Reparations have seen a resurgence of interest in recent years, stemming from a variety of sources. Perhaps most familiarly, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s influential 2014 essay in the Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” set off a firestorm of reactions across the political spectrum, culminating years later in a “historic” Congressional hearing in 2019. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the rebellions of 2020, reparations programs task forces have launched in the city of Detroit and state of California while a housing payment program launched in Evanston. And last year, House Resolution 40—introduced every year in Congress since John Conyers Jr. first introduced it in 1989, and calling for a commission to study reparations for slavery—finally passed through the Judiciary Committee for full consideration on the House floor.
But what exactly does the call for reparations demand, and what kind of political movement does it entail? The label has been applied to a vast array of different programs and policies, from direct cash payments to African Americans to symbolic apologies, creations of museums and sites of spiritual recognition, and academic studies about the nature of systemic racism. In a 2016 essay, political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr., took aim at this feature of the call for reparations, describing it as a blend of “material, symbolic, and psychological components.” Reed thinks this ambiguity is a liability, since elites can exploit the demand by choosing the version of reparations that is cheapest for them: the symbolic. More important, Reed contends, overinvestment in symbolic reparations could detract energy and resources from an alternative, preferable political project: “building broad solidarity across race, gender, and other identities around shared concerns of daily life” like “access to quality health care, the right to a decent and dignified livelihood, affordable housing, quality education for all.” Reed thus warns that the call for reparations for some distracts from a more worthy political project that would provide justice for all—an objection also voiced during the 2019 House hearing.
But what if the project for reparations was the project for “safer neighborhoods and better schools,” for a “less punitive justice system,” for “the right to a decent and dignified livelihood”? Responding to Reed in Dissent in 2019, African American studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor pointed out that the struggle to build a just social system can’t be won solely through “universal” programs addressing common problems. Taylor gives the example of the large disparity rate in maternal mortality between Black mothers and white mothers: the accumulated history of disparate and discriminatory treatment and policy means that not all of the relevant social problems are, in fact, common to both. To build a just health care system, we would have to address both lack of access due to unjust economic structures and lack of access due to unfair gender- and race-based discrimination. From the point of view of building a just health care system, these goals aren’t substitutes for each other; they are complementary.
Though it is less well elaborated in today’s popular debates, this understanding of reparations—one that sees it as central to the expansive project of building a more just world, not just as a material or symbolic mechanism of redress for past harms—has a long legacy. This vision is worth recovering and integrating with other important political movements today, above all the global struggle for climate justice.
There is ample footing, both in theory and in practice, for widening the scope of our conversations about reparations in this way. In his historical study of the Black radical imagination, Freedom Dreams (2002), historian Robin D. G. Kelley notes that the demand for reparations “was never entirely, or even primarily, about money.” Instead, it was
about social justice, reconciliation, reconstructing the internal life of black America, and eliminating institutional racism. This is why reparations proposals from black radical movements focus less on individual payments than on securing funds to build autonomous black institutions, improving community life, and in some cases establishing a homeland that will enable African Americans to develop a political economy geared more toward collective needs than toward accumulation.
This view—constructive in outlook and global in ambition—has a particularly useful antecedent in midcentury struggles for independence. As historian Adom Getachew shows in her recent book Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (2019), the wave of decolonization movements that crested toward the end of World War II forced new political questions onto the world stage. Prominent figures in the growing global anticolonial movement demanded the institutionalization of self-determination as a political principle of the United Nations, worked to form regional political blocs for mutual aid and uplift, and demanded a New International Economic Order with a different set of rules than the set that had emerged from the interaction of colonial domination and the capitalist economy that emerged from it: what I call “global racial empire.” They imagined new institutions, different relationships between countries, and also, crucially, the most recognizable aspect of reparations politics: redistribution of global wealth, from the First World (back) to the Third World.