Academic journal article African Studies Review

Framing Reparations Claims: Differences between the African and Jewish Social Movements for Reparations

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Framing Reparations Claims: Differences between the African and Jewish Social Movements for Reparations

Article excerpt

(Editors' note: Our panel of peer reviewers sustained strikingly divergent views of the original version of this article, so we thought we would bring to the readers of the ASR some of the issues signaled by our initial reviewers. We sent the manuscript to several Africanist scholars and invited them to send in comments. We are pleased to publish their reactions, immediately following this article, together with a response by Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann.)


Africans interested in reparations from the West frequently ask why the Jewish movement for reparations for the Holocaust was successful, whereas Africans have been unable to obtain reparations for the slave trade, colonialism, and post-colonial relations with the West. This article addresses this question using social movement theory and argues that success depends to a large extent on how the claim for reparations is framed. Past treatment of Africans by the West violated key contemporary norms of bodily integrity, equality, and private property. Yet the victims are no longer living, the perpetrators are diffuse, some of the harms were legal when they were committed, and the causal chain of harm is long and complex.

Reparations Claims as Social Movements

A common question posed by Africans in search of reparations is "Why did the Jews obtain reparations, yet we can't?" In interviews we conducted about reparations from 2002 to 2004 with seventy-five African ambassadors, academics, policymakers, and human rights activists, many indicated awareness of reparations made to Jewish victims of the Holocaust and their survivors. (Lombardo & Howard-Hassmann 2005). Some were also aware of reparations paid to Japanese Americans, and most were aware of the nascent movement for reparations to African Americans. Many also referred to the United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa, in September 2001 (hereafter the Durban Conference) as the event that sparked their interest in reparations.

The question "Why the Jews, why not us?" implies that the moral case for reparations to Africa is as strong as the case for reparations to Jews, if not stronger. Africans sometimes note that Jewish Holocaust victims were compensated for "only" twelve (or six) years' suffering (Mazrui & Mazrui 2002:87). By contrast, Africans have suffered for five hundred and sixty years, ever since the transadantic slave trade began in 1444. Moreover, the facts regarding the African slave trade and colonialism appear to be clear and unassailable. To explain why these facts are not strong enough to generate reparations, we analyze reparations claims as social movements.1 This paper is not a normative analysis, and it does not reflect our personal views on whether Africans are owed reparations

Meyer and Whittier define a social movement as "a collection of formal organizations, informal networks, and unaffiliated individuals engaged in a more or less coherent struggle for change" (1994:277). The movement for reparations to Africa so far consists only of a few unaffiliated or loosely affiliated individuals and a very small network, with no formal organization. Any successful social movement also requires a compelling framing of its demand for change. This applies just as much to the demand for reparations for an injustice as to any other demand, however moral and self-evident the demand may seem to those making it. Snow and Benford (1988:198) note that one important function of a social movement is to "frame, or assign meaning to and interpret, relevant events and conditions in ways that are intended to mobilize potential adherents and constituents, to garner bystander support, and to demobilize antagonists." Framing requires decisions about who is the perpetrator of a wrong, who is the victim, what exactly is the wrong to be compensated, and what are the reparations desired. …

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