2020 candidates are finally talking about reparations. It’s time to deepen the debate
One way to deepen the debate about reparations is to proliferate the sites where claims of repair might be made.
This post is in partnership with Scholars for Social Justice
By Adom Getachew
Over the last two decades, Black organizers and activists around the world have moved reparations from the margins to the center of the political agenda. Organizers with the Movement for Black Lives included reparations in their ambitious Vision for Black Lives Platform in 2016, and pushed the Democratic candidates for president that year to embrace this demand.
Their effort emerged in the context of important victories. Within the United States, reparations for the victims of forced sterilization in North Carolina and victims of police torture in Chicago have modeled successful local strategies for redress. Internationally, the case of reparations for British torture during the Mau Mau rebellion, which resulted in a £20 million payout, has inspired new efforts to seek reparations for colonial injustice. The Herero and Nama peoples in Namibia are currently seeking redress for German genocide between 1904-1908. At the same time, the Caribbean Community has announced that it will be seeking reparations from Britain, France and the Netherlands for their participation in native genocide and colonial slavery.
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The debate over reparations is now shaping the conversation leading up to the 2020 Democratic primaries, and has even seeped into an unlikely forum—David Brooks’ opinion pages at the New York Times. That reparations is thinkable and sayable within the political mainstream marks an important transformation that promises to open new spaces to reimagine racial and economic injustice. Thanks to the work of generations of activists and organizers, it is an acknowledgement that historic injustice must be a consideration in contemporary debates about inequality.
At the same time, we should all be cautious about the uses to which reparation is put in these contexts. We should ask hard questions of the political leaders who have recently proclaimed their commitment to reparations. If reparations is going to be transformative, it must be more than an empty litmus tests.
As organizers did in 2016, this will require holding candidates’ feet to the fire. It will mean asking why Cory Booker initially opposed reparations as he cozied up to the DeVos foundation and other proponents of school privatization, how Kamla Harris seeks to repair her criminalization of poor Black families as Attorney General of California, and how Julián Castro will repair the unprecedented decline of Black homeownership during Obama’s presidency and his tenure at Secretary for Housing and Urban Development.
Here at Scholars for Social Justice, we believe that one way to deepen the debate about reparations is to proliferate the sites where claims of repair might be made. While the national debates about reparations is important, we have to also consider the multiple actors involved in histories of racial violence and injustice. They include local governments, private corporations and other institutions. They too ought to be sites of reparative justice, and can be places to experiment with different versions and means of redress.
As academics, we have been particularly concerned to highlight the role reparations can play in universities and colleges. While universities are often viewed as ivory towers, far from everyday politics, the university is both deeply embedded in structures of racial hierarchy and inequality and remains a crucial site for reimagining education and society more broadly.
First, recent historical studies have shown the centrality of slavery and settler-colonialism to the founding and financing of colleges and universities in the United States. Universities, like the rest of country, were founded on stolen indigenous land, slave labor built many institutions of higher education and the global and national trade in which slavery and colonialism was central provided key sources of funding for institutions.
Second, institutions of higher education actively participated in the perpetuation of ideologies of race that naturalized and justified racial exclusion and domination. Theories of racial inferiority developed and sustained within the academy had consequences beyond the ivory towers, as they fueled popular knowledge and shaped the contours of political debate.
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While often viewed as gateways for upward mobility, institutions of higher education reproduce and reinforce hierarchies of race and class. The recent college admissions scandal and the even wider structures of legacy admissions that lie beneath attest to the ways that universities reproduce privilege.
On April 7, we launched a platform called “Reparations in Higher Education” to begin a national conversation about what reparations in the context of universities and colleges. Modeled on the Vision for Black Lives Platform, it examines the university’s different roles such as employer, neighbor and investor to trace paths toward racial justice and equality.
We take the view that reparations is not just a matter of settle past accounts, but of transforming existing institutional structures the reproduce racial hierarchy and inequality. We encourage you to visit the platform here and to share with your colleagues and students. Students, scholars, and organizers can use the framework we have articulated to develop a campus specific account of how universities perpetuate racial injustice and build reparations campaigns that best address those contexts.