Reparations: A Democratic Idea?

African American Heritage  •  Fellowships

This VFH Fellows Lunchtime talk was delivered by Lawrie Balfour, Professor of Politics, Uva on Tuesday February 14, 2012 in Charlottesville City Council Chambers. Visit the VFH Calendar to see more upcoming talks.


Talk of reparations is a political dead end. With the election of Barack Obama and the widespread conviction that Americans have entered a “postracial” era, efforts to obtain redress for slavery, Jim Crow, and their legacies face daunting challenges. Polls show that white Americans are nearly unanimous in their opposition to material compensation for slavery, and despite recent expressions of regret for slavery and segregation, a growing majority opposes an official apology. Racial egalitarians worry that focusing on reparations might do more harm than good, stimulating racial resentment and distracting the public from the gravity of disparities in housing, health, wealth, voting rights, employment, incarceration, and education.

Against such “common sense,” Balfour argues that reparation claims are worthy of attention precisely because they have been, both historically and in the present, dismissed as unthinkable. She doesn’t argue that reparations, in any form, will single-handedly eliminate racial inequality. Instead, Balfour sketches an account of what she calls democratic repair with the aim of advancing an idea of reparations that might reinvigorate democratic thinking in a post-racial epoch.

Balfour is the author of Democracy’s Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W. E. B. Du Bois (Oxford University Press, 2011) and The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy (Cornell University Press, 2001). She has held fellowships from the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard Divinity School, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A recipient of multiple teaching awards, she was Laurence S. Rockefeller Visiting Associate Professor for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton University in 2008–2009. She is now working on a book project on reparations for slavery and Jim Crow.