What Is the Significance of Reparations in History and in Today’s World?

March 14, 2013

As the United States commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a multidisciplinary symposium March 21 and 22 at the University of Virginia will consider the topic of how governments attempt to confront and atone for past injustices.

“Does Reparations Have a Future? Rethinking Racial Justice in a ‘Color-Blind’ Era” will explore the cultural, legal, economic and political legacies of slavery and Jim Crow,  while considering the global dimensions of recent reparations struggles as part of democratic transition. The proliferation of reparations efforts around the world in turn might inform debates about transitional justice in the U.S.

The symposium, which is free and open to the public, is sponsored by the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, the Law School’s Center for the Study of Race and Law, University and Community Action for Racial Equity, the Center for International Studies and the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Reparations – making amends to right the wrongs of social injustice or war – have a long history and can take many forms. Deborah McDowell, English professor and director of the Woodson Institute, said the symposium’s purpose is not to debate whether the U.S. government should make payments to descendants of the formerly enslaved, but rather to look at reparations in broader scope.

The symposium will bring together leading scholars to examine the history of reparations in the U.S. since the end of the Civil War. What has changed and what has been studied over time?  How have other countries worked on reparations, such as South Africa, Chile and Argentina.

Lawrie Balfour, a politics professor in the College, is writing a book about reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. One of the symposium co-organizers, she will participate in a panel on reparations in historical frame, which must take the aftermath of slavery into account. For the formerly enslaved and their descendants, reparations for slavery amounted to “40 acres and a mule,” a phrase referring to U.S. Gen. William T. Sherman’s field orders shortly before the end of the Civil War. Newly freed slaves would be given land upon orders enacted in Georgia and South Carolina. After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, his successor, Andrew Johnson, revoked Sherman’s orders and returned the land to its previous white owners. The phrase “40 acres and a mule” has thus come to represent the failure of Reconstruction to compensate freed former slaves.

The term “Jim Crow” represents the social system, including laws and customs that perpetrated and reinforced racial oppression and segregation of African-Americans from the late 1870s into the 1960s, particularly in the South.

“The topic of reparations has often been seen as extremely controversial, but maybe it wouldn’t seem so controversial if considered in historical perspective and with the knowledge that far more people than African-Americans have pressed their claims for reparations. Groups around the world have done so, some successfully,” McDowell said.

The subject gains urgency in the present American context, with persistent rates of inequality between African-Americans and white Americans and in the aftermath of sequestration, which includes cuts to many social programs, she said.

One of the foremost scholars on the politics of reparations, Michael C. Dawson, will give the keynote address on March 21 at 7 p.m. in the Law School’s Withers-Brown Hall. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago and director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture.

His most recent book, “Not in Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics,” argues that for all the talk about a new post-racial America, the fundamental realities of American racism remain. The book is described as “a nuanced analysis of the persistence of racial inequality and structural disadvantages, and the ways that whites and blacks continue to see the same problems – the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina being a prime example – through completely different, race-inflected lenses.”

The symposium’s four panel discussions, which will take place March 22, will be held in Minor Hall Auditorium. They will explore “Reparations in Historical Frame,” “Reparations and the University,” “Reparations and the Nation” and “Reparations Around the Globe.”

“Politically, 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,” McDowell and her co-organizers, Balfour and law professor Kim Forde-Mazrui, wrote in a description of the symposium.

Many activists have said, and continue to say, an apology is not enough.

“Reparations can be both material and symbolic,” McDowell said, and when confronted seriously can help communities heal from their history and its inglorious aspects, even University communities. McDowell mentioned a quote in a report by Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. “People who suffer injuries and losses through the malicious or culpably negligent conduct of others have a right to redress – a right, as far as practicable, to be ‘made whole,’” it said.

“In convening the U.Va. symposium on reparations,” McDowell said, “the organizers seek not to dwell 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-edge scholarly considerations of the presence of the past.”

For the schedule, go to the Woodson Institute website.

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Anne E. Bromley

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