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2E. Humanities at Large blogpost 15 February 2018

Humanities at Large
15 February 2018

Reparations and Reconciliation: From Accounting to Accountability?
Emily Gilbert, Canadian Studies and Department of Geography and Planning

At this week’s seminar, Emily Gilbert, a faculty research fellow cross-appointed between the Canadian Studies program and the Department of Geography and Planning, reflected on some of the issues that she has been wrestling with as she examines the role that reparations—and particularly money—play in processes of reconciliation. Reparations have become fundamental components of reconciliation. Through Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), for example, payments have been allocated to all survivors of Indian Residential Schools, with additional monies for those who suffered the most egregious forms of abuse. But while money is surely needed by victims to address short-term and long-term needs, the allocation of money is always political. Who is deemed to be eligible? How much does someone receive? Who pays? Who gets to decide? Under what conditions? These processes can not only be divisive within communities, but also, the accounting practices on which they depend are actually used to defer or even deny accountability.

This research draws upon some of Gilbert’s ongoing analysis of how money is increasingly being used to pay off victims of war and terrorism. With respect to the former, victim compensation has been paid out in combat zones in an effort to win hearts and minds. These payments are troubling in that the very soldiers who are inflicting violence and damage are tasked with making amends through payments. Furthermore, the process is highly bureaucratic and dehumanizing, while suspending legal liability.


With respect to victims of terrorism, there are various forms of state compensation in place that recognize these particular victims as especially deserving of compensation. These programs rely on their characterization as uniquely innocent, an innocence that is meant to be refracted back on the state. But notably, faced with increasing acts of terrorism, states are also turning more and more to private philanthropy, especially through crowdfunding. While these can help to emphasize social solidarity and community resilience (eg One Boston, One Orlando Fund, One Love Manchester, or even Toronto Strong), they are also highly uneven and biased, depending on how the victims are perceived, and which communities are invoked for support. There was significantly less money donated to the victims of the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, for example. Even though this was the biggest attack in the US since 9/11, the community impacted was more marginalized being primarily LGTBQ and Latinx.

The response to the verdict in the shooting death of Colten Boushie points to some further tensions that emerge around compensation. A GoFundMe campaign was set up to support the grieving family as they suffered through the trial. But subsequently, a rival fundraiser was set up to support the shooter, Gerald Stanley, once he was acquitted. Not only did the verdict of not-guilty confirm the systemic colonial injustice of the Canadian legal system—there was no Indigenous representation at the trial—and the racism of the RCMP who botched the investigation, and the police in their dealings with the family—but the landscape of donations that emerged also became a flashpoint for hatred and abuse against Indigenous peoples. All of this was taking place at a moment when the official discourse in Canada was about reconciliation.
Justice for Colten

But are there any opportunities offered by reparations? Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued as much in a widely talked-about article in The Atlantic (June, 2014). He argues for Black reparations that will not only address the ongoing legacy of slavery, but also Jim Crow laws, redlining, and other forms of ongoing dispossession. His call builds on long-standing, bottom-up calls for reparations dating to at least the post-Civil War era in the United States, that were revived during the civil rights era. The Republic of New Afrika, founded in 1968, for example, not only advocated for the payment of $400 billion US for reparations, but also for the creation of a Black-majority country in the southern United States, shown in the map below.
Black Belt territory

More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has taken up the call for reparations as it mobilizes towards social justice. Attempts to move forward, however, continue to be thwarted by government institutions such as Congress that refuse to even consider the issue—even though in 2016 the United Nation’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent chastised the United States for showing “no real commitment to reparations.”

Coates is optimistic that reparations will not only ensure “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences,” but that they will also unravel “America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.” For him, the reparations will be so substantive, and will require such a revolutionary form of redistribution, that they can work to enact structural and systemic change. Indeed, social movements based in reparations have never been only about the money, as Robin D.G. Kelley has argued, but rather about ways to achieve social justice. How can social transformation be enacted at such a scale? What role, if any, can or does money play in this revolution? These are some of the core questions that Gilbert has been wrestling with over the course of her JHI fellowship.

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