Sunday, July 28, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, February 5, 2017

What is it

The United States brutally enslaved African Americans for its first hundred or so years of existence. For the next hundred years, black Americans were lynched, deprived of basic rights, and widely discriminated against. Now, while there are still certainly racial injustices to deal with, how are we to respond to the racial injustices of the past? Does time really heal all wounds? Could it ever be legitimate to compensate the descendants of slaves for burdens they themselves did not bear? Likewise, why should the descendants of slave-owners be made to pay for crimes they did not commit? John and Ken welcome Michael Dawson from the University of Chicago, author of Not in Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics.

Listening Notes

Are black people today owed reparations for America’s racist past? On top of the horrors of slavery, America’s history includes Jim Crow and racist housing policy of the past century, and then the mass incarceration, failing public schools, and police brutality of the present. But are the injustices of the past too diluted to adequately compensate for? And are reparations just too politically infeasible for us to seriously consider?

John and Ken welcomes political scientist and University of Chicago professor Michael Dawson to the show. Dawson talks about the need for this country to face its racist past. Ken wonders that after so many decades of racism, aren’t we past conversations? Dawson doesn’t think so; we have much to disagree about. How much do we agree on when it comes to issues of social justice? As an example, Dawson cites the vastly differential support for reparations across racial lines: 90 percent of white people reject it, 60 to 70 percent of black people support it.

Is reparations about holding white people responsible? Dawson doesn’t think this is the right way to think about it; instead, we ought to all be held responsible. John focuses the discussion on specific proposals that would count to reparations. Ken further questions what the advantage is of framing restorative justice issues in terms of reparations. A listener calls in and asks about religious justifications for reparations. The hosts and guest aren’t too persuaded. Ken brings up Simone de Beauvoir’s view of the past, taking an aesthetic attitude towards it.

Dawson agrees with Ken that it would be harder politically to frame the issue in terms of reparations, but Dawson insists that it is still the just outcome. Along this vein, the conversation moves towards the political feasibility of reparations. It becomes clear how much Americans don’t like talking about race. But Dawson powerfully makes the point that most victories won by black people in this country has appeared impossible. Changing hearts and minds isn’t always necessary; increasing black power and creating political conflict may suffice.

Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:02): Shuka Kalantari begins by covering Germany’s reparations for the Holocaust. We then hear Richard Epstein’s case against reparations for slavery. He argues that public institutions should not preferentially favor any racial group, especially given how difficult it is to track the victims of slavery.

Sixty Second Philosopher (seek to 45:06): Ian Shoales contrasts Ta-Nehisi Coates’ argument for reparations and the alt-right’s rebuttals.


Michael Dawson, Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago


Bonus Content


Research By

Jack Herrera

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