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How To Repair The Planet

Above Photo: An oil platform in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2016. Frédéric Soltan / Corbis via Getty Images.

In Reconsidering Reparations, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò makes the case for a political project with a global scope.

Booked is a series of interviews about new books. In this edition, William P. Jones talks to Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, the author of Reconsidering Reparations (Oxford University Press).

The idea of paying reparations for slavery and other forms of racial injustice remains deeply controversial. Yet it has gained renewed support in liberal publications, city councils and state legislatures, and even the House of Representatives, which recently held hearings on legislation to create a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations. These developments present both a challenge and an opportunity for the left, which has been divided between recognizing the clear case for compensating victims of centuries of exploitation and abuse and concern that reparations are politically untenable and potentially detrimental to building a broad-based movement for social and economic justice.

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s new book, Reconsidering Reparations, advocates a “constructivist” view of reparations, by which he means that we should consider the future world we aim to create by repairing the damages and injustices of the past. Rather than envisioning a world in which slavery and imperialism did not exist, he urges us to acknowledge that they did and address their consequences. Táíwò’s approach departs from others in two important ways; first, whereas recent efforts have demanded reparations from national and even sub-national governments, the constructivist view is necessarily transnational and global in scope. Secondly, and perhaps most provocatively, climate justice becomes necessary and essential to the reparations agenda.

I discussed reparations and the broader political context in which they have come to the fore with Táíwò. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity. —William P. Jones

William P. Jones: What do you make of the recent attention to reparations? Where do you think it’s coming from, and what possibilities do you see in it?

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò: Over the past eighty years, there have been significant victories for the people who have been fighting for centuries for racial justice. One of these victories was in the material and political arrangements of the world: the wave of successful decolonization and national independence movements in the decades following the Second World War. At the same time, a major shift occurred in the ruling etiquette. Racism just isn’t cool anymore, right? Racism is not acceptable. We were dealing with, very recently, explicitly apartheid systems of governance in much of the colonized world, and of course in the Jim Crow South. At some point, throughout polite society, that stopped being a thing you could do. Obviously, that hasn’t, in and of itself, brought us to a racial utopia; there’s still racism. But there has been a major victory on the ideological front by the forces fighting for racial justice. And I think different things are possible in an era when elites have been socialized into that new reality.

Jones: Ironically, there’s also a resurgence of hardcore racist ideas, right? On the edge of the mainstream, people are openly espousing white supremacist and anti-Black racism in a way that we haven’t seen for a while.

I really appreciate your opening statement about what the book is not, drawing on Toni Morrison’s call to not answer other people’s questions. The book raises a number of questions among advocates of reparations; it’s an internal conversation of people who already generally accept the idea, or at least accept the idea that some dramatic and radical approach to racial inequality and exploitation is warranted.

I want to ask about what I see as one of the most controversial parts of your book: your global approach. The most prominent advocates of reparations focus on the national level. We have H.R. 40, John Conyers’s bill, which would create a commission to study the merits of reparations. And Kirsten Mullen and William A. Darity Jr.’s book From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century is explicitly focused on the nation-state. If anything, the divergent examples have been at the sub-national level: states like California or towns like Evanston, Illinois. In St. Paul, where I live, there’s a local reparations measure being considered.

It seems that there are two reasons for that sort of focus. One is moral: nation-states inflicted the damage, and therefore they have a responsibility for it. There’s also a tactical claim: only states have the power and the funding to make reparations. How do you address those arguments?

Táíwò: I’m glad that we’re starting here, because the question of scope is a central one in the debate within communities that are already on board with some version of reparations. The global view that I’m taking isn’t supposed to absolve nation-states, in the same way that the Evanston and California taskforces aren’t absolving the United States as a whole. Ideally, all these scales should fit together. A global scope is a way of encompassing the nation-state, states, cities, and counties.

But we also need to include entities that aren’t on that political continuum at all, like corporations. When enslaved people arrived in Jamestown in 1619, they were coming to a British colony that was established by a joint-stock company, of which King James was a shareholder. Colonialism was carried out by corporations and governments in Europe working hand in hand. So if somebody says countries, I say countries and regions and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. And if somebody says checks, I say checks and sea walls and community control. In the book I consistently make reparations large, because our aspirations for racial justice are large. All the things that we’re dealing with have been planet-sized political forces for the past 500 years, and they will remain so in an era of climate crisis.

Jones: I find the historical view that you root this analysis in really compelling—the idea of a global racial empire, building on Cedric Robinson’s theory of racial capitalism. This is the historical period in which the modern world was created.

I wanted to give you an opportunity to explain another feature of the book. What do you mean by a “constructive” view of reparations, and how does it differ from “harm repair” or “relationship repair”?

Táíwò: The harm repair view is that reparations should fix the harm caused to present-day people by slavery and racial domination. It’s making people better off in a way that tracks the ways that the past made them worse off. In the relationship repair view, we’re trying to repair relationships between people. You might worry about being able to say exactly what the harm was or how extensive it was, so you say, “We should make sure that African Americans have a good political and moral relationship with their non-Black neighbors or with the U.S. federal government.” Reparations is about making us a full moral community.

Neither offers a view of reparations that is as holistic as I think it could be. If you just think you’re compensating people for past harm, you’re not challenging the system that produced those harms in the first place and will produce tomorrow’s harms. All that you’re fixing is how the system spreads out today’s goodies—not who has rights, not who has protections, not who has control over social life. The constructive view is about changing the whole political system. If we start with that perspective, then maybe we’ll be in a better position to get everything we need, rather than just some of it.

Jones: You address the conflict between people who advocate for reparations and people who advocate for a broad-based social justice agenda. On the one hand, people who advocate reparations point to universal programs that have left inequalities in place. On the other hand, advocates of these broad-based agendas argue that there are all sorts of inequalities that are not really addressed by reparations. You say this is a false choice, and ask, “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’? What if building a just world was reparations?”

Táíwò: One thing that is helpful about the constructive view is how it diffuses that false choice between addressing specific harms and doing broad-based, universally applicable policies. In the introduction, I reference an example that Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor uses: the healthcare system. If you give everybody health insurance but you don’t restructure how health providers are trained, then you’re going to end up with a “universal” healthcare system that still disadvantages Black mothers. Why? Because not all of the aspects of the health system that currently disadvantage Black mothers have to do with the distribution of resources. It’s actually a redesign project of how this important aspect of social protection is going to function. And I think Taylor’s point is true in general. A one-size-fits-all provision of resources is not enough to confront inequality and injustice. You need to restructure how society provides all these goods—healthcare, energy, jobs. It’s a question of how to make something that is actually universal. Reparations can address universal problems with attention to the specific needs of the people who’ve been most harmed by the creation of this world order—Black and Indigenous people.

Jones: One question that often comes up with reparations is, how do you assign guilt and blame? It most often comes up with critics who say, “I shouldn’t be responsible.” Could you talk about how you approach that question?

Táíwò: I try to move away from it. Talk of moral responsibility, blameworthiness, and concepts of obligation just aren’t built for the scale that we’re thinking about. We’re talking about planetary politics on the scale of hundreds of years. I think a better way of approaching it is through the concept of liability. The legal notion of strict liability means you have to pay the cost of something, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have been found at fault. In terms of reparations, the shift is to think about what we’re trying to accomplish, rather than who deserves what.

It is true that Black and Indigenous people across the world, and the Global South generally, are systemically disadvantaged in ways that are connected causally and morally to injustices of the past. And it is also true that if we’re going to build a different kind of world, it’s going to involve costs. So we can simply ask: who should bear the cost? And I think the lion’s share of those costs should be borne by the people and institutions that have benefited the most from these historical processes: multinational companies, especially those based in the Global North; the countries of the Global North, particularly the colonizing West; and within those countries, individuals and households that are racially advantaged and concentrated on the upper end of the income scale. All of that is independent of the question of who, in a deep, metaphysical sense, is responsible or should be held guilty. The real question is, are we going to build a better world, and if so, who should chip in what?

Jones: The big question about what type of world we’re going to build is wrapped up in the climate crisis. Most readers will be surprised to find that climate change is the punchline of a book on reparations.

Táíwò: I was surprised, too. When I started working on this years ago, I wasn’t thinking primarily about the climate crisis. But I think I ended up there as a consequence of the constructive view, which requires a commitment to a project that’s going to take place in the present and future.

One way to think of moral obligations is they’re the things that you have to do regardless of what’s practical. If I made a promise to you, I should keep that promise, whether it turns out to be convenient for me or not. Harm repair and relationship repair are in that land of moral rules. But if reparations are a practical project, then you have to pay attention to the things that would make or break it. What materials do we need? What’s the environment like? If I’m building a house, is the foundation sturdy, or do I need to put it somewhere else? The climate crisis poses a practical complication to the project of reparations. Are any of these other measures that we take toward racial justice going to have staying power in a world that’s three degrees hotter? In a world where there is rampant instability in our energy and housing systems? In a world of mass human displacement? In a world where the elites of the world feel very threatened? That’s a recipe for backlash politics.

If you think that the people who are currently least powerful in the world only need to get an apology from the powers that be, then maybe you don’t need to think about the climate crisis. But if you think that the longevity of any improvement in the power and self-determination of oppressed peoples depends on the politics of the next few decades, then the climate crisis presents some thorny questions. What wins can you get today that won’t be rolled back by tomorrow’s backlash, or tomorrow’s hurricane, or tomorrow’s mass displacement event? I just couldn’t answer the question about what we’re trying to do without thinking about climate politics.

Jones: How would you respond to somebody who said that this crisis is so great and so immediate that we really can’t think about racial inequality, and that reparations is just going to distract us?

Táíwò: That’s the view I’m worried about. While there are certainly center-left, even left articulations of that view, I think that ultimately the version that’s likely to win out on the world stage is the eco-fascist right. If you spread a politics of emergency without a concern for justice, you end up fueling the designation of the people who are currently least politically powerful as acceptable sacrifices. That’s the likeliest direction for climate politics to go in if we don’t explicitly push for climate justice.

Jones: It also seems that without attention to the inequalities that you lay out, you’re not going to get the participation of less powerful nations or regions of the world. Equatorial Guinea has these big oil reserves; it is not going to leave that oil in the ground unless there is some recognition of how it has been pushed aside in the past and not allowed to benefit from that wealth.

Táíwò: Exactly. South Sudan, Nigeria, Angola—these are places that derive north of 40 percent of government revenue from selling oil and gas. Why would they participate in a global green transition led by the countries and populations that have benefited most from the past and present-day energy system? There’s a real practical side to tying the whole history of global racial empire to climate politics.

Jones: I want to shift our attention to some practicalities. You don’t spend a lot of time in the book talking about implementation, but I’m considering two challenges. One is that you present a different view from most of the best-organized and most prominent advocates of reparations. How would you deal with the view of a movement like American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS), which argues that descendants of slaves within the United States need to be the focus of a national agenda for reparations? On the other hand, while there’s been increasing attention to reparations in the past few decades, on the whole it remains a very unpopular proposal. Around two-thirds of Americans oppose the idea of reparations. Is this a viable project in this context?

Táíwò: For me, reparations would be a result rather than a program or a policy. While the idea of reparations doesn’t poll well, a lot of the constituent parts might. But I don’t know if the demand to give checks, say, to African Americans descended from people enslaved in the United States could ever be popular—and if we do anything, it should be that, right? I think people often read me in contrast to ADOS, but in the fifth chapter of the book, I straight up endorse this view. If you’re in the United States, why not? That sounds like a great idea. All I’m asking is, do you think that’s more or less likely to succeed in a world where the Caribbean Reparation Commission program is driving a global conversation? I think it’s more likely to succeed if other kinds of reparations proposals are out there.

But I also think that a lot of the other things that could be part of a reparations drive don’t necessarily need to be framed as reparations. And they might even be popular. For instance, reducing fossil fuel use polls better than reparations, and it is likely to gain popularity as the climate crisis becomes more and more apparent. If we follow the divest/invest strategies that Black Youth Project and other groups have talked about—funds that are divested from fossil fuel corporations and from prisons get invested into Black and Indigenous communities in this country and in every other country—that’s a win from a reparations standpoint, and you would never need to use the word. You could simply explain what pollution is and why you’d like less of it, and explain the better things that you’d like to do with those resources, like healthcare and housing, and prevention of intimate partner violence and intercommunal violence in non-carceral ways.

Jones: So the project for safer neighborhoods and better schools, for a less punitive justice system, for the right to a decent and dignified livelihood—are you saying that these policy proposals go alongside reparations, or they’re compatible with reparations, or they are reparations?

Táíwò: They are reparations. These durable, long-lasting, important aspects of our social system should be what we’re trying to change as we move toward racial justice. If you just say, “safer schools, safer neighborhoods,” and you don’t say how, then it makes sense that people would say, “Where are the reparations?” But if the “how” is redistributing resources and power from the richest, the most racially advantaged, and the most predatory parts of our social system toward the more constructive parts of our social system—if we’re not just changing numbers in Excel sheets; if we’re not just making prisons employ fewer people, but we’re actually closing them down and putting resources into better ways of dealing with violence; if we’re not just taking a few dollars from fossil fuel companies, but we’re shutting them down and investing in community-controlled renewable energy—you’ll find that we’re actually changing the deep political and social structure of our world.

Jones: Reading the book, I kept thinking of A. Philip Randolph’s speech at the March on Washington, in which he laid out a bunch of universalist programs for full employment, housing, education. He said, we’re not going to get any of this unless we become a society that values people over property—that’s the basis of this movement, and Black people are leading it because we have seen our ancestors changed from people into property. The history of enslavement, he argued, gives us a perspective that is essential to the creation of a just society more broadly. Does that resonate with the argument in your book?

Táíwò: It resonates super strongly. One of the things he says in that speech is that we’re not a pressure group, right? We are the advanced guard of a massive moral revolution. It’s a moral revolution not just because it gives different people voting rights or wages, but because we have to organize social life around taking care of people and protecting people—all of them, not just the ones given some fake level of extra humanity. Black people have available to them a deep understanding of the stakes of that decision, because Black people have gotten the worst of the fact that society is not built around care and protection. But everyone has stakes in what is treated as important, as we’re seeing with the COVID-19 crisis, and as we’ll continue to see with the climate crisis. A society that will let you die to make more money for the people at the top is ultimately not a society that is built correctly. It’s not a society that is compatible with the freedom of anyone in it.

Jones: The people most impacted have, perhaps, a greater interest in addressing those crises, but certainly they’re not the only ones who have an interest.

Táíwò: Exactly.

Jones: That seems like the basis of building political support for a project in the context of backlash.

Táíwò: I definitely think so. I’ve been reading about politics during the movement against the Vietnam War, and I think there was a clarity to it: people realized that while the government will throw away more Black lives, it will throw away all of us to keep a system that’s profitable and advantageous for the elite. And all of us have something to lose if we live in a world where that’s how things work. We need that perspective back.

Jones: There are a couple of points in the book where you get personal. You give a powerful account of how Georgetown, the institution where you work and teach, is implicated in the history of imperialism and enslavement. You also give an account of growing up in a family of Nigerian immigrants, and the way that your connections to Nigeria, as well as your experiences as a descendent of immigrants, shaped your approach to these questions.

Táíwò: In both cases, I was trying to implicate myself in both the problems and the solutions, both the history of injustice and the history of fighting for justice. One of the chapters starts by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., where he says, “we’re all in the red” and talks about how all of the goods that we consume come from an economic system that links us to labor halfway across the world, and thus to the oppression of people halfway across the world. With the Georgetown story, I was trying, as deeply as I could, to demonstrate the truth of that. The history of Georgetown goes back to the history of the founding of this country involving enslaved labor and Indigenous dispossession and elimination. That’s not just a story that I’m trying to expose to keep Georgetown honest. That’s my story. It’s the story of how I get my paychecks, and it’s the story of how I enjoy whatever social advantages I enjoy as somebody with a fancy job here.

Often, we can use identity in a way that obfuscates that. White people or non-Black people of color are the ones who enjoy the good things from this messed-up history—as though that history produced some special world for them that we’re outside of. But that history produced the world that we all live in. The roads that we all drive on, the dollars in your bank account and the dollars in mine, different as those numbers might be.

If I can’t just disavow the particularly nasty parts of history, something I could do instead is look at the people who fought against the injustices of that history, and I could simply side with them. I can’t change the past, but I can look at what happened in the past and decide what I want to hand down to our descendants. Am I going to follow the legacy of the abolitionists, or am I going to follow the legacy of the slavers? I can think about that in a way that starts from my genealogy, but ultimately it’s not who is in my family tree that decides which trends in history I’m joining up with and continuing. It’s what I do. It’s my politics. And whoever you are, whoever your ancestors were, that’s a choice that’s available to you. You can be part of what the enslaved people did in the South of the United States, or in Brazil, or in Haiti. Or you can be part of the historical forces that worked against the injustices of this system.

What that comes down to is not just what you see when you look back at history, but also what you see when you look forward. What are you leaving for the people who will hopefully take up these torches of justice after us? Is it something they can use? Is it a fight that they have any hope of winning? That’s the perspective we need to have politically, and that’s a perspective that a lot of the people who came before me had, and I’m learning from them. Dr. King is one of them, A. Philip Randolph is one of them, Toni Morrison is one of them. That’s a team we can all join.

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