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UNTHINKING RACIAL REALISM: A FUTURE FOR REPARATIONS?1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 June 2014

Lawrie Balfour*
Affiliation:
Department of Politics, University of Virginia
*
Corresponding author: Professor Lawrie Balfour, Department of Politics, University of Virginia, P.O. Box 400787, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4787. E-mail: klb3q@virginia.edu.

Abstract

Considered costly, divisive, and backward-looking, reparations for slavery and Jim Crow appear to have no place in the politics of the “postracial epoch.” This essay proposes that the dismissal of reparations concedes too much. First, I contend that the conjunction of postracial discourse, on the one hand, and deepening racial inequalities, on the other, demands a counter-language, one that ties the analysis of the present to the historical conditions out of which it was produced. I explore reparations as a political language that (1) situates political claims within the historical framework of slavery, reconstruction, and segregation; (2) links past to present to future in its demand for concrete forms of redress; and (3) has played an important role in African American political life and in contemporary democracies in transition. Second, in contrast to much of the reparations scholarship, I focus on the demands of democracy rather than justice. Doing so both helps to evade some of the technical questions that have prevented full consideration of the political work of reparations and provides a vehicle for redefining both governmental and civic responsibility in the shadow of slavery and Jim Crow.

Type
Race in a “Postracial” Epoch
Copyright
Copyright © Hutchins Center for African and African American Research 2014 

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