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Why Reparations is Mandatory, Ask Great Britain

by Marci Littlefield - March 14, 2022

While societies like Great Britain, a country that also prospered from slavery and played a major role in building the Atlantic slave trade, are committed to reparations and are engaged in public reconciliation, the United States should follow suit. This article uses Great Britain as an example of how to begin the process of redressing injustice by acknowledging the impact of slavery on British society and persistent racial inequality.

Full-time faculty in community colleges typically have a 30-credit teaching load during the fall and spring semesters of the academic year.  More and more of these community faculty have PhD and research interests.  This week, we feature two recent recipients of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Mellon Fellowship program who discuss their research and the necessity of fellowships that support community college faculty researchers. The impact of these research opportunities extend beyond our community colleges and its students, as they contribute to and build upon the research that moves us all forward.

-Robin G. Isserles and David Levinson

The nationwide call for racial justice inspired by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor is a sign that the United States has not reckoned with the past and the consequences of racial slavery. The Black Lives Matter movement protests and the call to remove confederate monuments and other symbols of racial hate witnessed on the world stage demand that we all reexamine the legacy of white supremacy in the world. Reparations is one avenue to honor descendant communities and redress systemic racism. While universities like  Harvard, Georgetown and Yale have engaged in public reconciliation, the federal government has only recently approved legislation to create a commission to make reparation recommendations.1

However, the sordid history of the treatment of Black people in the United States does not inspire confidence in this effort. While societies like Great Britain, a country that also prospered from slavery and played a major role in building the Atlantic slave trade, are committed to reparations and are engaged in public reconciliation, the United States should follow suit. This article uses Great Britain as an example of how to begin the process of redressing injustice by acknowledging the impact of slavery on British society and persistent racial inequality.


The transatlantic slave trade disrupted, terrorized, and dismantled the lives of African people. This reality is well documented in the British Caribbean and North American colonies but is largely ignored on British soil (Newman, 2019). In the 18th century, enslaved people arrived at Britains slave ports and experienced various forms of unfreedom and forced labor; this history represents an important contribution to the history and process of enslavement and offers context to British reparations. In Britains American colonies, slavery became an integral part of the economic and social structure; chattel slavery defined colonial expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. The plantation economy defined the social structure in the British West Indies and was sustained by the triangular slave trade. In Britains metropole, the laws that defined the status of unfree Africans were not rigid and changed during the 17th and 18th centuries (Chater, 2009; Newman, 2019) and the slave codes that defined Britains American and Caribbean colonies were not explicitly defined for enslaved Africans arriving in England and Scotland. This reality created confusion and uncertainty over the legal status of enslaved people arriving in Great Britain and was not settled in the courts until the end of the 18th century after three cases: Montgomery v. Sheddan (1756), Spens v. Dalrymple (1769), and Knight v. Wedderburn (17741777) (Newman, 2019) were settled in Scottish courts. Although these cases granted freedom to Black people on British soil, enslavement was still part of the national landscape.

Despite the history of the slave trade, Great Britain is engaged in reparations for its role in slavery and the slave trade. While slavery was limited in the United Kingdom, the profits gained by its participation in this system of bondage is acknowledged in British society, and restorative justice is a priority in many cities in the United Kingdom. As reported in The New York Times, Glasgow University, one of the oldest in Britain, has acknowledged its links to historical donors who benefited from the slave trade and has promised to raise 20 million pounds, or about $24.5 million, over the next 20 years to research slavery and its impact around the world (Karasz, 2019). Major slave ports and cities in the United Kingdom, such as Glasgow, Liverpool, and London, have taken steps to uncover the persistent legacy of the slave trade and are using research and scholarships as an important avenue of reparative justice. The United States has not made a public commitment to owning up to the torrid legacy of slavery, and this reality can be partly explained by the racial order created during the founding of the United States and the systematic racial inequalities that continue to define American society.


The British American colonies were initially a destination for criminals, runaways, and indentured servants eager to leave England to start a new life. However, after Bacons Rebellion, a rebellion of Black and white indentured servants in 1676, the social structure of the British American colonies was altered, and indentureship was replaced as the labor structure in Britains American colonies (Zielinski, n.d.). By the middle of the 18th century, the United States was transformed from being a society with slaves to a slave society, and chattel slavery became the norm in the South (Berlin, 1998). This reality further dismissed the rights of enslaved people while this population became the source of taxation used by the federal government to calculate each states tax bill and political representation (Masouka & Junn, 2013; Waldstreicher, 2009). This designation supported the racial caste system, which designated ambiguous and inconsistent meanings of freedom for free Blacks in the North and a system of complete bondage for enslaved persons living in the South. Thus, Black people were demarcated as legally and socially inferior to whites.

By 1790, the naturalization law codified white belonging and American identity in the new American political economy, and citizenship was granted on the basis of being free and white (Masouka & Junn, 2013). This legal preference for whiteness not only oppressed Blacks, free and unfree, but also created an American identity that excluded other groups not perceived as white. Residency requirements were used for electing members of Congress and the president, and this law created a hierarchy that excluded newer American immigrants from representation. Thus, the different forms of citizenship in the new nation reflected the established racial hierarchy (Masouka & Junn, 2013). This hierarchy created a legal construction of whiteness that codified, and continues to define, American society as an unequal and unjust society (Lopez, 2006). I believe this further highlights the urgency and the case for racial remedy in the United States.


Americas institution of slavery may have begun because of the Britishs conquest and colonization of the West Indies and North American colonies, but America became its own unique beast after the American Revolution. As did Great Britain, the United States benefited from the slave economy; insurance companies in the North profited from slavery, the textile industry profited from cotton, and American society is still marked by inequality and grave injustices. To begin the road to reparations in America, this reality is in need of truthful discussion and must begin when America first institutionalized inequality and made white privilege part of the social and political order. Reparations represent a physical marker and gateway to the past, and a cultural and moral reconvening for future generations.


This research is part of my larger project Reconstructed Legacies: Black Freedom and the United Kingdom, funded through the ACLS Community Faculty fellowship program made possible through the Mellon Foundation. This fellowship gives community college faculty the opportunity to engage in funded research projects not often available to faculty at two-year institutions. My research seeks to produce a memory of enslaved people in the United Kingdom during the 18th century to recover historical silences and connect these narratives to the complex legacies of colonialism and slavery in America. Understanding our shared past is the first step in reconciliation and helping the nation heal from the concomitant consequences of racial injustice.



https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/05/arts/confronting-academias-ties-to-slavery.html Harvard, Georgetown and Yale are researching their role in slavery and the way their institutions benefited from slavery. A House committee approved legislation to create the commission to make recommendations for reparations as reported April 14, 2021, by The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/reparations-slavery-commission/2021/04/14/fd421f82-9d2a-11eb-b7a8-014b14aeb9e4_story.html  This was at the forefront following the police killings of Black Americans.


Berlin, I. (1998). Many thousands gone: The first two centuries of slavery in North America. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Chater, K. (2009). Untold histories: Black people in England and Wales during the period of the British slave trade, c. 16601807. Manchester University Press.

Karasz, P. (2019, August 24). Glasgow University pledges millions for reparative justice for slavery ties. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/24/world/europe/university-of-glasgow-slavery-reparations.html

Lopez, I. H. (2006). White by law: The legal construction of race (Rev. updated 10th anniv. ed.). New York University Press.

Masouka, N., & Junn, J. (2013). Development of the American racial hierarchy: Race, immigration and citizenship. In The politics of belonging: Race, public opinion, and immigration (pp. 3662). University of Chicago Press.

Newman, S. P. (2019). Freedom-seeking slaves in England and Scotland, 17001780. The English Historical Review, 134(570), 11361168.

Waldstreicher, D. (2009). Slaverys constitution: From revolution to ratification. Hill and Wang.

Zielinski, A. (n.d.). Slavery in the colonies: The British position on slavery in the era of revolution. American Battlefield Trust. http://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/slavery-in-the-colonies.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 14, 2022
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 24006, Date Accessed: 3/18/2022 10:02:24 AM

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About the Author
  • Marci Littlefield
    Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC)
    E-mail Author
    MARCI LITTLEFIELD, Ph.D., is interested in the different cultural, political, and historical contexts in which Black people challenge and live in society. Her publications are focused on race and gender inequities from both a historical and contemporary prospective and her work and teaching is grounded in the humanities. Marci Littlefield is an associate professor of Sociology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and was recently named a 2021 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (ACLS) faculty fellow for her research on slavery and servitude in the United Kingdom. This research seeks to understand the cultural history of the lives of enslaved Black people in the United Kingdom before abolition. Professor Littlefield received a Master’s in Public Affairs with a concentration on economic development and earned a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Texas at Austin with specializations in race, gender and family.
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