The 2023 Winant Lecture in American Government
Demands for reparations for slavery and Jim Crow are not new. Since the early decades of the 19th century, African American intellectuals and activists have argued for different forms of reparations as a crucial step toward realizing democratic ideals in the U.S. What is new, however, is the embrace of reparations by mainstream civil rights organizations and political leaders. This lecture asks whether contemporary visions of reparations can dismantle entrenched structures of racial inequality and provide meaningful redress for slavery and its legacies and considers the dangers of enacting a program of reparations without undoing those structures or offering lasting redress. Although no form of reparations can offer an adequate response to the historic and contemporary harms of white supremacy, it is critical to distinguish between reparations proposals that are likely to produce politically destructive forms of disappointment or discredit continued resistance against injustice, on the one hand, and those that open avenues toward a future that does not look like the past, on the other. Only a vision of “reparations unbound,” I argue, has the potential to make re-constructive change.