In These Times: Repair part two Transcript
In These Times, Season 2 | Repair, Part 2
Last fall, we launched our podcast In These Times with an examination of COVID-19 and its far-reaching impacts. This season, we're focusing on Black lives and exploring the nation's complex history with race. We'll consider some challenging questions: Who controls the narrative about the U.S. How far have we moved beyond our history of enslavement and Jim Crow? Are we at a moment of reckoning? In these times, knowledge is more important than ever.
This season, we've spoken to experts about how institutions have perpetuated racial hierarchies. Higher education is no exception. In our final episode, we're continuing the conversation about what comes next. Welcome to episode 7, Repair: Part 2.
In our previous episode, we opened by talking to a student involved in the Penn and Slavery Project, a student-led organization that investigates the university's connection to slavery. Today, we revisit the Penn and Slavery Project with a focus on research by Breanna Moore, a 2015 graduate from the College and a current doctoral student in history. Moore came to Penn planning to major in international relations and considering a career in diplomacy but quickly history became her passion
As far as academic interests, I'm pursuing the study of slavery and the slave trade, specifically in West and Central Africa. Also looking at Brazil and the Southern United States with a lot of focus on South Carolina, which is where I'm from, I was born and raised in Southern South Carolina. So I like looking at these different connections across the Atlantic world, specifically in the 17th and 18th centuries.
When she learned about the Penn and Slavery Project, she reached out to faculty director Kathleen Brown to let her know about a connection between Penn, slavery, and her own family.
I actually heard about the Penn and Slavery Project through a DP article, and so I reached out to Dr. Kathleen Brown, who's the founder of the project, and I let her know that my fourth great-grandmother and my third great-grandfather are actually enslaved by a Penn alum in my hometown of Sumter, South Carolina.
As part of the Penn and Slavery project, Moore was able to use archival and genealogical records to uncover more about her family's history and legacy of enslavers who graduated from Penn in the 19th century. Here, she tells the story of what she found.
Every Sunday, I would drive past several plantations to go to church and go to my grandmother's house, but I had no idea that one of these plantations was the plantation where my fourth great-grandmother, third great-grandfather was enslaved on. I just thought these were these old houses owned by wealthy families in town. But when I studied abroad in Ghana in 2014, I came back, I was really curious about, where is my family from? Where are we from in Africa? But I knew, I couldn't know where we're from in Africa. I didn't know we were from in South Carolina and the United States. So I interviewed my
grandmother and that was one of the best things I've ever done because I got so much information from her, and I learned that during her earlier years, she lived as a sharecropper. She lived a tenant farmer, really experienced so many different inequalities as far as education, wealth inequalities, political inequalities, even like not having the right to vote growing up in a segregated Jim Crow, South Carolina town.
And so I've talked with my great aunt who had a family history book. It was really a family reunion book. And at the back of the book, it told the story of our family lineage, it traced back to my fourth great- grandmother. And it said that she was a slave on the Borough House Plantation. So I was like, what is this Borough House Plantation? So I did some quick Google searches, which led me to also start to dig in the University of South Carolina archives. It led me to the local geological society in my hometown. And then it also led me to the Borough House Plantation records, which is stored at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and through all of these sources, as well as through Ancestry.com, which had different statistics records, as well as state inventory appraisals, I was able to trace my lineage back to my fourth-great grandmother, find the sharecropping agreement that my third great-grandfather signed with this Penn alum and his son. And I was able to find out more information about these Penn alums who enslaved my ancestors.
Moore's fourth-great grandmother Vina, and her six children, were enslaved by William Wallace Anderson, a graduate of the medical school's class of 1810. His son, William Wallace Anderson II, graduated from the medical school in 1849. The Penn and Slavery Project recently launched an augmented reality app that can be used on or off campus. It uses campus spaces to talk about the legacy of slavery, including how enslaved people and their descendants had limited, or no access, to formal education.
So just thinking about the legacies of access to education, thinking about my grandmother's story, she only was able to go to school when it rained, because when it wasn't raining, she had to work in the field. She had to pick cotton. And so for me, the most important thing about participating with the Penn and Slavery Project augmented reality tour, and telling the legacy of my family and my grandmother, I'm looking at the direct correlation to the legacies of slavery and inequality that's persistent in African- American communities. Like I said earlier, Dr. Anderson, he graduated from U Penn in 1810. It took over 200 years later for someone in my family lineage to attend an Ivy league institution. And it took over a century for my family to have access to educational institutions, become literate. So for me, it's really important that I really highlight what my ancestors went through and also what other African-Americans currently are still facing in order to have higher access to education, which will open up doors to having higher access to wealth and different opportunities that will erase these inequalities that still stem from slavery here in the U.S.
The legacy of inequality has many people talking about reparations. In April of this year, the House Judiciary Committee approved the "Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African-Americans Act." The bill was first introduced in 1989, but has never made it to a full House vote. In our last episode, doctoral candidate, Ian Peebles talked about reparations in the context of
healthcare. Here we go deeper into the philosophy behind reparations with Daniel Wodak, Assistant Professor of Philosophy.
So one of the very philosophically interesting features of the reparations debate is there really isn't just one case for reparations. There are very different ways that people justify reparations and working out which one appeals to you most is going to be very instructive for how you think not just about racial justice, but about the relationship between racial justice and justice, period. So one very popular way, both in philosophy and in public discourse of justifying reparations, views the issue primarily in terms of the need to rectify the tremendous wealth inequality right now between Black Americans and white Americans. And so the goal of reparations then is to produce a more equitable distribution of resources for the future. The form that reparations tends to take once we adopt that framing is actually fairly broad class-based redistributive policies. Some of these will be for instance, class-based affirmative action, and someone would be more general forms of wealth redistribution from the haves to the have- nots.
This approach gets criticized in a few ways. So one is that it doesn't really make the reparations issue an issue of racial justice in any particular way. There are going to be many very wealthy Black Americans who are descendants of slaves. Think of people like Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, who would actually probably not be the beneficiaries of class-based redistributive policies. So some people who are descendants of slavery would end up contributing to, rather than benefiting from, this form of reparations. And the other related objection is it makes the issue of reparations primarily about the future and not about the past. It makes it about producing a more equitable distribution of wealth in 2025, rather than making amends for the injustices that were produced from 1619 onwards.
Another approach is based on inheritance. Wodak explains with a straightforward analogy.
If I steal your watch, then I have to give you your watch back. I owe you your watch. And I owe you your watch not because I'm redistributing wealth. It's actually just not my watch. I'm in possession of stolen goods. So I'm in possession of goods that I don't rightfully own, and you're not in possession of goods that you do rightfully own. So I'm just returning your property to you. Likewise, if I was to give the watch to someone else, they would also have an obligation to give the watch back to you because they would also, even though they're not a thief be in possession of goods that they don't rightfully own. Now, if you had died after I gave the watch to someone else, then the person that I gave the watch to would have to give the watch to your rightful heirs, because your rightful heirs would be the people who rightfully own the watch now with the presumption that the watch is being distributed according to how you intend it to be, as we generally think about inheritance across generations.
And so even though now the person who is in possession of the watch is not a thief, and even though your heir was never the victim of theft, it's still the case the watch has to return to the heir as just a straightforward application of property rights. So this way, I mean, the natural analog obviously for thinking about reparations in the context of racial justice, is just to focus on all of the forms of historical expropriation, which include most obviously slavery, but also a lot of the practices and the post- reconstruction era that involved straight-forward expropriation of Black Americans.
And to say that all of the people who were involved in those forms of theft now have ancestors who are in possession of stolen goods. Those ancestors are not thieves, but they are still in possession of stolen goods, and they need to return those goods to their rightful owners. Those rightful owners are not the people who themselves were victims of theft, but their ancestors were victims of theft. And hence they've inherited property rights to goods that they don't possess. So that's the inheritance-based argument for reparations. And I think in a lot of respects, it is the simplest and clearest argument, although it also obviously is going to run into its own significant complications, once you start theorizing about it more seriously.
Wodak says we must face these complications in order to advocate for justice.
Here is the big question I'm left with in thinking about the reparations debate. I think for quite a variety of reasons, the argument for reparations that is by far the most powerful and the most plausible is an inheritance based argument. To take that argument seriously, though, is to take property rights very seriously in how we think about justice. So it's an argument that for instance explains why Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey are owed reparations despite the fact that they have far money than you and I, far more money than the average American, they're owed reparations because even if we expropriate the wealthy, we still owed them their property back. And that is effectively what's happened to Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama and any other wealthy Black American who has descended from slaves. So one of the attractive features of the inheritance argument is it explains why we care about reparations even to people who happen to be wealthy now.
But once we notice that we also see that this very way of taking property rights seriously, in some sense, actually runs counter to some of the concerns we might have about producing a more equitable future in terms of the distribution of wealth, not just because reparations would make this small number of very wealthy American descendants of slavery even wealthier, but because the justificatory basis for doing that involves taking property rights very seriously, even when it conflicts with egalitarian concerns. So ultimately I think the deep question we face with reparations may well be whether we give priority to our concerns about rectifying past wrongs that include wrongs of expropriation over our concerns about producing a more equitable future in terms of the distribution of goods.
And I think that's just a very deep problem that we have to face head on. And I think that the worst way of dealing with it in some ways is just to pretend that what reparations is really about ultimately is a matter of producing a more equal future. I think that is an instance of what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls "the politics of racial erasure," but we just refuse to take seriously that we are concerned about historical injustices to a particular racial group. And instead, just try and conflate that concern with broader class based concerns, which happened to help many people in the racial groups that we're talking about, who are the victims of historical injustices, but don't actually help all of them and also help a lot of people who aren't victims of those historical injustices, such as a lower class, white Americans.
We must acknowledge and account for the past in order to move forward. That's the ethos of a project led by Tulia Falleti, the Class of 1965 Endowed Term Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies. The interdisciplinary project called "Dispositions in the
Americas: The Extraction of Bodies, Land, and Heritage from La Conquista to the Present" recently received a $5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation. For some time, Professor Falleti has been thinking about how political science has ignored or dismissed indigenous political organization. This was on her mind during the worldwide protests of 2020.
It was then during this spring and summer that I was working on trying to understand why is it that we have made this important issue invisible in my discipline that has virtually not as studied indigenous peoples and politics with very, very few exceptions, and that sort of converged with the consequences that we were experiencing in terms of inequality of the pandemic, as well as the overt problem with racism that we thought through police violence. And it was this combination of intellectual and disciplinary quests mounted on the urgency of having to address important systemic inequities and racism that led to the Mellon project to the formulation of that proposal.
When she found out about the possibility of Mellon funding, she sprang into action.
These questions of invisibilization of certain populations had been brewing for some time, and it was in the context of writing an essay about that, that I read a book by an American political theorist, Robert Nichols titled Theft is Property! Dispossession and Critical Theory. And as I was reading this book, it became quite apparent that the struggle to this structured racism and the demands for justice that we were seeing in the wake of the assassination of George Floyd, as well as other African-American young people in the U.S., were quite analogous to the demands for territory and for justice, that native groups in particular in the U.S. had been advocating for a long time.
But that had also come to the front part of papers or the news in the recent past, such as for example, when they were confronting the North Dakota pipeline. And being able to connect these demands for territory and justice was what sparked the idea of putting a proposal to answer this call. The Mellon Foundation Just Futures Initiative call for proposals with very ambitious in what they were asking for was pretty ambitious in the way in which they frame the type of projects they were seeking.
So just quote, because I have it here in front of me, they wanted to support a "visionary, unconventional, experimental, and groundbreaking project in order to address long existing, fault lines of racism, inequality, and injustice that tear at the fabric of democracy and civil society." So I was like, this is an incredible opportunity to bring together the work of scholars who have been working on Black activism and African-American demands, but also diasporic Afro-descendants with the demands and projects of indigenous peoples. And for quite some time, I wanted to put my work in conversation with the scholars of Native American and indigenous studies.
The project brings together faculty, curators, undergraduate, and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from the department of Africana studies, the Center for Latin American and Latinx studies, the Native American and Indigenous Studies program, the Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies program, the Penn Cultural Heritage Center of the Penn Museum, and the Department of Biostatistics,
Epidemiology, and Informatics in the Perelman School of Medicine. The grant will allow Falleti and collaborators to create a multi-lingual website, host conferences, published journal articles in an art catalog, develop arts and performance events, and participate in the design of cultural heritage museums in Mexico and Belize. But more than that, it will support community partnerships and work towards restorative justice.
It's not so much what I think should happen. It's more important what the communities and the legal experts working with these communities imagine as perhaps aspirational policies, perhaps they are not all possible now, but let's establish an agenda for the future, even if it is aspirational at the beginning. Some of the indigenous rights that are included in the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples are aspirational, are not all implemented in the countries that have ratified the declaration. But this future horizon is very important for groups on the ground to organize, to aspire, to dream, and to do politics towards that. So I think that's part of the horizon that we want to contribute to building together.
Professor Falleti says these issues have always been important. The differences people have started paying attention.
Why now? Because it's urgent. I think that this pandemic hasn't caused anything new. All the systemic inequities that we see in terms of race and in terms of class, were there before, but now they are naked. They are in front of our eyes for all of us to see. So there has been research on social justice. There has been organizing communities towards social justice for many, many, many decades. There have been revolutions on these topics for centuries, one could say. There have been indigenous uprisings against the conquerors. So the issues are not new, but now they are bare in front of us for everyone to see.
So I think it's so important that we come together from several disciplinary perspectives, expanding from the arts to epidemiology, and put our work together to document and to repair, to document the losses in a systematic and long-term way, but also to think collectively about how we move forward, because we can't continue walking the way we're walking. I mean, we know that it's not sustainable, but also it's not just. So that's the call really that we seek to answer with this project. And I'm extremely fortunate to be working at a university that has some of the most eminent scholars working on these topics in different areas, in different disciplines, and that we can come together and tackle these questions and problems together.
This wraps up episode seven, Repair: Part 2 and concludes season two of In These Times: Black Lives and the Call for Justice.
The OMNIA podcast is a production of Penn Arts and Sciences. Special thanks to Breanna Moore, Daniel Wodak, Tulia Falleti, and all of our guests this season. In These Times season two was produced by the OMNIA magazine editorial team: Blake Cole, Lauren Rebecca Thacker, Susan Ahlborn, Loraine Terrell, Brooke Sietinsons, and Jane Carroll. Our theme music was composed by Nicholas Escobar, college class
of 2018. Our logo design is by Drew Nealis. Episode illustrations were created by other Adriana Bellet. I'm Alex Schein. Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe to the OMNIA podcasts by Penn Arts and Sciences on Apple iTunes, or wherever you find your podcasts to listen to seasons one and two of In These Times.