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Fixing Yesterday’s Problems: Reparations and Past Injustice

When it comes to issues of the past, our view can often be misted by the phenomenon that is time. Over the generations, facts become lost to the ether and legends turn into myths as the world gradually misplaces history. This is why there are no concrete answers to a great many questions about the world. Time will conquer all. What time has yet to conquer however, are the past atrocities which some can still remember from a first-person perspective. Even those a couple of generations on can say with absolute certainty that there are past injustices which are yet to be accounted for. The Slave Trade. The massacres of native Americans. The dispossession of aboriginal land in Australia. The exhumation of ancient tombs in Egypt. A great many situations can be brought to exemplify cases where one people has wronged another and has yet to set the record straight. Now that we can address the problems of the world like never before, should this be something we turn our sights to?

Well, Bernie says no! When it comes to large scale projects to account for past injustice, Bernie Sanders does not stand alone in his belief that tackling these issues treats the symptom, not the disease. Senator Sanders would prefer that we focus on tackling the inequalities of today, rather than addressing those inequalities of the past separately, and when it comes down to it, that is not such a bad idea. The task of accounting for past injustice is one which grows as each day passes. It becomes increasingly difficult to attribute right and wrong to the agents of the past, and we often cannot even associate those living now to their ancestors, let alone reimburse the long-lost victims of past injustice. Even if you could somehow achieve these insurmountable tasks, how on earth can you begin to repay people for these injustices? The truth is that it is just easier and more accurate to account for our current problems than revisit the past and try to solve the problems of yesterday’s world.

Except, that really is not good enough, because a great many of the problems that people face today are a direct result of yesterday’s atrocities. While it may well be impossible to breathe life back into those communities that were massacred in the name of colonialism, or replace the sacred artefacts stolen from entombed Pharaohs, we still have a moral and ethical obligation to see that the impact of those actions is discontinued today. Right now, we simply are not doing that. When people look at race in America, for example, they see vast inequalities which have come about due to different coloured skin. This is but a fraction of the real picture though. A significant reason that Black communities in the US are facing hardship is to do with unsolved past injustices against the same communities, just two centuries ago.

Black communities in America are poorer now because they always have been poorer. It is no coincidence that Black people are killed at thrice the rate of white people during police encounters, or that there is still a persistent wage gap between Black and white communities in the US. Yesterday’s problems are today’s problems, and we must be able to recognize that if we are ever going to truly solve them. The first step is seeing the problems, but the second step is ever more difficult to achieve – solving them. There is no doubt that past injustice is perhaps one of the most challenging ethical issues to resolve in the twenty-first century, but it is possible.

Following the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, the Jewish community sought reparations for the atrocities that Jews were forced to experience at the hands of Hitler’s regime. It was a difficult task which took until 1953 to finalise, but eventually, an agreement was reached between Israel and West Germany. The West German government agreed to pay $845Mn in reparations payments. In a not dissimilar desire for reparations, the movement for Japanese American Redress sought to achieve justice for those Japanese Americans who were interned, incarcerated in concentration camps, or relocated during the Second World War. Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbour, with little thought to their US citizenship. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, authorizing monetary payments and a formal apology for those Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during the war.

The proof is clear that humanity has the ability to make up for the wrongs of those who came before us, but today, the number of arguments in favour of reparative justice is outnumbered two to one. The simple truth is that it is easier to forget the past and claim to have bigger issues to think about, but I ask: when will this not be true? There will always be a bigger fish to fry when it comes to politics but making up for the failures of our past is a mission which ought to be undertaken for the people of all times. Justice should not be a political issue, but a quest undertaken by those who wish to do the right thing, make amends, and who truly cherish the idea of giving everyone the best chance to live in an equal world. We cannot pretend to advocate for a perfect and fair world if we ignore the fact that large portions of the world population are running the race of life with a significant handicap.


Written by Isaac Knowles


Isaac Knowles is a columnist at DecipherGrey.