From Radical to Practical (and Back Again?): Reparations, Rhetoric, and Revolution

St. John's Journal of Civil Rights & Economic Development, Vol. 25, No. 4, p. 697, 2011

Thomas Jefferson School of Law Research Paper No. 2357668

43 Pages Posted: 21 Nov 2013


The story of reparations advocacy is a story of ideas. The language of slavery reparations varies widely – it can be radical or practical, framed in dry legalese or soaring moral sermons. These rhetorical choices are more than just semantic differences; they illuminate reparations goals, shape the debate, and ultimately create or close off possibilities for reparations action.

Framing is especially important because of the unusual position of the reparations movement, with signs of both danger and promise. Federal courts recently dismissed two different cases seeking different kinds of reparations for slavery, effectively bringing to a close the possibility of achieving reparations through the courts in the near future. A lawsuit-propelled settlement, like those in the tobacco or Holocaust cases, is also now unlikely. Public support for reparations, particularly among non-Blacks, remains alarmingly low, with some recent surveys placing white support for reparations at a mind-boggling five percent. Broad legislative responses are also unpromising. Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) has introduced a bill to study the effects of slavery in every Congress since 1989, but it has never come to a vote.

On the other hand, discussion of reparations remains at an all-time high, with new academic conferences and symposia proliferating. Even more curiously, certain specific and targeted proposals, such as local apologies and information-spreading statutes, are actually succeeding on the legislative front. For example, California recently passed legislation requiring that insurance companies disclose their ties to slavery. Similarly, ordinances passed in Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles, and other cities require that companies doing business with those cities to disclose any connection to slavery.

How does this mix of success and failure reflect the types of arguments used in the debate? This article sets out an intellectual history of reparations. It examines reparations rhetoric and its role in the movement‘s successes and failures. Part I briefly sets out some of the principal arguments used by reparations advocates through 2000. Part II shows that reparations advocacy has been an interplay between two main types of arguments: radical and practical. Part III discusses post-millennial reparations advocacy and the rise and fall of reparations lawsuits. Part IV analyzes the failure of the legal narrative, and discusses its effects on the reparations movement. Finally, Part V looks at ways to strengthen the reparations movement by building on the strengths of both practical and radical approaches.

Keywords: reparations, slavery, rhetoric, race discrimination

JEL Classification: K19, K39

Suggested Citation

Wenger, Kaimipono David, From Radical to Practical (and Back Again?): Reparations, Rhetoric, and Revolution. St. John's Journal of Civil Rights & Economic Development, Vol. 25, No. 4, p. 697, 2011; Thomas Jefferson School of Law Research Paper No. 2357668. Available at SSRN:

Kaimipono David Wenger (Contact Author)

Thomas Jefferson School of Law ( email )

701 B Street
Suite 110
San Diego, CA 92101
United States
619-961-4347 (Phone)

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