Can Reparations Save American Politics?

President Reagan signs the Reparations Bill for Japanese-Americans in the Old Executive Office Building, 1988 (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum)

Nowhere does ‘the perfect become the enemy of the good’ so incessantly than in contemporary debates over reparations. Perhaps this is because the stakes are so very high. Yet despite Ta-Nehisi Coates’s magisterial efforts to re-energize a national conversation on reparations, America’s collective paralysis on this issue appears stronger than ever. America seems intent on a reparations policy driven not by humanity’s highest values of love, compassion, and generosity but a popular Simpsons meme: “We’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas.”

But as Martin Luther King, Jr. recounted in his reparations-laced “I Have a Dream Speech,” we should “refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” Last month my colleagues and I at the Reparations at UChicago Working Group (RAUC) argued in favor of reparations while uncovering the University of Chicago’s deep ties to slavery. In response we received a welcome wave of support from Black Perspectives readers. We also received an even stronger reaction from readers (or, more accurately, headline skimmers) of various right-wing news publications that tried to slander our work.

The predictable slew of racial epithets, hate mail, and at least one oddly specific death threat that followed confirmed the utter lack of imagination that many Americans display when discussing reparations. Apparently a tort-driven, private property-affirming, check writing battle royal–in which all white people are supposedly forced to pay a monumental sum of cash to every individual black person–is all that most Americans can wrap their heads around. This would be a classic strawman argument if not for the fact that so many supporters of reparations also follow a similarly crude and vulgar rendition of reparations.

Hopefully the efforts taking shape at the University of Chicago can, at the very least, provide some fresh ideas and, perhaps, even a re-opening of MLK’s long-shuttered bank of justice. Rather than reify supposedly insurmountable barriers as an excuse to do nothing (i.e. “it will just divide the nation”) objections to reparations should be re-imagined as opportunities to ask a fundamentally different set of questions—far outside the narrow spectrum of American partisan politics.

How, for example, might reparations be structured so as to leave a nation actually more united and less divided? How can our rancorous, binary, individualistic, interest-driven politics be fundamentally restructured by a vanguard process of reparations offering an entirely new approach to collective decision making? In short, can reparations save American politics?

Asking such questions in a committed way strikes me as a vital exercise if reparations are to produce any significant, lasting transformations. Small scale, voluntary experiments with reparations, like those germinating on college campuses, must proliferate in different contexts throughout the nation if reparations are to ever find a successful footing nationally. Universities, if nothing else, are nations in miniature.

Some may say that the current deficit of creativity in American policy making is all we can expect given the current state of American partisanship and its hollowed out excuse for politics. But is the spirit of American political ingenuity really that defunct? Are reparations really destined to languish in the current cult of conventional pragmatics? Is America simply a nation (and is UChicago simply a university) utterly incapable of discovering new, imaginative, and creative political practices in order to right such an obvious historical wrong?

Queen Mother Moore, civil rights activist and a leader in the fight for reparations (“Queen Mother Moore” from Brian Lanker, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, 1989; Brian Lanker Photography).

Perhaps so.  The relative lack of progress on reparations over the past several hundred years might point to a truly hopeless road ahead. But what if reparations can develop into something more than just another social justice campaign?  What if reparations themselves become a new technique for doing politics?

Instead of constituting a process within our current political reality, reparations has the potential to change the very fabric of that political reality. Reparations may end up being the great American reset button.  A second Reconstruction (or a third, or fourth, or fifth depending on your math).

But for this to happen reparations themselves must be radically re-thought through the principles of arbitration, non-aggression, conflict mediation, truth and reconciliation, and restorative justice.  The process of acknowledging and rectifying America’s legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing discrimination should no longer be seen as a project but as a process. An existential way of being.

The outcome of that process/practice will be a stark litmus test for the nation writ large. Class-based struggles, LGBTQ rights, gender equity, foreign policy realignments, environmental justice, and human rights around the world would advance immeasurably if America suddenly reconciles with its history and settles (however imperfectly) the debts it ran up against enslaved peoples and their descendants.  New political practices that evolve under this banner of reparations would ideally overlap with (and be reproducible in) other arenas.

Even the resistance to reparations needs to be re-conceptualized not as a set of petty objections but as a symptom of everything that’s currently wrong with American politics; material greed destroying moral justice; self-interest trumping civic virtue; individualism squashing community;  willful ignorance deferring a reckoning with history.  Rather than falling into this trap, reparations, if done right, might just offer us a way out of these self-destructive cycles—that once-in-a-generation physician that cures the underlying aliments of America’s political sickness.

Certainly, any such shift away from our current partisan politics (and punitive justice system) to a more reparative and reconciliatory practice of direct justice will require real structural as well as cognitive changes.  In this respect, reparations should be seen as a laboratory.  Through the daily practice of reparations, individuals shut out from the current system can experiment with new frameworks, build new institutions, and dream sufficiently large dreams again. Indeed, the problem with our current discourse on reparations is not that it is too bold but, rather, that it is not bold enough.

F.W. de Klerk, the last president of apartheid-era South Africa, and Nelson Mandela, his successor, wait to speak in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1993 (Library of Congress)

Unlike the top-heavy, administrative-driven procedures currently underway at Georgetown University, or the highly symbolic student-centric gestures taking place at Harvard or Yale (where Calhoun College was recently renamed for a white military scientist), a reparative justice model at the University of Chicago would ideally rise to the level of actual reparations for black people. Rather than focus on student comfort levels or the university’s global image, a dedicated focus on enslaved peoples, their descendants, and the current residents of Chicago’s South Side (who are overwhelmingly not affiliated with the university) strikes me as the proper path forward for Chicago. In line with our unique, iconoclastic institutional culture, scholar/activists at Chicago should learn from the praiseworthy efforts taking place at other wealthy universities while rethinking the very assumptions informing those institutions and their understandings of reparations.

Jumping to a hierarchical, state-heavy, compulsory, universal, one-size fits all reparations plan will almost certainly lead to an elite-captured, watered-down, conventional ‘solution’ with disastrous long term results. This is why diverse experiments on college campuses and other institutions throughout the nation are so important. If the 2016 election has taught us anything, it is that backlashes represent an ever-present danger to social progress.  If those backlashes are to be managed and contained anywhere, young people living through a reparative justice process—experiencing it as an institutional practice and governing ideology during their formative years—might just be our best long-term chance for a national reparations plan.

Either way, it seems clear that reparations can only succeed through a massive, grass roots, interracial mobilization. College campuses have a long history, both good and bad, in relation to such movements. Just as before, everyday people who have been harmed by the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing acts of discrimination must lead the way. But given the unique nature of reparations, black folk can’t do this alone.

The good news is that with a decentralized, localized, and highly surgical effort aimed at specific wrongs, tangible harms, and survivor-driven remedies, coalition building becomes much more frictionless.  In these smaller (even more personal) contexts, reparations models can also be pursued more safely (both emotionally and politically).  With face-to-face humanizing interactions, long-term success may also be maximized while keeping the risks of a backlash minimized.

Finally, the case for hyperlocalism in the reparations movement can also lead to some truly unlikely alliances.  Far from being a burden on the university or a drain on its endowment, a long-term multi-billion dollar reparations initiative at the University of Chicago, if structured properly, would make it the envy of universities around the world. Its emergence as a global leader in reparative justice would infuse pride in the university’s students, bring honor to its alumni, and amplify the social utility of its faculty’s research. While these should be seen as secondary concerns to the outcomes experienced by African American on the South Side, these ancillary benefits are no small matter. Self-interest and community justice can at times go hand-in-hand.

The key is to lead with the later and have faith that such a commitment will eventually benefit the former. If justice does succeed in usurping American politics, it will likely be reparations marching at the vanguard.  Simply starting with that aim in mind changes everything.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Guy Emerson Mount

Guy Emerson Mount is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Chicago and a Mellon Foundation Fellow. His dissertation, “The Last Reconstruction: Race, Nation, and Empire in the Black Pacific,” analyzes intersection of American slavery and the birth of American overseas empire. Follow him on Twitter @GuyEmersonMount.

Comments on “Can Reparations Save American Politics?

  • 6/30/17

    Guy Emerson Mount, Thank you for this article. I am in full force for Reparations Now.
    I am the chairperson of the Chicago Chapter, N’COBRA. We meet 4th Sunday @ Washington Park , 5531 S King Drive in the Egypt Room 2 pm – 4 pm. One of our campaigns is calling 202 456 1111, the Whitehouse Comment line 9 a m – 4 pm . We are asking for an Executive Order of a Commission to remedy the harm done & continues to be done to people of African descent. They have hired more volunteers at the comment line as a result of this campaign. I add the 5 injury areas that this remedy Reparations need in Education, Economy, Health, Human Rights & Criminal Justice.

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