passing their champion Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Who pays who?

We can also see the violence waged in Iraq by US troops of all races.  Who pays who? or do the modern Africans and the Iraqis not have the right to compensation for the recent violence?  It is worth recalling that US companies have been robbing the oil in the Arab world for decades and they intensified that after the invasion of Iraq.

The question of reparations has only one possible solution and that is to abolish the system that inflicted the violence, that appropriates what is not theirs, whose companies destroy the world, pollute, murder at will in Latin America and Africa and other parts and oppress and divide the working class of the world.  Coates and his identitarians are not the solution, but rather they are part of the problem.  It is as professor Adolph Reed says, "identitarian politics are not an alternative to class politics; they are class politics of the left wing of neoliberalism.

In his interview with The New Yorker, mentioned above, Coates praised the neoliberal Elizabeth Warren.  There is nothing more to be said, other than perhaps that in Colombia and other parts they are waiting for reparations that are owed by Coates, Warren, Obama and Clinton, amongst others, or the burial of the system that has caused us all such harm.


(1) Todd Lewan & Doris Barclay (02/12/2001) When They Steal Your Land, They Steal Your Future. The Los Angelus Times.

(2) Ta Nehisi Coates (2014) The Case For Reparations. The Atlantic

(3) Todd Lewan & Doris Barclay Op. Cit.

(4) A period that is slightly elastic in its definition but is taken as the period following the murder of the leader Gaitán in 1948 and extends to 1958, a period in which around 250,000 people were killed out of a total population of 11 million people.

(5) See Ó Loingsigh, G. (2019) Extractivismo y muerte en el nororiente.  Equipo Jurídico Pueblos. Bogotá p. 38

(6) Ibid.,
(7) See

(8) CCJ et al (2019) Radiografía de la restitución de tierras en Colombia. CCJ. Bogotá. p.7
(9) Ibíd, p.21
(10) See

(11) Data from
(12) Gruentstein Bocian, D. et al (2010) Foreclosures by Race and Ethnicity: The Demographics of a Crisis.

(13) Data from

(14) Ortiz Soto (15/05/2015) Cortes ordenan reliquidar créditos hipotecarios UPAC /UVR.  Revista Semana

(15) Atiles-Osoria, J.M. (n.d.) Movilizaciones caribeñas por la justicia y la reparación: el caso de Caricom p.9 (electronic copy)

(16) Ibíd., p.24
(17) The New Yorker (10/06/2019) The New Yorker Interview: Ta-Nehsisi Coates Revisits the Case for Reparations

(18) West, C. (17/12/2017) Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle. The Guardian..

(19) Proudhon, J.P. (1840) What is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and Government
(20) The Chicago Tribue (02/03/2007) Report: Obama's kin owned slaves

Return to top of page