Hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is an indelible, haunting painting. It’s a maritime scene: a yellow sun setting above a blood-red sky while hurtling, unruly waves carry an 18th century ship.
These elements don’t stir an emotional response, but the foreground does. Among the flotsam are shackles, limbs reaching out from beneath the water, forms of human beings struggling for survival. This is no accident. These remnants are of kidnapped slaves—cruelly thrown off the ship, left to the elements to suffer an ignoble death, brutally rendered in J.M.W. Turner’s masterpiece “The Slave Ship.”
Only about 400,000 of the millions of kidnapped Africans ultimately landed in North America.
Like the provenance of the Turner work, American slavery’s origins can be accurately traced. An estimated 10 to 12 million kidnapped Africans were transported and shipped via the “Middle Passage” to the New World. About 4 million slaves were sent to the American colonies from the late 15th through the early part of the 19th century.
With a conservative estimate that 1 to 2 million died on the ships, conditions on board are inconceivable to conjure: dignity stripped as humans were chained together, packed tight as if ordinary chattel. Disease was commonplace, the dead and dying (indeed, some of the living) thrown overboard.
Only about 400,000 of the millions of kidnapped Africans ultimately landed in North America (millions went to Brazil), but the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade had a profound impact on the developing American colonies. By the early 1700s, for example, the population of slaves in South Carolina outnumbered the number of free people.
When we’re faced with an image like this one, we are reminded of the barbaric past that influences race relations in the United States today. Could this have been simple greed? Or something more pernicious? Though we are centuries removed from these practices, we are still coming to terms with their legacy. Today, a critical question remains for everyone who enjoys living in a free America: What is my debt to those who involuntarily suffered in the name of liberty and democracy?
This is a difficult question to reconcile. Yet it’s clear that the trauma of slavery continues to impact the contemporary American psyche. It is not enough to claim an absolution of blame simply because centuries have passed and society has progressed. Even the election of the first black president, while admirable, is only a single step in the right direction. To be truly accountable, forward-thinking citizens of a liberty-loving nation, we must rectify these inequities. We need reparations.
All too easily, the concept of reparations can be dismissed as a fanciful notion or anti-American. But look at what is happening: America has never addressed past debts in a satisfactory manner, and the strange fruit of our reticence is injurious, de facto discrimination. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and the ensuing strife in Staten Island, Ferguson, and Baltimore are just a few of the examples.
Reparations are not punitive; they’re restorative.
There have long been efforts to bring reparations into focus, but it is a difficult and unpleasant task. This is why the conversation around reparations has to be altered substantially. In Jewish religious and philosophical thought, there is a framework that addresses the concept of not being excused from past debts. Reparations are not punitive; they’re restorative.
This idea is mirrored by Professor Mary Frances Berry of the University of Pennsylvania in her call for reparations. “Reparations for unpaid labor are restitution,” she says. As the leading advocate for a proposed “reparation superfund,” Berry calls for “payment for damages to make whole for harm done.” She goes on: “No restrictions should be made on how the money is spent. If their ancestors had received wages for their labor, they too would have bought what they wanted, invested it as they desired, or given it to churches or schools or charities.”
Looking below the surface, the economic disequilibrium between whites and blacks is stark. The lack of wealth and economic power in the black community is linked to racial injustices, both obvious and subtle, motivated by unconscious bias. We need a shift in American moral thinking.
There are historical precedents for making reparations. One of the most notable is how Germany acts decades after the events of the Shoah, the Holocaust. Even though German society has evolved considerably and is far removed from those dark events, there is still a desire to show a deep sense of contrition for the evil deeds performed in the name of the nation. Not so long ago, the American government under President Ronald Reagan apologized and gave some compensation to Japanese individuals and their families forced to suffer imprisonment during World War II.
Reparations for slavery are a means to a more just society, not an end to attain absolution. Should we continue to ignore the original turpitude of our founding generations, then we remain complicit. As a Jewish educator, I teach the importance of practicing not only empathy but also action to liberate the enslaved and formerly enslaved. Reparations are our moral responsibility. We must fashion a society that reflects the justice we want to see in the world.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the executive director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, the founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics. This article first appeared in Yes! Magazine.