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An Introduction to Retrospective Justice!

The 3 Steps of Retrospective Justice

Recommended by The BlackQuaker Project

Dear F/friends,

This year the BlackQuaker Project has been blessed with many new subscribers. To those of you who have joined our mailing list in the past few months, welcome! We are thrilled to have you with us. Today's e-newsletter will introduce new readers to what our ministry feels should be the most urgent priority within the Religious Society of Friends, Retrospective Justice. We will define Retrospective Justice and its 3 steps of implementation within the context of relations between Quakers and people of African descent worldwide. We hope that our newest audience members find today’s narrative enlightening and that our long-time followers appreciate this reinforcement. Drawing on the trail-blazing 2006 Brown University report, Slavery and Justice, we define retrospective justice as “an attempt to administer justice years after the commission of a severe injustice or series of injustices against persons, communities, or racial and ethnic groups.” Our ministry proposes the following three steps to the Religious Society of Friends as necessary for the successful implementation of retrospective justice.

STEP 1: Acknowledge an offense

Friends need to acknowledge formally that Quakers have been slave owners, and, though many were abolitionists, many individual Quakers and meetings supported the transatlantic slave trade and profited directly as slave owners or as inheritors of profits. Furthermore, Friends need to confront and atone for the 400-year legacy of oppression, economic exploitation, and human degradation that affects people of African descent worldwide, such as Jim Crow, colonialism, and apartheid. At the local level, Friends are starting to take tentative steps to acknowledge the truth of the past. Individual Quakers, such as New Englander Betsy Cazden, are researching their family’s involvement in the slave trade. Quaker Meetings in both the USA and UK have publicly apologized for contributing to historical injustices, including Abington Monthly Meeting, Britain Yearly Meeting, and Baltimore Yearly Meeting, among others. The Rowntree charitable foundations– the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, and the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust–have released public apologies for the involvement of the British Quaker-owned confectionery company Wilson-Rowntree, in racialized, inhumane crimes committed in South Africa against the company's indigenous workers during the Apartheid era in the 1980s.

STEP 2: Commit to truth-telling

The only way to take full responsibility for the actions of our Quaker ancestors is to “create a clear historical record of events'' and properly institutionalize our history so that we do not forget. Praise-worthy examples of non-Quakers include the National African American Museum in Washington, D.C., the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and the 1619 Project in the USA. We call on Quakers, including Rowntree’s charitable organizations, to be forthcoming, pioneering, and enhancing in truth-telling to the public. In their discussions with the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Quaker United Nations, Geneva Office and the BQP jointly proposed a plan of retrospective justice for the Wilson Rowntree workers and their families and community in South Africa. This multi-step plan included: creating an archive of video-testimonials from victims and their families; determining an accurate number of individuals harassed, injured, or traumatized by the direct state violence Rowntree supported; and consulting former workers, their loved ones, and strike-supporters on how Rowntree can atone for their actions. Unfortunately, at this time, we have no record of any Quaker organization in the world–including the Rowntree organizations– taking this second step of truth-telling beyond acknowledgement. This must be rectified as soon as possible.

STEP 3: Make amends in the present

Correcting the injustices of direct and structural violence would entail reconciliation through social, economic, psychological, cultural, educational, and political rehabilitation, healing, and compensation. Attempts to do this have been made throughout history, best known is General Sherman’s promise of “40 acres and a mule” for emancipated African Americans. Successfull contemporary examples include the University of Glasgow’s agreement to pay £20 million in reparations to atone for its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, a historic deal brokered by Carribean scholar, Sir Hilary Beckles. In 2013, a groundbreaking lawsuit forced the British Parliament to publicly apologize for the torture and murder of countless members of the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya and pay £19 million in compensation to victims and their families. However, we are not just talking about money. Financial reparation is only one–however important–aspect of retrospective justice. We believe the harmful effects of structural and direct violence, including the political, cultural, and psychological, can only be healed through retrospective justice and should be addressed immediately by Quakers and other justice advocates.

To combat all forms of structural violence, we believe the only effective response is “anti-violence.” We define anti-violence in our 2008 Beacon Hill Pamphlet, Facing Unbearable Truths, and later in our 2020 Pendle Hill pamphlet, Race, Systemic Violence, and Retrospective Justice: An African American Quaker Scholar-Activist Challenges Conventional Narratives, as follows: “...we must challenge, head-on, such institutional manifestations of violence as poverty, sexism, racism, classism, ageism, ableism, et al. If we believe or agree that these are, in fact, violent acts, then we must actively, even aggressively, attack them. For I believe that they are also the roots of direct violence. In other words, direct violence is a symptom of systemic violence. It must be treated at its roots if we are to abolish it. Just as a doctor must treat the root causes of an illness, not merely the symptoms, so must we act similarly as social, progressive, analytical activists. We must be “anti-violent,” not merely “non-violent.”

Write to us with your comments and questions at

Peace and Blessings,

The BlackQuaker Project




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