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This "important intervention," writes reviewer Lennard, shows "that reparations for trans-Atlantic slavery and colonialism are a matter of justice and also a necessary condition for rising to the existential challenge of global heating."

Reconsidering Reparations
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 9780197508893

THE WORLDS CONJURED in analytic philosophy are strange ones, in which abstract persons are trapped in a shifting kaleidoscope of hypotheticals, posited obligations, infinite regressions, near and far possible worlds. Even after the so-called applied turn in the last century of ethics and political philosophy, the tendency by professional thinkers to treat every real-world problem as a logic puzzle persists. 

This approach has extended to analytic philosophers’ theorizing about reparations for slavery. Some, like political philosopher Bernard Boxill, have urged an approach situated in Lockean principles of natural rights that assert “satisfaction” is due to any victim of wrongdoing. The libertarian Robert Nozick famously argued for reparations based on rectifying the unjust appropriation of property. 

Broadly speaking, these accounts take up theories of justice based on historical harms and attendant obligations. But the analytic discipline as a whole has failed to treat calls for reparations, such as those advanced by Black nationalists in the 1960s and ’70s, as an urgent and liberatory demand to rebuild this (actual) world, ordered as it has been by colonial conquest and the enslavement of Black people. Meanwhile, under the influence of John Rawls’s “ideal theory” of justice, liberal philosophers’ arguments for resource distribution have been framed in terms of achieving a just and fair future society, detached from questions of historic causes of current inequality and injustice. 

It is on this crucial point—the necessity of dealing with global realities and the processes behind them—that philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò bases his illuminating Reconsidering Reparations. Calling upon intellectual legacies far beyond the analytic canon—from anticolonial activists to the Black radical tradition to legal scholarship to lessons from the nineteenth-century Malê slave rebellion in the Empire of Brazil—Táíwò returns the discourse on reparations to its rightful, radical roots. Rather than treating past harms as a ledger in need of balancing, Táíwò calls for reparations as a “constructive” process of, as he puts it, “world-making.” In doing so, he bridges a ​​gap that should never have emerged in philosophical debates to begin with: the false dichotomy between addressing past injustices and constructing a better future.

What makes Reconsidering Reparations an important intervention is Táíwò’s demonstration that reparations for trans-Atlantic slavery and colonialism are a matter of justice and also a necessary condition for rising to the existential challenge of global heating. Insisting on a sustainable future for all—and rejecting genocidal white-nationalist ecological movements—he clarifies the need to reckon with the colonialist history of climate apartheid. He also shows that a “politically serious reparations project . . . must focus on climate justice.” It’s a huge task for a relatively slim text, but it aligns with Táíwò’s broader approach as a scholar, which holds that harms produced and maintained by an entire world system must be met with responses that are equally planetary in scope. That the philosopher takes this global scale for granted is no flaw: in a world ordered by borderless capital, a global approach should be axiomatic. 

Táíwò works from the premise that a fruitful program of reparations must be future-looking: How can reparations benefit the communities most harmed by histories of colonialism and slavery if those communities remain condemned to suffer and perish in climate catastrophe? The history of capitalist development has meant that climate decimation has been unevenly distributed along colonial lines. Even within the United States, poor Black communities are at the greatest risk from the consequences of climate change. A program of reparations that fails to attend to the climate crisis would also fail to repair the world forged in colonial rule and through slave labor. In response to the question of why those fighting for a sustainable climate for all people need to think in terms of reparations, Táíwò argues that the only way to end climate apartheid is to understand and undo the systems that produced it.

The late theorist of the Black radical tradition Cedric Robinson used the framework of “racial capitalism” to describe a system of capitalism historically and materially structured through colonial racialization. Táíwò chooses the term “global racial empire” to drive home this point: the geopolitical world in which we currently live, he stresses, was built on slavery and colonialism. As he writes, “The global racial empire created new kinds of injustice and linked them into entirely new global systems. The constructive view of reparations I defend here calls for change of equal scope.”

Global racial empire continues to determine the distribution of accumulated advantages and disadvantages on a planetary scale, as well as within nation-states (the vast, racist US carceral system stands as a prime national example). Any robust mobilization against the genocidal climate crisis will require mass resource redistribution to undo the work of the global racial empire. This is the heart of Táíwò’s “constructive” concept of reparations: a future-looking framework that demands we bring together ideas of resource redistribution—including but not limited to cash payments—and racial-justice reparations. 

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His work is a particularly welcome salve to tired debates about race, class, and identity politics. Of course, it serves ruling-class interests to use ambiguities around calls for reparations to deliver only symbolic, identity-based offerings—a phenomenon political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. has often cited as a major problem with the idea of reparations per se. Yet there’s no need to accept such a shallow reparations model. 

“When we understand the structure of the world as the pattern of its motion,” Táíwò writes, “it turns out that history is one of the most powerful ways we can discern where these invisible currents we get caught in are coming from, and where they are going, to perceive where they will pull us under and drown us, and what it would take to avoid that fate.” The burden remains on those leftists who insist that we do not talk about race, only class, to answer why we should ignore such a huge factor in the historic shaping of capitalist relations. 

Those who seek a framework of reparations that delineates precisely which individuals have a responsibility to pay reparations and which individuals have rightful claims to them could find themselves frustrated with Táíwò’s rejection of reparations that “map neatly onto contemporary identity binaries: white/Black, settler/Indigenous, colonizer/colonized.” It is, however, hard to disagree with his assessment that assigning responsibility on the basis of contemporary identities—formed as they may be through histories of colonial oppression—leads to unending traps and difficult counterexamples. What about the white descendants of enslaved people? Or the Indigenous descendants of Indigenous slave owners? 

Táíwò avoids such problems of historic, individualized responsibility by thinking instead in terms of liability. For him, corporations and powers that have accumulated advantage through global racial empire can be considered liable for bearing the costs of reparations whether or not any of their living representatives can be said to bear responsibility or fault for past harms. “The racially advantaged, the Global North, and institutional repositories of plunder should bear more of the burdens of constructing the just world order, not because of the relationship that they, as responsible moral agents, hold to the injustices of the past,” he notes. Instead, “those advantaged by global racial empire should bear more burdens because of the relationship that their advantages hold to that history.” 

The idea of a “liability” as distinct from a personal responsibility should not be strange to us: civil courts regularly hold institutions, corporations, and governments liable for paying damages to harmed parties, even if no individuals involved in the liability-bearing institution were involved in the harm. And we can name corporate, state, and suprastate institutions and forces, as well as vast landowners, whose power has directly accrued from the violent formation and continuance of global racial empire, and who should thus be liable to cover the bulk of the costs of the reparative world-making projects we need. 

Táíwò is under no illusions that the capitalist and state powers advantaged by global racial empire will give up that advantage willingly. Constructive reparations projects—like any efforts for major resource and power redistribution—will not be agreed upon with a polite handshake. As in fraught court cases, liable parties must be forced to accept liability and pay out, and that pressure will have to come from below. No powerful international body like the IMF, organized around enabling the flows of capital to capitalists, would take on such a task.

So how is his world-making project going to happen? The only way justice has ever been won: through struggle. Táíwò urges “trans-local” efforts of resistance, community building, unionization, and “torch[ing]” tax havens, among other actions. In contrast to the subtlety of his philosophical arguments, his solutions may read a little like a grab bag of activist wishes. He nonetheless offers a compelling framing for justice-oriented actions on the path to ending global racial empire. 

Táíwò’s suggestion is that we “act like ancestors,” knowing that the world-making we seek will likely not come anywhere close to completion in our lifetimes, much as those rebels in the 1835 Malê revolt did not live to see the end of slavery in their lifetimes. With this lesson in mind, Táíwò elegantly threads the story of the revolt—one in which his ancestral peoples played a part—through the pages of his book. What does it mean to act like would-be ancestors on a swiftly burning planet? At the very least, it means acting now. 

Natasha Lennard is the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life (Verso, 2019).