Yuhang Chelsea Wang / Sun Staff Photographer

Dawson delved into the topic of reparations for African Americans in the United States, presenting his research on the subject.

October 16, 2018

Leading Chicago Political Scientist Michael Dawson Discusses the Politics of Reparations, Racial Justice

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Leading University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson discussed the complicated politics, histories and societal significance of reparations and racial justice in America in a lecture Monday evening in Klarman Hall.

Dawson, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago, outlined the histories and possible future of reparations struggles in the United States and discussed the ways contemporary calls for reparations can learn from the events of the past.

Dawson argued for the merits of reparative justice, agreeing with a quote from Prof. Tommie Shelby, African American studies and philosophy, Harvard, saying that “principles of rectification should guide attempts to remedy or make amends for the injuries and losses victims have suffered as a result of ongoing or past injustice.”

Michael Dawson researches African American political identity, the politics of urban poverty and the ways public opinion regarding black and white Americans differs politically and socially. Dawson has published multiple award-winning books, including Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics, Blacks In and Out of the Left, Not in Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics and Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies.

A Berkeley and Harvard graduate, Dawson is the founder and co-director of the Cambridge University Press journal Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race and has served as the chair of the University of Chicago political science department.

The talk was not only on the “movement for black reparations in the United States, but [was] an even more general discussion of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, as well as current racial conflicts and cleavages,” Dawson said.

We all must acknowledge that “we are not living in a post-racial America,” Dawson said. Declaring that race has “ended” or is an “antique relic” poses a major problem for the fight for racial justice, he said.

The belief that African American people should feel lucky to be in the United States “may not be true,” Dawson said sardonically, alluding to the histories of kidnapping, murders, rapes and generational trauma integral to the slave trade responsible for bringing many black people to the United States.

The killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Laquan McDonald, the violent “armed, organized white nationalist” rally in Charlottesville, Va. in August 2017, and the members of the National Football League taking a knee to protest racism, among many other protests, suggest that “the facade of a post-racial society cannot be maintained,” Dawson said.

During his lecture, Dawson discussed the scale of opposition to multiple forms of racial justice. His research found that white Americans are likely to oppose reparations and more likely to oppose Black Lives Matter than African-American, Asian-American or Latinx people. Many Americans oppose even issuing an apology for the devastation wreaked upon the black community by slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, police brutality and mass incarceration, Dawson said.

Democrats, black people, Asian people, Latinx people, women and people with graduate and postgraduate educations are more likely to support an apology for the systemic oppression of African Americans, Dawson found.

“Historically… it has often been the black middle class that opposed reparations,” Dawson said.

However, the question of an apology from the United States government is “an issue that cuts across class, gender and other divisions in the black community.”

Some black individuals do not believe that black racial equality can be achieved during their lifetime, according to data presented by Dawson. This black pessimism saw a decrease in 2008, but the chasm between white and black opinion is deep and lasting, he said.

Dawson discussed the questions regarding the feasibility of black reparations, and his research found that many black people who supported reparations wanted them to be community based, rather than individual checks. In this model, reparations would go to public schools and community programs, among other forces that would help black communities in entirety.

However, the implementation of such programs would require precision and attentiveness, and not least the agreement of elected officials, Dawson said. Regarding politicians, he asked, “How do you guarantee accountability and representativeness?”

When asked what advice he would give to young African Americans at Cornell, Dawson encouraged individuals to “trust your own intuitions and experiment with different forms of organizing.”

Dawson’s lecture touched upon “interesting issues that aren’t usually talked about in politics,” audience member John Clancy ’22 told The Sun. “There have been huge social wrongs in the past and the size of the issues makes it hard for us to come up with a solution,” he said.

Dawson’s talk “gave points about how to speak about reparations when people often oppose it,” Jasmine Scott ’21 said. “People usually talk about reparations as super divisive, but I really liked how he talked about it.”