Reparations as a Construction Project: An interview with Olufemi Taiwo.

AuthorTempus, Alexandra

With his first two books out this year, you might call Olufemi Taiwo a philosopher of the moment. But the Georgetown University assistant professor is laying out a firmly future-oriented vision that reframes reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism as a forward-looking climate justice project. Making reparations, he has said, "means remaking the world."

"No mere intellectual or even spiritual appreciation of the weight of history will protect New Orleans from future hurricanes--canals have been dug, levees constructed, seawalls erected," he writes in Reconsidering Reparations. "Whether we want to undo what has been done (e.g., destroying or altering levees) or do something else (e.g., 'managed retreat' from the waters), we will have to execute either choice with hands, feet, and shovels--not with recognition or symbolism."

Taiwos "constructive" view of reparations, with its focus on the material world and lived reality, has achieved mainstream salience in major media outlets and at numerous public lectures. It's an approach that starts from practical outcomes of justice and works backward, calling not simply for more "resources" in vulnerable communities, but for empowering them with "capabilities" of self-determination--to make their own budgeting decisions, for example, or to switch energy supplies.

We spoke in August, just as monsoons submerged one-third of Pakistan, President Joe Biden announced historic student debt relief, and the Movement for Black Lives launched a new initiative around "equitable climate solutions." "We're used to thinking about our ecosystem as just one category among many," Taiwo says. Really, he puts it, "it's just the thing that we live inside of."

Q: You argue powerfully that ensuring communities have concrete capabilities through a reparations project is more important than redistributing resources and cash alone. But you've also said that if we do one thing, it should be unconditional cash transfers. What role does cash play in this constructive view you're advocating?

Olufemi Taiwo: On the one hand, people often fetishize cash and the sorts of things that we can measure with it. This extends to how people talk about the economy at a macro scale in terms of measures like GDP and growth. There's a real disconnect between what money and wealth do for us--which is allow us some degree of freedom to make practical choices--and what it actually is on its own. Part of what's attractive to me about the "capabilities" approach is that it lets you say directly what we're interested in, which is being able to...

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