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About the Symposium

 "By looking at the reparations campaign in the United States as a social movement, we discover that it was never entirely, or even primarily, about money. The demand for reparations was about social justice, reconciliation, reconstructing the internal life of black America, and eliminating institutional racism."

                                                                                  -- Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams



We at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies are excited to host “Does Reparations Have a Future? Rethinking Racial Justice in a ‘Color-Blind’ Era,” a multi-disciplinary symposium.  Organized by Deborah McDowell (Alice Griffin Professor of English and Director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies), Kim Forde-Mazrui (William S. Potter Professor of Law), and Lawrie Balfour (Professor of Politics), the symposium is organized around four sessions—“Reparations in Historical Frame,” “Reparations and the University,” “Reparations and the Nation,” “Reparations around the Globe.”  Panelists will examine the range of meanings, questions, controversies, and aspirations the term “reparations” has elicited historically and will explore among other topics, the cultural, legal, economic, and political legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. 

A controversial term provoking a range of meanings and responses, “reparations” has been used most commonly to refer to material compensation in the present as a means of righting the wrongs of the past.  In the political arena, the connection between the crimes of the past and the health of the polity has been acknowledged in the recent spate of public apologies, particularly for slavery and Jim Crow. Beginning with the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2007, several states and then the U.S. Congress expressed regret for slavery and segregation and vowed that the lesson of this past history would not be lost. In its 2009 apology, the U.S. Senate observed that "African-Americans continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow laws—long after both systems were formally abolished—through enormous damage and loss, both tangible and intangible, including the loss of human dignity and liberty." For many, including the distinguished historian, John Hope Franklin, such apologies cost nothing and carry limited utility as concerns the work of righting wrongs. The next step, he asserted, was “to do something."

Are reparations, then, the next step; and if so, in what would reparations consist?  How do we address the particulars of compensation or define “collective responsibility?” Who owes what to whom?  Who is entitled?  Must making reparations be seen as synonymous with material redress?  If so, what are the potential costs? What are the ethical costs of not taking action or of assuming responsibility for repairing the persistent legacies of slavery and segregation?


These and other questions have been central to the reparations debate. This debate --raging furiously at times--poses a peculiar set of challenges for those concerned with the possibility of multiracial democracy. On the one hand, evidence of the obstinacy of racial inequality abounds. African American children can expect to live shorter lives than their white counterparts; are three times as likely to live in poverty; and most of them will attend highly segregated schools.  Furthermore, when they grow into adulthood, their odds of incarceration, disenfranchisement, and unemployment will far outstrip those of white citizens. That these discrepancies can be traced to historic injustices and their legacies has been documented by scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and law. And yet, as public apologies for these injustices proliferate, so do variations on the idea that we inhabit a "color-blind" or "post-racial" era. Since the passage of the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s and, most emphatically, since the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, many Americans have been unwilling to reckon with the unfinished work of undoing the effects of centuries of bondage and state-sanctioned racial hierarchy. Indeed, public opinion research indicates that most white Americans believe that racial equality has already been achieved, or will be in the not too distant future.  Accordingly, neither legislatures nor courts are willing to prioritize or to extend earlier civil rights gains, this despite the fact that recent years have witnessed the unraveling of desegregation efforts on multiple fronts, particularly in realm of public education.

In such a context, even racial egalitarians worry that advocating any form of official redress for slavery and Jim Crow will exacerbate the resentment of citizens who are affronted by the implication that they are culpable for injuries inflicted before they were born.  Such claims for reparations, they argue, could further serve to stimulate animus against African Americans and to distract citizens from confronting the magnitude of present-day injustices.  Ultimately, even among the most progressive-minded, there is a growing sentiment that, in view of the gravity of contemporary social ills, which tend to fall disproportionately on citizens of African descent, it seems impractical, if not wholly irresponsible, to focus on the ghosts of bygone crimes.

In convening this symposium on reparations, the organizers seek not to swell on the ghosts of the past, but to provide an opportunity for the University of Virginia to join other universities, including Brown and Emory, in addressing these challenges and engaging in cutting-edged, scholarly considerations of the presence of the past. Panelists will present papers from a variety of competing perspectives, both sympathetic to and critical of the reparations movement, while exploring the noticeable growth of reparations efforts domestically and around the world.  It seems a propitious moment to ask how these efforts world-wide might inform debates about transitional justice in the U.S.

Our Thursday night keynote speaker is one of the foremost scholars of the politics of reparations: Michael Dawson, John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago and the founding and current Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture.  The remaining participants are experts in the following fields:  Law, History, Political Science, African-American Studies, Economics and Philosophy.

Lawrie Balfour, Professor of Politics, University of Virginia

Martha Biondi, Associate Professor of African American Studies and History, Northwestern University

Alfred Brophy, Judge John J. Parker Distinguished Professor of Law, University of North Carolina

Lisa Crooms, Professor of Law, Howard University

William Darity and Kirsten Mullen, Arts & Sciences Professor of Public Policy, Professor of African and African American Studies and Economics, Duke University

Adrienne Davis, Vice Provost, William M. Van Cleve Professor of Law, Washington University

Darren Hutchinson, Professor of Law, American University

H. Timothy Lovelace, Jr., Associate Professor of Law, Indiana University

Pap NDiaye, Maître de Conférences d'Histoire, L'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS)

Melissa Nobles, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science, MIT

Margaret Urban Walker, Donald J. Schuenke Chair of Philosophy, Marquette University

Verna Williams, Professor of Law, University of Cincinnati 

The organizers acknowledge that reparations in any form are a limited and imperfect response to historic injustice. Yet we resist the conclusion that they ought to be discarded without serious consideration. What reparations may offer, uniquely, is a language and a framework in which contemporary priorities are understood against a history of systemic disregard for some citizens and impunity for others. In this regard, we echo philosopher Margaret Urban Walker: "As I continue to think about reparations, I have come to accept how little, in a sense, reparations ever do or could do. This does not make them less important."


                                                                                                       The Program Committee: 

Deborah E. McDowell, Chair 
                                                                                                       Lawrie Balfour
                                                                                                       Kim Ford-Mazrui



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