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Reconsidering Reparations


Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò (@OlufemiOTaiwo) is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University and author of Reconsidering Reparations and Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else).

This post introduces a symposium on Reconsidering Reparations. Read the rest of the posts here


For better or worse, our world stands on the precipice of major changes. Our current energy system is driving a rapidly unfolding climate crisis, and the need for total transformation “at every level of society” is now the prevailing scientific opinion. Given this context, my recent book Reconsidering Reparations argues for two things. First, reparations for trans-Atlantic slavery and colonialism should be seen as a future-oriented project engaged in building a just social order. Second, if we accept that view, then reparations and the struggle for racial justice should be directly linked to the struggle for climate justice.

The book begins with a discussion of the world itself, and how we got here. There have often been large, continent-spanning systems of politics and trade. But a planet-sized political and economic system – what I term “global racial empire” – is a new development in human history, produced by the explorations and conquests of a handful of European empires, beginning in the 15th century. That system was made possible by genocide of Indigenous peoples, large-scale seizures of land, and human-trafficking of Africans across the Atlantic ocean. The global racial empire eventually produced the Industrial Revolution, global capitalism, and the energy system that produced climate change.

The wave of decolonization movements that ousted formal colonialism from much of Asia and Africa provide a particularly instructive example of a political response to this ignoble history that matches the scale of global racial empire itself. The global anticolonial movement formed regional alliances, challenged the basic structure of the United Nations and other international political organizations, and demanded a New International Economic Order with a different set of rules than the one that had emerged from the global racial empire. The actors in this struggle also importantly fought for redistribution of global wealth, from the First World (back) to the Third World.

These struggles and the ethos behind them inform the view of reparations I defend in the book: what I call the “constructive view.” The constructive view aims to rebuild our social environment itself in the direction of justice: redistributing resources and social advantages to create a just world. The target of the redistributions and structural changes would be a world structured by self-determination, one where people are empowered to participate democratically in deciding the course of their lives at home and at work.

Other ways of thinking about reparations focus on retributive or reconciliatory justice. On the first set of views, reparations are primarily concerned with punishing a group of people thought to be complicit with slavery or other colonial crimes, and/or rewarding a group of people who are harmed by the historical legacies of those crimes. On the latter kind of view, they are about repairing the present day relationships between the people or institutions deemed responsible for the injustices of the past and those whose identities were forged by those very injustices.

Both of these approaches get much right about the moral dimensions of reparations and the history of injustice that makes reparations relevant and important. But focusing repairs on the wealth of particular marginalized groups or the moral relationships between particular groups of marginalized people risks overlooking the rigid aspects of our political and economic systems that impoverished and alienated the groups in the first place. Moreover, these approaches are often used to defend one-off, reversible policy actions: the cash transfer, scholarship program, apology, or memorial. The constructive view accepts the importance of redistributing wealth and resources, as well as rebuilding cultural and interpersonal esteem, and supports many of these policies. But it comes with a further requirement: to root these interventions in a political context that will safeguard rather than erode the gains they make towards justice.

Climate crisis arises out of the same history as the global racial empire. But the most important link between the constructive view and the climate crisis is not conceptual at all: after all, on the constructive view, reparations is a practical project. Instead, the two topics are connected by the fact that our political and economic system distributes risk according to the patterns developed by the history of global racial empire. Given this, we can expect climate change to redistribute social advantages in a way that compounds and locks in the distributional injustices that we have inherited. Left unchecked, the climate crisis threatens to destabilize and overwhelm the past victories won for the cause of racial justice and whatever additional ones we are able to eke out in the near future.

In the face of these links, what should be done? We don’t have to agree on every aspect of the new world we are building to agree on ways to improve the justice of our current arrangements. Bread-and-butter reparations demands, like direct transfers of money to individuals and families or reconciliation processes, must retain their central importance. But we can link the important need for cash and memorials to other important structural concerns, from addressing the destructive role of prisons and pollutants to building food, water, housing, and energy systems that are managed for and by people rather than for profit. Like the fight against the climate crisis itself, these needed interventions will be won or lost on a planetary scale.