Introduction: Sustaining the Momentum

From the Series: Sustaining the Momentum: Reparative Justice for European Colonialism and Slavery

Image by Elisa Rodriguez.

For a few months in 2020, the enduring reality of anti-Black racism captured attention around the world. With hundreds of thousands marching in protest of police violence and other legacies of slavery and colonialism—across (primarily) North American and European cities, but also, on a smaller scale, in South America and Africa—the Black Lives Matter protests were remarkably effective at making the question of racial justice one of global urgency. In Europe, protesters drew attention to how slavery and colonialism touched on every sphere of contemporary life, from policing and housing policy to educational curricula, museum collections, environmental justice, and beyond. Further, the protests’ concurrence across various geographical sites had a compounding effect: each set of claims amplified the others, and with that, the central call out of anti-Black racism and demands for reparative justice.

This term—reparative justice—more aptly characterizes what these movements are after than the more common reparations, a term that has come to be equated almost exclusively with financial reparations. While financial compensation can certainly be—and often needs to be—part of reparative justice, it is hardly the primary target of these movements; it is not alwasy the goal. Rather, as the essays in this collection demonstrate, seeking redress for the historical injustices of colonialism and slavery is often about fighting for recognition of historical events and their qualification as violence and/or crimes (DeGraff, Ferdinand, Mavenjina, Shabbir); reforming the mechanisms and institutions through which justice is rendered (CaCoBuRwa, Noël, Dandoy and Ravet, Bessone, Novic); and redefining the relationship between former colonizing and colonized states (Benseddrine, DeGraff).

Some European states have taken encouraging steps in the wake of the 2020 protests. In June 2020, the King of Belgium expressed his “deepest regrets for the injuries of the past” and the ensuing and enduring discrimination against Afro-descendants in Belgium today. The country subsequently set up a first-of-its-kind special commission to examine its colonial past in Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. In France, the Assemblée Nationale unanimously approved the restitution of looted artifacts to African countries in October 2020 (a process initiated in 2017). And in July 2021, Germany formally recognized the German colonial administration’s actions toward the Ovaherero and Nama peoples of Namibia in 1904–8 as genocidal.

On the one hand, these official measures could be read as promising steps toward the recognition of the violences of colonialism, and as attempts at redress, particularly given the heretofore stance in the official discourse of many European countries that colonialism had beneficial effects for the colonized.[1] On the other hand, these seemingly promising steps are often riddled with built-in limitations. And they happen concurrently with other state measures that question the legitimacy of scholarship on the legacies of colonialism and slavery, or that foreclose the possibility of reparative justice.

Take, for instance, the French education minister’s announcement in February 2021 of her intention to launch “investigations” in French institutions of higher education in order to root out “activist” scholarship (i.e., research grounded in anticolonial, decolonial, and antiracist theory), which she described as American imports running counter to French society and values. Or consider the fact that Germany’s recent acknowledgment of its genocide of the Ovaherero and Nama peoples pointedly rejected naming the financial agreement with Namibia “reparations” in order to avoid future legal claims, and reportedly excluded representatives of the concerned communities in its negotiations. Or again, note the lack of representation of African and Afro-descendant civil society actors in the original Group of Experts nominated to draft the road map for the Belgian Commission on the country’s colonial past.

How, then, might European movements that call for states to address their histories of colonialism and slavery and fight for racial justice sustain the momentum gained during the 2020 BLM protests? How might they produce lasting change in the face of state responses that range from the cosmetic and the partial to the overtly hostile? At a conference we cohosted in March 2021 that brought together activists, scholars, and policy-makers from a dozen countries across Europe, Africa, and North America (and in which the authors in this collection were all presenters), what emerged was the need for both cross-disciplinary and transnational alliance-building. There is a real need to establish more links between activists and scholars who might have access to critical archives; lawyers and legal scholars able to identify avenues for legal action; anthropologists and curators to help rethink museums and the politics of display as part of the restitution of artifacts . . . and also between decolonial and antiracist struggles both within Europe, and across Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

These forms of exchange and collaboration across geographical boundaries and domains of practice require dedicated platforms. It is crucial for movements to mobilize at a supranational scale to identify the appropriate international political and judicial institutions that they might target with their actions. Indeed, without concerted efforts to continue articulating these issues as matters of global importance, there is a high risk of movements falling back into national bounds and getting mired in local political dynamics and nationalist agendas. Furthermore, forging cross-disciplinary connections not only highlights the pervasiveness of slavery and colonialism’s legacies in contemporary societies but also opens opportunities for domains of practice to inform one another.

The present political moment calls for continued pressure on states to fully recognize the legacies of slavery and colonialism, address racial inequalities, and undertake reparative justice. As the essays in this series collectively demonstrate, this is work that requires geographic and disciplinary décloisonnement—decompartmentalization. Indeed, states (in Europe and beyond) have everything to gain from movements to remain locked in a national frame, in which it is easier to dismiss talk of structural racism and decoloniality as American imports. Likewise, siloing demands for repair of historical harms along disciplinary lines obscures the far-reaching and intersecting legacies of slavery and colonialism. Today, as ever, sustaining the forward momentum of demands for historical repair and racial justice calls for both multifaceted and concerted action.


[1]. For instance, an article in a bill presented to the French Assemblée Nationale in 2005 recommended that school curricula recognize the positive role of the French presence in overseas territories and in North Africa. See Gresh (2014).


Gresh, Alain. 2014. “La colonisation a eu aussi des effets positifs.” Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2014.