In 2000, the economist Robert Browne estimated that Black Americans were owed between $1.4 trillion and $4.7 trillion for the stolen labor, torment, and dispossession endured by their enslaved ancestors.
If you factor in the outright segregation, economic exclusion, and widespread discrimination they’ve experienced since the end of slavery, the total amount of reparations owed could reach $17.1 trillion, according to estimates from Yahoo Finance.
That amount — as towering as it is — simply reflects the wealth that was stolen from Black Americans throughout history. Restitution is rightfully theirs, according to the United Nations and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
While the fight to achieve this sum has secured intermittent and small-scale victories over the years, momentum for a grand resolution has gained momentum, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Bills to study the issue and formalize plans for reparations are underway.
The historian Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò wants these checks to clear as soon as possible. But he also believes the framework for reparations can be expanded to include the climate crisis.
In his new book, Reconsidering Reparations, Táíwò argues that achieving climate justice and averting environmental catastrophe depends on global climate-based reparations.
The climate crisis has been primarily fueled by a handful of wealthy countries that have reaped extraordinary profits by ravaging ecosystems for natural resources and filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.
In a cruel twist, the effects of these actions have largely fallen on the countries least responsible for climate change and least capable of adapting to the new normal of rising temperatures, extreme droughts, and supercharged storms.
Providing reparations on a country-wide scale to accelerate the transition to renewable energy, phase out harmful economic sectors, and invest in adaptation measures could form the foundation for a new global economy that operates in harmony with the environment.
Táíwò spoke with Global Citizen about the fight for reparations, how it’s connected to climate justice, and some of the ideas explored in his new book.
Global Citizen: What’s driving the recent interest in reparations, and why should we be reconsidering reparations now?
Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: I should start out by saying that there’s long been interest in reparations, as long as there’s been transatlantic slavery and colonialism and their aftermath. I think the project of reparations, since it’s based on the injustices that make up those broader trends, is intimately tied up with the project of racial justice in general. So I think it’s unsurprising in a time of heightened agitation around the project of racial justice — Black Lives Matter in the US and global movements that resonate with that movement — that reparations are getting another look.
Do you think that there are more opportunities for advancing the project of reparations now?
I think there’s more opportunity now, given the way that past racial justice movements have won decisive battles over the kind of moral starting point for conversations around racial justice.
It’s hard to say whether or not the powers that be will cave in significant, concrete, material ways. But that has always been the struggle of reparations and activism, and this generation’s version of that is no different, really.
You talk about the possibility of reparations of going beyond some people getting checks, while others don’t. How can we think of reparations more broadly?
So, here I’m following lots of researchers who have looked into past reparations movements, [such as] Ana Lucia Aráujo, but especially in the US case. Something that has been noticed by the historian Robin G. Kelley is that a lot of past reparations movements, like a lot of movements for racial justice in general, have seen the goal of what they were trying to accomplish in systemic and transformative terms. That’s compatible, obviously, with giving particular groups of people money and social advantages who have been shut out of money and social advantages. Nor can a reparations campaign leave that focus behind.
But I think there’s an acknowledgement and understanding that what was built out of yesterday’s injustice, when it comes to the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism, was more than just an inappropriately split pie of wealth. It was a planetary-sized system of politics that makes some people disposable, that makes some places sites of pollution and trash, in both literal and figurative terms … That system is itself something that needs to be addressed — the system that cages people in the millions, that sends people to wars for the profits of those who are protected from having to serve on the front lines. That system is a problem as well, and that’s not something we can fix just with checks, even though we still need to give people checks.
Your book connects reparations to climate justice. How are the two linked?
So there are really two kinds of foundations for this idea, one that’s very concrete and one that’s somewhat theoretical. The theoretical one is there are different kinds of arguments for reparations. I talk all about them in the book: There’s harm repair and relationship repair. The constructive view, I argue, is better than those other views. In a nutshell, the constructivist view picks a different target. It says we should transform our society and social relations in terms of who has benefited the most and who has benefited the least from the injustices of the present moment. It connects the unfairness of that history to how we get to a just future, rather than simply addressing the injustices of the past.
That’s different because it makes reparations a forward-looking goal rather than making amends for a backward-looking harm. And because it has that perspective, trying to build something in the future, it has to take on climate justice for ordinary, practical reasons.
If you’re building a house, you want to know if the ground you’re building it on can support the house. And climate injustice, runaway climate change, is a bad foundation for building racial justice. It’s going to create the kinds of conflicts and empower the kinds of actors who are hostile to racial justice, who will move many parts of the world backward and who will sacrifice Black, brown, and Indigenous people who should benefit from reparations for the protection of their communities, portfolios, and profits.
And that theoretical concern takes on a kind of concrete, chilling example when we think of the response to Hurricane Katrina, which was a climate-fueled disaster, and also, I think in a lot of ways, a dress rehearsal for what politics might look like more generally in the rest of this century to come if we don’t get our act together on climate justice.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, incarcerated people were left to fend for themselves in waist-high water for days. People were crowded into inappropriate shelters, and people were largely left to fend for themselves in terms of securing their basic needs, food, clean water, and medicine. And not only that, but the people who were unable to evacuate were disproportionately elderly, disabled, and, of course, Black and brown. And people who were unable to evacuate, who were looking for food and water and medicine, were disproportionately labeled looters and met with lethal violence when they were Black. And the recovery was also racially stratified. Payouts from disaster insurance were tied to home values, which are racially discriminatory in terms of the appraisal of home values. And 1 in 3 Black residents at the time of my writing the book hadn’t yet returned to New Orleans following that climate-based displacement.
Every stage of the disaster and the response to the social system of that disaster re-entrenched racial disparities and injustices that reparations would be trying to mitigate and eliminate.
What would an international approach to reparations look like, from a climate perspective?
I think it would start with the bread-and-butter demand of reparations movements, which is just giving people, households, and communities money — unconditional cash transfers to the populations of the Caribbean, the descendants of the enslaved in the US, residents of the Global South. Unconditional cash transfers are a gold standard of reparations, but we should have that same ethos that we have at the household and individual level also at the level of communities and countries. So there needs to be an order-of-magnitude increase in climate funding for distributed rooftop solar in the Global North, for example.
For Global South governments that are trying to provide energy access to their citizens who don’t necessarily have the funding to do so, in ways that maximally restrain emissions, and also in communities in both the Global North and South that are trying to take adaptive measures to make their food systems, energy systems, and housing physically and institutionally resilient to climate-based disasters, all of these things are going to require huge amounts of funding. And the countries and corporations that have benefited the most from the injustices that produced the current world order have to chip in the most to make sure all this gets funded.
Can you explain about how the history of injustice — specifically transatlantic slavery and colonialism — is fundamentally linked to the climate crisis?
Our current economic system — capitalism — largely became the global economic system because of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution was a transformation beginning in the British Empire that fundamentally changed how countries and corporations exploited the trade networks that had built up through transatlantic slavery and colonialism. The entire basis of our planetary economic and political system has been created by transatlantic slavery and colonialism. Not only is that true, but one of the building blocks of the Industrial Revolution was the transformation in energy use. Some of that had to do with technologies like steam power, but one of the important transformations was in the use of coal as an energy source, which was abundant within the British Empire. So the same Industrial Revolution that exploited the economic and political possibilities of translatlantic slavery and colonialism was also the energy transformation that kicked off the scale of emissions that caused the climate crisis.
So from a historical perspective, the onset of the climate crisis and the creation of this planetary economic system were just the same events.
How can the IMF, the Green Climate Fund, and other multilateral financial institutions facilitate climate justice reparations?
It’s by any means necessary. These existing funds are just options, whether we’re talking about reallocating Special Drawing Rights at the IMF, or countries donating to the Green Climate Fund or making bilateral country-to-county agreements, or figuring out an international tax scheme to prevent polluting companies and other multinational companies from large-scale tax avoidance. All of those are just strategies and approaches. I imagine some combination of them will be needed, or the creation of new entities entirely. But what’s important is the outcome.
Right now, resources and capital are being courted by particular populations in particular parts of the world, and until they move from where they are to a much more horizontally distributed, publicly owned, and democratically managed model, we’re not going to have reparations and climate justice. We need different distributions of resources, decision-making, and power broadly constructed if we’re going to meet the challenge of the climate crisis.
What would the ideal reparations scenario look like?
Ideally, it would be unconditional cash transfers to individuals and governments, sub-nationally within the Global North and transnationally from North to South. And those resources would be governed within the Global South and the Global North under direct, democratic forms of political management — approaches like participatory budgeting, the choosing of lawmakers and administrators by processes of sortition rather than by elections that can be bought. We need firmly democratic ways of allocating resources rather than letting corporations and largely captured public institutions decide who gets what.
The economist Jason Hickel argues that the common narrative of development aid from the Global North to the Global South gets it backwards and that, instead, it’s the Global South that has sent trillions of more dollars in real development funds to the Global North. Would ending this regressive flow of money bring us closer to the goal of a more just world?
I think Hickel is absolutely right about this. And I think ending that dynamic is part and parcel of the constructive view. If the world is a distribution system for wealth, poverty, knowledge, pollution, and institutional capacity, the South has been siphoned of many of those things by the Global North. Reshaping how that system functions is a key thing, if not the key thing, we need to do to build a just world and address the climate crisis. And the closer we can get to that, the better.
There are different levers to push that would affect at least the rate at which advantages are siphoned from and disadvantages are funneled into the South. I think global climate funding is one way to do that. Building channels that direct wealth and technology back toward the South. I think widespread debt cancellation and other forms of debt jubilee would also be a lever to push. It would at least slow the siphoning of advantages toward the South. I think those are the two clearest examples.
But there are a lot of other things that we could try. At the end of the day, I like the way of describing it as actual flows. Rather than picking out at random a couple of projects financed by USAID, and calling that the whole story, instead showing how money in the US relates to money in Namibia. We need to take a holistic picture of these things and find a more just way of organizing how the world produces and distributes things.
In the US, reparations have historically been framed as a way to materially address the historic harm caused by white people to Black people and, internationally, the harm caused by colonial powers to colonized peoples. Can you explain how the majority of people of all backgrounds would be better off under this framework?
I think the key to framing why it would benefit everyone is that it’s transformative rather than just redistributive. When people think of reparations, they tend to think of one group of people getting stuff — getting a check or memorial — and then the conversation devolves into, “What about me? What about us? What about them?” But the constructivist view of reparations would change the social world … that’s premised on a lack of accountability and the politics of disposability, which eventually come for everyone. And I think everyone has something to gain from moving from this world to a new one.
I think this is a delicate subject because the people who are in the most marginalized groups rightly feel like reparations are about them, and it is. It has to be. And there are ways of making universal points that have historically excluded the very people who most need society to change, the people who have been most exploited and rendered most vulnerable by the racial injustices that have produced our present.
But I think, nevertheless, there’s also something powerful about this point that everyone gets a better world in the constructivist view. But to see that, we have to understand racial injustice in a lens other than a lens of privilege. It’s not as though mass incarceration is some gift given to white people by the US justice system. In fact, white people are more incarcerated now than they were decades ago. They’re not preyed upon to the same extent as Black, brown, and Indigenous people are, but how we’re framing it is a system of differential distribution of disadvantage … We’re talking about a social system that doesn’t invest in the flourishing of anyone except a very small group of people. We’re not talking about being protected. When we understand what we’re up against in that sense, I hope that everyone will be amenable to thinking that reparations, a justice movement that is principally concerned with the most marginalized people, is in fact for the benefit of the vast majority of people.
If you can engage in some wishful thinking, what is the better world that you envision?
I think a better world looks like the world that was being proposed by the global anti-colonial activists in the decades following the Second World War. They proposed a new international economic order to replace the one that has been built on colonial domination and explicitly racial apartheid. That world would be built on the self-determination of self-organizing peoples across the world who trade with each other and help each other on terms of solidarity and cooperation rather than domination. They built third-world coalitions of politics that actually lived that ethos out to the extent that was materially and politically possible — the Organization of African Unity, what became the African Union. That organization linked many different national independent movements and involved people who spoke different languages and were from different parts of the continent to remove colonial domination. In their struggles, they were getting material support from unions across the world, even from countries across the world, from China, from the Soviet Union, from Cuba, from unions in Ireland and the US and the UK.
Whatever the ruling classes of the world have been up to, there have always been people everywhere who are willing to relate to one another on terms of cooperation and on terms of solidarity and have used whatever space and resources they have access to, to actually do that. So we’re not looking at inventing some new way of being with each other on the planet. What we’re looking at, in constructing this just world, is just continuing to do the thing that generations of people have managed to do: Act in solidarity with each other, at different scales than the social structure makes possible.
From all the work that you do, the people you speak with, and just your general sense of the world, how much potential do you think there is to build this better world that you speak of?
I think there is a lot of potential. People are starting to move at different levels of society. The summer protests of 2020 were a major advance as far as the cause of racial justice goes. And I think the recent election in Chile, I think the ongoing pressure being put on fossil fuel companies, and the increasing outspokenness of scientists who are trying to help us appreciate the scale of what we’re up against — I think all of these developments point to a possible better direction for global politics, and we all need to lend our efforts in those same directions.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Disclosure: The Green Climate Fund is a funding partner of Global Citizen.