I am a sucker for writers who hold strong left positions while remaining thoughtful and fair, and also for writers who talk about complex philosophical issues in ways that a non-professional audience can follow. So it was probably inevitable that I would come to notice and appreciate Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, who professes philosophy at Georgetown. I think the first piece of his I read was “Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference,” which I cited in my essay on whiteness. (The book version of “Elite Capture”, with the delicious subtitle “How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics and Everything Else,” comes out from Haymarket in March. This man is productive.) He recently wrote an excellent series for the Nation, “How Much Could a Banana Republic Cost”—a series about “who and what rules the world”—which I consider to be exemplary intellectual journalism. He runs through various candidates: global corporations, McKinseyite consultant types, the CIA as organized crime, the bankers, etc.—and somehow makes a mass of information and conflicting ideas about how power works fun to read.
When I learned that he was writing a book about reparations (you can also buy the ebook wherever you buy ebooks), I knew that it would be appointment reading. Reconsidering Reparations, which comes out today, didn’t disappoint. Of course the subject matter of such a book is incredibly sober—you’re basically surveying centuries of forced labor and wholesale murder and wage and land theft, since that history is the justification for reparations. And then if you’re a white reader, let’s be honest, you’re also worried about whether the upshot of all this is “Now you must starve to even things out.” (Generally the answer is no, but if you were planning on living in lavish opulence, forget it.) But the lucidity of his writing and the moral force of his project, as he lays it out, make this, too, a pleasure to read, and ultimately inspiring. By the end of the book, you’re excited about repair. In part, that’s because he frames reparations as “worldmaking”: it’s not an expiatory sacrifice that must happen before black and white (or white and non-white) people enter the future together, but the proper name for the project of building a fair and generous world that everyone can survive in. The subtext of what I’m saying here is: even if the word “reparations” turns you off, or words like “postcolonial,” this is a writer who you will probably find it rewarding to engage with.
Running through the book are short sections in which Táíwò marshals together much of the available information about the Malê rebellion of the 1830s, considering from several historical angles, entertaining the view that it is a success, a failure, and an unfinished project. The concision of these sections especially impressed me; it’s a lot of research worn lightly. His opening chapter discusses why he wants to reframe reparations as a construction project, and places his book in a lineage of anti-colonial activism and scholarship that took a similar view. The next chapter takes up a quotation from Martin Luther King, about the fact that each of us lives “eternally ‘in the red,’” owing our ability to live and think and eat to the labor of strangers and the dead. This is a metaphysical claim, but also a highly practical one: “Odds are good that you ordered this book on a device with materials mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, assembled in China, and shipped to yet a third continent for sale,” he writes. If that’s true, then we need to think about how we came to be dependent on these particular strangers doing these particular things, and how those strangers came to be so ill-compensated, their land so ravaged. So Táíwò gives a quick summary of the current global economic order and its history—as one does! He considers the economic world system as “something like a water management system … The system describes which way future waters will naturally run, and where they will not run without novel intervention.” Resources flow in one direction, misery in another. Thus reparations doesn’t just mean A guy with roughly the same skin tone as my grandfather stole your grandfather’s wages, so now I pay you back: it’s We need to rebuild this damn thing so everybody gets enough water.
Later chapters examine the logical basis for the ethical claims that an advocate of repair must make. He considers, and partially rejects, both Rawlsian liberalism and (this surprised me a bit) ideas of “binary group identity and collective responsibility.” (“To say that the ancestors of some contemporary whites were causally responsible for slavery and colonialism … is not yet to identify a difference between white people and Black people.”) He prefers the idea of liability to that of responsibility, and an ethical universalism that is based not on the idea of giving everybody the same things, but giving everybody what they need (here he draws on disability theorists among others). As he considers how climate change changes the moral and strategic map his book has drawn for us, he borrows from Yoruba tradition to argue for the idea of trying to be a “good ancestor,” and makes some modest but sensible short-term strategic recommendations (give people money; pressure the governments of rich countries to fund adaptive infrastructure in the countries they’ve despoiled; “torch the tax havens”; support labor organizing, divestment projects, and community self-defense projects where needed; etc.)
This summary is incredibly long and yet my treatment of the book has been brutally reductive. The book does quite a bit in a short space. It’s good! Read it. Táíwò was kind enough to answer some of my questions.
I was struck by your picture of the world-system as fluid: not so much "resources happen to be here" and "poverty happens to be here" but "nice things flow this way, misery flows that way, because that's the way people built those channels." The world is path-dependent, and colonialism built the paths. It seems commonsensical, but I hadn't thought of it in exactly those terms before. How did you arrive at this way of looking at things? What changes when we adopt this metaphor?
I got here, I think, by a combination of two major factors. The first has to do with me getting my intellectual start in social science: I studied political science and economics before I studied philosophy, so I have some habits built up around keeping track of resources and incentives. Those aren't the only things we need to explain the social world, of course, and those habits aren't always helpful, but they were clarifying around these sorts of issues, since the Black world is absolutely immense. Not a lot of things about Black politics or culture apply well across borders and oceans and eras—a very detailed, granular analysis that makes sense of Guyana might not get things right in Guinea-Bissau or Gary, Indiana. So the patterns that remain if you're studying politics broadly really seem to just be about social advantages and social disadvantages generally, rather than particular forms of either. The "paths" built by colonialism and history more generally explain why the patterns of racial hierarchy hold, even across wildly different eras and places.
What is missing from our current framings of "reparations" such that you need to emphasize it as a constructive project?
One thing I try to stress in the book is that I'm just explaining a perspective that people have long had and still do. I think the US's Grassroots Reparation Campaign and Caribbean Reparations Commission, for instance, has a view a lot like this. That said, the reparations arguments that make it into mainstream media tend to locate focus on the backward looking aspects of reparations: which individuals precisely are responsible for the harms of the past, or are owed things on the basis of those harms. That's a conversation worth having, but it's not the whole conversation about reparations. To me, the more pressing aspect is what we're trying to do by way of reparations: what racial justice in the future looks like, and what the accumulations of past eras of racial injustice has to do with it. The "constructive view" is just a way of trying to push for this refocusing.
The book's interchapters, in which you somehow both quickly tell the story of the Malê rebellion of 1835 and take a very long-range historical view of it, seems like one of those small touches that took a lot of work. When in the process of writing the book did you decide to use this as a sort of narrative spine? How hard was it to gather those details and synthesize them into a short narrative?
"Interchapters" is a nice term for it—I'll borrow that, if you don't mind!
I settled on the Malê rebellion early on. It was a lot of work to read up about—my Portuguese isn't all that good—but it was very worth it. In one fell swoop, it gives a really clear example of major points I'm trying to make in the book. It shows that large scale social change is possible in the long term, since Brazil eventually abolished slavery because of revolts like this, and that it's compatible with short term defeats, which is what happened to the rebels in 1835. It shows how large the political world is, since we understand the revolt by tracking multiple decades and multiple continents worth of political developments. It demonstrates a way of thinking about one's self in relation to the "distant" past: many of the organizers were Yoruba, my ethnic group, and it is an important political choice to choose them as my moral ancestors rather than the people who sold them. And it also demonstrates a way of thinking about one's self in relation to a potentially distant future: Brazil's eventual abolition of slavery was a realization of the aims of the revolt, even if it didn't happen in the lifetime of many of the rebels. That's also available to us to think about dismantling the unjust social world we have now, which may well be the work of generations.
This is a book about reparations and decolonization, but you explicitly (if respectfully) disclaim some of the arguments associated with identity politics. You are concerned with assessing liability instead of responsibility. You seem to want white readers to get involved in the task of building a just world because that task is morally compelling in itself, and not because we personally feel guilty for being the least oppressed by this system. (I say "least oppressed" because most of us are still workers!) My sense is that some Black writers avoid using this sort of argument out of a sadly valid feeling that white readers are too quick to absolve ourselves of responsibility, and that appeals to common humanity often, obviously, fall on deaf ears. Is this a basically accurate redescription of what you're doing, insofar as white readers enter into it? Why does it seem important to distance yourself a bit from responsibility-based claims and from group-membership-based claims?
I actually don't have white readers in mind at all with those claims, though I think you're right to see that there are lessons involved there. To me, Black writers have avoided using this sort of argument for the valid reason you bring up: avoiding dishonest ways that white readers might exploit the complications and disappointing aspects of Black history. But that's to avoid white misunderstandings or misappropriations of history by proliferating Black ones: as though there's nothing at stake in appreciating, say, the complicity of African empires with the slave trade other than what uses of that information dishonest whites or other non Black people might make of it. But we have to accept and confront that there are genuine ideological battles to fight quite apart from what races of people are ascendant at a given time—this was true when the slave trade was happening and it's true now.
Let's say that this book catches on within the nerd contingent of the DSA (which, speaking as a member of that community, it should). Femi Táíwò laser eye memes propagate across the Internet. Matt Christman starts talking about global reparations in his vlogs. Both the parts of the left that get labeled "class-only" and the parts that get labeled as "identity-first" (sometimes, in both cases, unfairly) are genuinely excited about your ideas. What would you want to see change in those communities' conversations as a result of the book's influence? What would be emphasized that is not currently emphasized? What new strategies and campaigns would American socialist movements pursue? What existing strategies would they pursue more intently?
Ideally, we'd start to see a different kind of universalism from both sides that might bridge the divide a bit. I don't think the divide between class and other forms of identity really makes much political sense. I've made that case about "class vs. race" but I don't think there's anything special about this particular binary—Serene Khader was working in anti-colonial, transnational feminism when she gave a really eye-opening clarification of what universalism actually should involve in "Decolonizing Universalism". If we drop the assumption that universalism means everybody gets treated the same and instead just mean that we respond to everyone's particular material and political circumstances, then we can also drop the assumption that the folks who emphasize class and folks who emphasize other aspects of identity have to be playing for competing teams. Ideally, both would move in the direction of a "responsive" universalism, as Enzo Rossi and I put it once. Opposition to racism, patriarchy, transphobia, and ableism tell us what our universal plans and aspirations, like opposition to vaccine apartheid, would have to achieve: overcoming the current structural injustices that now explain why only some people in some places can get vaccinated. Reparations advocates like Dorian Warren of the Economic Security Project have already given great examples of that kind of thinking: Warren advocated for a "UBI+" that would give everyone a basic income, but give an extra reparatory amount for African-Americans descended from the enslaved.
One of the things I appreciate about this book is that it just doesn't take national boundaries so seriously. The account you seem to take of them is practical rather than almost metaphysical. Like, for you, their existence doesn't seem to substantially change our moral duties toward each other, so that (for example) Rawls's two-tier system of justice doesn't make sense to you. Why do you think it's so hard for so many people to think outside of that frame? What arguments and rhetorical strategies seem (in your experience) to do the best job of getting people to see that everyone is their neighbor?
I don't know! I wonder about this a lot. I think it's mostly socialization. Being a child of immigrants, there's a sense in which borders have never seemed as "real" to me as they did to others around me—most of my family is on the other side of the Atlantic, so thinking about people in other countries has never really been an abstract thought for me in the way it seemed to be to other US folks I grew up around. At the same time, borders seem more real to me than other people: conversations about immigration reform where people with one of the world's most powerful passports insist that other people should just immigrate the "right way", as if moving countries legally was some simple and widely accessible procedure—like making a sandwich. That's unhinged if you know even a little bit about how difficult it has been historically to get into this particular country on a permanent basis (or even at all), whether we're talking about the more explicitly eugenic phases of US immigration law or more historically recent trends where many people would need to literally win a lottery.
I don't think I've found any way of making it clear to people who have been socialized in the spaces I was that other people in the world are actually people, with lives every bit as precious as theirs—since the absolutely consequence-free destructions of Iraq and Afghanistan, I think I've given up hope at doing that. What I do instead is simply presume it, as I think you're responding to in the book: I take it for granted that we all live on the same planet, and that political events are connected across national borders and oceans and all of that. Those things are simply true, and it forces people who might subscribe to social conventions that encourage us to pretend otherwise to tell me why I or anyone else should play along with something so clearly fantastical.
What's next for you? There's another book in March, which I can't wait to read. What happens after that? What philosophical problems are you excited about at the moment? What's the next book, and what's the book you're secretly excited to write but it's two or three projects away?
Hopefully what's next for me is a lot less writing and a lot more reading, starting this summer!