Historical Context and an Urgent Call-to-Action for African American Reparations

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A black woman at a protest holds up two signs that say "Economic Justice" and "Reparations Now". Two black men stand on either side of her.
Juneteenth reparations rally to demand reparations from the United States government (Photo by ©Fibonacci Blue)

A Conversation with Cornell William Brooks

Cornell William Brooks is the Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice at the Harvard Kennedy School and Visiting Professor of the Practice of Prophetic Religion and Public Leadership at Harvard Divinity School.  As well as teaching at Harvard, Brooks is the Director of The William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the School’s Center for Public Leadership.

Brooks, a civil rights attorney, is the former president and CEO of the NAACP.  Under his leadership, the NAACP secured 12 significant legal victories, including laying the groundwork for the first statewide legal challenge to prison-based gerrymandering.  He also reinvigorated the activist social justice heritage of the NAACP, dramatically increasing membership.  He conceived and led “America’s Journey for Justice” march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, D.C., over 40 days and 1000 miles, among many other demonstrations.

Prior to leading the NAACP, Brooks was president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.  He also served as senior counsel and acting director of the Office of Communications Business Opportunities at the Federal Communications Commission, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington, and a trial attorney at both the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the U.S. Department of Justice.  He was also the executive producer of the CNN docuseries The People v. The Klan.  Brooks holds a J.D. from Yale Law School, where he was a senior editor of the Yale Law Journal and member of the Yale Law and Policy Review, and a Master of Divinity from Boston University’s School of Theology, where he was a Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholar.  He also holds a B.A. from Jackson State University and is a fourth-generation ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.


Gina Lazaro:  Professor Brooks, I had the privilege of taking your Morals, Money, and Movements course about the historical and economic context of slavery.  Could you highlight how the enslavement of millions of African Americans fueled the economic growth of the U.S., and how the effects of slavery and other government policies are still being felt today, as a way to provide background to the reparations discussion?

Cornell William Brooks:  It’s important to appreciate slavery and the reparations debate, not merely in terms of the deprivation of African Americans, but also the enrichment of America.  By way of example, let’s go to the lowcountry of Georgetown, South Carolina where I’m from.  In the 1700s, it was the wealthiest corner of the United States because of rice or “Carolina gold” which was cultivated in South Carolina before cotton and tobacco.  Rice was so profitable and enriching for slave owners that this obscure corner of our country, 60 miles from Charleston, was wealthier than Wall Street and wealthier than Richmond, Boston, or New York.  That wealth was generated from the free labor of enslaved Africans.  In the 1800s, there were about 4 million Africans enslaved all across this country who harvested crops and built much of the architecture across the South, whose labor and transport by the transatlantic slave trade was insured by Lloyd’s of London and bankers in New York.  The bodies, intellect and spirit of Black people was so valuable that they were not only bought, sold, commodified, and insured, but were considered units of production and not seen for their humanity.  Once the importation of slaves was banned, slave owners then had the incentive to breed people as if they were horses or cattle.  The American economy, our superpower economy, is predicated and built on the free labor of Black people.

After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in January 1863 and the slaves were freed under the 13th Amendment, we had what Douglas Blackmon called “neo slavery” in terms of the convict leasing system.  As a country, we created from the ashes and embers of slavery, another form of slavery whereby the Black codes at the state level criminalized some ordinary behavior.  For example, Black people who were unable to prove their employment contract, quite often with their former owners, were charged with vagrancy.  Black men were punished, picked up and put on chain gangs, and literally worked to death because there were always replacements.  Companies like U.S. Steel used convict leasing slave labor to fire their steel making plants.  There was a plant that not only worked the people to death, but then burned the dead bodies to fuel the plant to further commodify and make profits from Black workers.  Consider the magnitude of these injustices, 4 million people enslaved, and according to Douglas Blackmon and others at least 2 million people were neo-enslaved after slavery.

Some say that neo slavery happened a long time ago, but it did not legally end until days after the U.S. entered World War II.  Convict leasing did not end until four days after the heroism of Dorie Miller, a Black man on the deck of a ship who shot down Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor.  Dorie was a cook, a kitchen messman, and not a trained fighter gunner, who took over the cannons in defense of his country and became the first African American Navy Cross recipient, which is the second highest decoration after the Medal of Honor.  Neo slavery continued from after the Civil War into the opening days of World War II.

We have these two chapters in American history of forced and free labor, where Black people were brutalized and commodified.  Then, we have a third chapter of depressed wages of Black workers after slavery.  In the wake of the Great Depression, the New Deal created national standards for wages and to protect workers’ livelihoods and economic viability.  However, the carve outs for the New Deal affected agricultural and domestic workers, who were disproportionately Black people, so they did not benefit from this government policy.  This third long-running chapter of depressed wages continues through today.  This country is a testament to immigrants, a testament to the work and wisdom of indigenous people, and it is incontestably a testament built on the backs of slave and stolen labor.

Lazaro:  Could you please explain reparations?  What are the main arguments supporting and opposing reparations?

Brooks:  Reparations is making amends for past harms and righting a historical wrong.  Reparations is the recognition of the harm, an apology for the harm, and monetary compensation to mitigate the harm.  In other words, if I impose a harm on you, I can give you restitution to make you whole to the extent possible relative to the past and present and mitigate the harm going into the future because these harms continue.

There is a brilliant lawyer, Stu Eizenstat, who was an official in the Carter White House, and an architect of reparations for victims of the Holocaust and interned Japanese Americans.  An expert on reparatory funds, Eizenstat laid out arguments against reparations for Black people.  His arguments were along the lines that the harm was too long ago, the class of people who could receive reparations is too large and ill-defined, and it would be administratively impossible to carry out.  You hear those arguments today, along with reparations being too expensive.

Let’s go back to the 1890s and Thomas Jefferson.  Even Jefferson with his deeply conflicted, morally schizophrenic view of slavery, said we owe Black people something.  He understood this in the context of the repatriation of African Americans to Liberia.  We have other figures during this period from Benjamin Franklin to Frederick Douglass who thought Black people deserved some kind of reparations.

During the 1890s, there was a black woman, a former slave, by the name of Callie House.  She was not known, not a warrior, not an expert on reparations, yet she created with a minister, Isaiah H. Dickerson back in 1894, the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association (MRB&PA).  They created this association right after slavery ended which grew to 300,000 members all across the South.  They made the argument for reparations to be paid to ex-slaves based upon the number of years they were enslaved and modeled their program on the pension program for Civil War veterans.  This Black woman from Murfreesboro County, Tennessee — a washerwoman, a laundress — created a 300,000 member organization in the deep South before the NAACP, before the AFL-CIO, before the Anti-Defamation League.  Then Callie House, who was not a lawyer, endeavored to sue the U.S. government for the taxes collected on cotton harvested by enslaved people.  She came up with the notion of essentially an excise tax.  Right after the harm of slavery happened, people who were ex-slaves at the time, created this new organization calling for reparations.

The U.S. Pension Bureau prosecuted Callie House for fraud after sending a phalanx of investigators and lawyers to assess the situation.  The Postmaster General also investigated.  What did he find?  Nothing.  But Callie House was prosecuted anyway and spent almost a year in jail, which essentially destroyed the organization.  In response to the argument that slavery happened too long ago, why should we reward a bad actor for delaying the remedy for the crime?  As a legal matter, you don’t get to commit a harm, evade responsibility, and then be rewarded for your delaying tactics.  We should not reward the government for avoiding responsibility, particularly since at the time of the harm people actually tried to hold the government responsible.

There are approximately 90,000 people in this country who are centenarians, at least 100 years of age.  That means that in 1938 they were adults when the government sent WPA writers all across the country to interview formerly enslaved people.  In the National Archives, we have photographs along with narratives of people who were enslaved.  When Mitch McConnell says slavery was a long time ago, it is important to remember that there are Americans still alive today who may have known a slave.

More than 1.2 million African Americans served in World War II, tens of thousands of whom are still alive today.  The convict leasing system was still in operation during the beginning days of World War II.  Many of us recall L. Douglas Wilder, elected in the 1990’s, as the first African American governor from the South since Reconstruction.  His grandfather was a slave.  Whenever I talk about the subject, I remind people that my great grandfather, the Reverend Pompey Lavallie, was enslaved to age 12 or 13, and lived until almost the 1950’s.  My great grandmother made a quilt from his britches.  My grandfather slept under that britches quilt as a man.  I slept under it as a boy, and it hangs in my office at the Harvard Kennedy School.  So, were slavery and neo slavery really that long ago, and importantly, can we distance ourselves from our past?

Regarding the argument about reparations for African Americans being too difficult to administer, our government has administered all manner of programs.  We had reparations for indigenous people, and for interned Japanese Americans twice.  I don’t say that begrudgingly or with lament.  Rather, I say it as a former Justice Department civil prosecutor present when the government was cutting the checks.  I stood in the hallway with my colleagues and recognized that the Japanese Americans lost their liberty, had their childhoods disrupted, lost their property, and they deserved the reparations.  That said, we should also think about reparations for Black people.

My colleague, Linda Bilmes, and I are exploring whether reparations are aberrational and exceptional or regular and routine.  There are numerous government programs that we don’t call reparations, but that recognize a harm suffered by a group of people, through no fault of their own, where the government endeavors to give restitution for the harm.  We do this for veterans, victims of crime, and farmers such as Christmas tree farmers who lost their trees to pestilence.  We’ve done it for bank executives.  Remember when Lehman Brothers went belly up during the great recession, but everyone’s pension was protected.  The government is extraordinarily sophisticated in assessing harms against the body, property, economic well-being, as well as harms imposed on communities and on liberty.  We have this actuarial sophistication when it comes to assessing harms, paying out harms and administering gigantic programs to the tune of not millions, not billions, but trillions of dollars, and we do this for all manner of people.  The question is not should African Americans get reparations, the question is, historically and budgetarily speaking, why aren’t African Americans getting reparations?

If it’s fiscally possible, scalable, and the harm is not too long ago, could reparations be done administratively?  The answer is two-fold.  First, when were we ever in the business, legally speaking, of saying before we recognize the harm, we have to prove that we are able to do something about it?  Generally, we get to the question of the harm before we get to the question of the means.  Regarding the means, the government has hundreds of programs and data with respect to these programs.  While our government is far from perfect, it does demonstrate an almost mathematical compassion when it comes to compensating victims of crime, people exposed to radiation, and military personnel and communities around bases which have suffered as a consequence of base closings.  Yet we have hidden in plain sight a class of victims which we have not addressed.

Let’s consider World War II and the African American soldiers who distinguished themselves on foreign battlefields.  They returned home and experienced the same Jim Crow they were subjected to when they left.  After the war, there’s the GI bill to provide housing and educational benefits except, as historians state, virtually no African American GIs received the housing benefits due to the segregated housing and lending markets.  So here are veterans, who literally shed blood for their country, denied benefits made available to other veterans.  This has had intergenerational consequences.

You can talk to the average member of the working class and middle class in this country and ask, “What is the fastest means by which to secure your family’s financial future?”  The answer is to buy a house.  How do you get the capital for a small business?  Use the value of your house.  When I was at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), I ran the small business office, and we did a qualitative study about barriers faced by minority businesses in telecommunications.  We spoke to telecom business owners including Stevie Wonder and Cathy Hughes, who owns Radio One and TV One.  To a person, everybody did essentially two things: maxed out their credit cards or took out mortgages on their home.  This demonstrates that home ownership is also a way to business creation.

The Black World War II vets were also completely cut out on the education front.  They could not use their GI benefits at Harvard, Yale, and places like that.  Instead, they chose only among the Historically Black Colleges or Universities (HBCUs).  While these are great institutions and I’m a graduate of one, the problem is that each HBCU did not have all the different degree programs.  Let’s say you are an aspiring lawyer.  Not every HBCU has a law school like Howard Law School.  If you want to be a lawyer, you get cut off from that profession depending on your school.  You want to be a doctor, you get cut off from that profession because your school doesn’t have a medical program, and this is the same if you want to be a veterinarian, architect, and engineer.  This denial of educational benefits has had intergenerational consequences too.  For the people who say we can’t provide reparations because it’s too hard, there is a group of people alive today, a definable class, incontestably discriminated against with a program that still exists in 2021 called the GI Bill.  We could start there.

We studied in class “trained incapacity,” which is Veblen’s theory that people convince themselves that they can’t do something.  So essentially, we have a country that is convinced that we can’t do something that we do every day.

Lazaro:  In April of this year, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee voted to move the H.R. 40 bill to the House floor for full consideration.  Could you please tell us a little bit about H.R. 40?  What’s in the bill and what’s the significance and implications?  What happens now?

Brooks:  H.R. 40 is a start, meaning it establishes a commission to study reparations and provides a means by which members of the commission can be appointed, conduct field hearings and research, and assess the harm and cost to mitigate the harm.  It is the beginning of the process and is reminiscent of what was done with respect to Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

It is important to get started, because right now we have more scholarship being devoted to reparations and we have more of the public’s attention amidst this racial reckoning.  H.R. 40 is by no means the U.S. Treasury writing checks.  It is a positive start, and a reasonable step in the process.  We study the problem and begin the conversation.  Some of the work is analytical and some is consciousness-raising.  We learn more, and we also allow the public to learn more about the issue.

Lazaro:  Recent polls from 2020 (Washington Post/ABC) and 2021 (University of Massachusetts Amherst/WCVP) show that about 60% of the American people do not support reparations for African Americans.  The issue is highly divisive, along racial lines and partisan lines with African Americans (~80%) and Democrats (~60%) supporting reparations but white Americans and Republicans largely opposing reparations.  Could you please comment and what can we do to further the discussion on reparations in the U.S.? 

Brooks:  One of the things we have to appreciate is not what opinions people have, but what they know.  If you ask the average American, what do you think about reparations, you might get one answer.  If you ask, what is the relationship between slavery, neo slavery and the convict leasing system, you might get another answer.  How will people respond if asked, “Did you know that millions of people were literally enslaved in much of the deep South?  Did you know that venerated companies like U.S. Steel worked Black people to death?”  The responses to these poll questions right now are not a measure of certitude.  Many people just don’t know.

There were no polls conducted with respect to reparations for interned Japanese Americans.  Most of the letters that came into Congress as that legislation was being considered were against reparations.  I don’t think we need to be unduly pessimistic about the poll numbers, because people have tremendous capacity to grow and to learn.  If you had taken a poll in 1980 about how many Americans support marriage equality or same sex marriage, the numbers would have been devastating.  That would still have been true in 1990, and probably pretty close to being true at the beginning of the Obama presidency.

My point is that once people learn more about the reparations issue, they will appreciate the fact that this is not a matter of white complicity and guilt but a matter of American responsibility and history.  Guilt can be a very paralyzing emotion, as opposed to a sense of responsibility.  For example, what if we removed race and said that we have a large percentage of the Americans who worked extraordinarily hard, and whose labor was not compensated.  Can we design a restitutive response to honor their labor, since economists and sociologists have demonstrated that their labor was incredibly useful and productive?  Most people would agree that that’s something we should do.

What if we call those workers women and mothers who raise these little units of future economic productivity, we call children.  There are many countries that recognize women taking off time from the workforce and have designed programs to respond and recognize their labor and economic activity.  If we switch out gender for race, we should discuss recognizing free labor and stolen wealth.  We should not paralyze ourselves in terms of progressing the conversation based upon these mercurial and ephemeral polls.  In 1863, what would the numbers have been for freeing enslaved Africans in territory held by the Union Army?  There may not have been the Emancipation Proclamation if we waited for the polls.

When it comes to Black folk, we often have many levels of proof.  This asymmetrical evidentiary burden paralyzes the discussion, and we cannot wait for the reparations issue to be popular.  P.W. Botha and Nelson Mandela did not conduct a poll on apartheid before addressing it.  We need to be thoughtful and historically aware, rather than to default to arguments regarding opinion polls.

Lazaro:  What form could reparations take?  You mentioned housing and education earlier in our conversation.  We’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other potential policies.

Brooks:  Sandy Darity, who has written one of the most definitive books on reparations, states that slavery and its aftermath have created a multitrillion dollar wealth gap.  That wealth gap can be addressed in terms of housing, education, but also capital and cash.  We have people who today are suffering the consequences of housing and land loss from decades ago.  All across the South, property was taken from Black farmers and Black families with the intergenerational consequence of them having no property to pass down.  To address these egregious past actions, we need to use credit and capital to give people the opportunity to acquire housing and property.  We are not talking about welfare nor handouts.  Same thing with education.  Why is it that Black women are among the most educated people in this country, but the least compensated and most in debt?  This is completely counterintuitive.

We have immigrants in the U.S. who started off with push carts in the streets of New York City who, within a generation, sent their kids off to professional school.  This is not unlike Black folk fleeing from the racial terrorism of the South heading up to New York City or D.C.  They entered government or municipal jobs, and they sent their kids off to professional schools.  These are success stories, but they are not replicated as often as they should be because of lack of capital.

A personal example: one of my grandfathers owned a small island off the coast of South Carolina.  Islands like Kiawah Island and Hilton Head have extraordinary value.  As a consequence of land grabs and all manner of shenanigans, my grandfather lost control of his island.  This story is repeated in family histories and photo albums all across this country.  We can use credit, loans, and mortgages to get people back what was stolen, and these people would most certainly give back to the country.  We know when we give people an opportunity for an education or property, generally speaking, they invest well.  The no-doc loans and over-borrowing of the foreclosure crisis were aberrations.  People are generally responsible.  We need to use a variety of tools including scholarships, mortgages, cash, and employment elevators, which means moving people into positions that allow them to progress.  The reality is that the poorest zip codes in this country, the ones with the least public investment, historically were the zip codes with the highest levels of slavery.  While we might want to forget what happened in the 1700s through the 1860s, the ghost of slavery haunts us to this very moment, and we have to respond with capital and investment.

Lazaro:  What is your perspective on the work individual municipalities and institutions are doing regarding reparations?  For example, Asheville, North Carolina issued a resolution that promised reparations, and Evanston, Illinois earmarked $10 million in city funds to provide direct housing and economic development assistance to African American residents.  Virginia Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary set up funds for reparations of $1.7 million and $28 million, respectively.  What can be learned from these efforts? 

Brooks:  Municipalities and institutions responding with restitutive measures in a spirit of reparations is incredibly powerful as moral signaling and fiscal precedent.  However, we do not want the federal government to outsource its responsibility to the Princeton Theological Seminary, which is an august and extraordinary institution, but it’s not the federal government.  Asheville is an incredible city, beautiful city.  Evanston, in a similar vein.  It was the federal government that enshrined the Three-fifths Compromise, and through a series of Supreme Court decisions, the federal government legitimated Jim Crow.  Thus, the federal government must act on reparations.  The localized initiatives are incredibly powerful, and we need more of them.  In the same way that Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said that states are laboratories of democracy, municipalities, states, and institutions can be laboratories for reparations innovation.  What they cannot be is the first or last resort for reparations.

Lazaro:  Given the heightened reckoning with racial injustice that the U.S. has experienced since the murder of George Floyd, what is your hope on what can be accomplished now with reparations?  What are steps should we take?

Brooks:  Let me state fundamentally and unequivocally that my hope is predicated on the fact that we have a reason to hope.  George Floyd was murdered, and his family responded with dignity and a sense of resolve accompanied by 26 million Americans across 550 jurisdictions.  The amount of money that has gone into civil rights and social justice organizations and the federal government inaugurating Juneteenth as a national holiday are a testament to the pent-up need to symbolically respond.  People want to respond, and that gives me real hope.

When we look at our foremothers and forefathers of reparations, we have reason to hope because of their advocacy.  I always love using the example of Harriet Tubman, who was an abolitionist, and certainly would have supported “40 acres and a Mule.”  Harriet Tubman freed 70 people from slavery and lead a military raid in which she freed 700 more.  But she never compared the 70 people she freed to the 4 million people who were enslaved.  She persisted.  When you look at Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Callie House, their advocacy suggests a relentlessness, an unwillingness to give up and an unvanquished sense of hope.  More recently, think about Randall Robinson writing The Debt in 2000.  Think about Ta-Nehisi Coates writing his pathbreaking piece, The Case For Reparations, in 2014.  We do not have the historical luxury of giving up in this moment.  Particularly when people are polling the viability of reparations, that in and of itself is progress.  This is a moment where our forebearers should give us hope.

What should be done?  We have to push for the creation of a reparations commission.  We have to build the infrastructure for reparations education into basic American history.  In this moment, we should have real conversations about our history and the monuments.  A conversation about not just what America owes to Black people, but the degree to which America has been enriched by the presence of Black people.  Let’s not start with what people perceive as a negative, but with what people should regard as a tragic positive.  We need to educate on the basics, such as the convict leasing system, the Black World War II veterans, and the reparations movements of the past.  Let’s talk about the fact that during Reconstruction the newly freed slaves were some of the greatest architects of public education who advocated for schools not just for Black children, but for all children.  Also, freed slaves called for liberalization of property and marriage laws with respect to women and divorce.  We must have a basic historical conversation, not just in terms of the academy or formal history.  The beauty of the commission process is that there will be hundreds of hearings, where people can tell their families’ stories.

Part of the problem today is that people do not know the stories of the people next to them.  As a consequence, reparations are about what we give them, as opposed to what do we owe us.  Different.  Everyone from the South needs to have these conversations.  I’ll give you an example.  My family always heard stories about a prominent South Carolina slave holding family being related to us, as in my forebears.  Our story is a microcosm of the history of the South.  A commission would build the infrastructure of reparations education and personal stories.

Another important action is to have scholars take a hard look at reparations not as a venue of advocacy, but as a legal matter with respect to a large group of victims of American injustice.  Why aren’t we doing for them what has been done for others?

Also, the moral leaders in this country need to engage.  Having conversations about contemporary injustice untethered, unanchored to American history is both ineffective advocacy and can be a form of immoral advocacy.  You narrow cast your moral responsibility by de-anchoring present injustices from past injustices.  We can say we need to fix a wayward police department, without ever acknowledging the slave patrols that gave rise to these police departments.  We can say we want to do something about the maternal mortality rate among Black mothers irrespective of income, education, and background, without acknowledging the history of Black women being subjected to medical experiments.  Moral leaders need to lift this up from the pulpit, the Torah, the Qur’an and the Christian bible.  If we do all these things, then we can begin to have a national conversation tied to history and very much tied to policy.  That’s different.

I’m not interested in having racial reconciliation conversations without policy.  In the Bible, when Jesus talks about the Good Samaritan, he talks about the tragic victim of crime preyed upon by robbers and the Good Samaritan comes along and helps.  I’d like to believe if Jesus told the parable a second time, he would encourage responsible policing on that road to prevent people from being victimized, so that we don’t need Good Samaritans engaged in individual acts of compassion.  Rather, we should respond systemically.  We must have a conversation in this country beyond individual responses to systemic racism, but rather systemic responses to systemic racism including reparations.

Lazaro:  What can ALI Fellows, as well as other people who care about racial justice issues, do to further these conversations on reparations and reduce the wealth gap between African Americans and white Americans?

Brooks:  If you look at their experience, demographic and standing, ALI Fellows have the opportunity, responsibility and the unique skill set to mainstream the reparations conversation.  It’s one thing for a 19-year-old to say we need reparations.  It’s one thing to have 68-year-old Sandy Darity talk about it.  But what about distinguished ALI Fellows who come from the world of business, the public sector or social services who have achieved much and are well respected in their fields, and now have a year at Harvard and who can be interlocutors of the subject.  I’m not saying that the reparations debate needs the authentication of ALI Fellows, but the greater the diversity of the people having the conversation, then the greater the acceptance of the necessity and importance of the conversation.  ALI Fellows could have a convening on reparations, dialogues on reparations or propose commissions on reparations at the municipal or state level.

Ezra Klein said that with movements, you need grassroots mobilization, but you also need the artist, scholar, and business classes to champion the causes for them to become mainstream.  Reparations is not fringe in terms of intellectual or moral viability or acceptance.  I mean mainstream in terms of numerosity as opposed to authenticity.  This debate will become mainstream just by more people having conversations with people like ALI Fellows, and when you have these conversations in venues that people don’t expect, such as in business schools, in the context of a corporation or in a boardroom.  Just as it is important to have men, in addition to women, engage in conversations about misogyny and sexism.  That means creating venues and forums to have conversations on reparations where people don’t expect them.

Lazaro:  What an inspiring call-to-action, Professor Brooks! Would you like to share any closing thoughts on reparations? 

Brooks:  My modest job is to help you do good work.  I’m happy that you are focusing on this issue in this forum because it opens up the conversation more broadly and inclusively.

I remember one of my colleagues calling me about that Ta-Nehisi Coates article in the Atlantic.  I thought it was an extraordinary piece, but I also remember thinking that I can’t focus on this right now because I was in the middle of legislative battles trying to push for criminal legal system reform, and I almost dismissed the article as unattainable, though certainly not irrelevant, as a matter of history and necessity.  The fact that we’re having this conversation, and this will appear in the Harvard ALI Social Impact Review, that is a modest measure of progress that has been made.

Lazaro:  Thank you so much, Professor Brooks for the historical context and the inspiring challenge and call to action that you have given our readers.  

About the Author:

Gina Lazaro is a 2021 Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow.  She has a background as a leader in global consumer products marketing with her last role as Chief Marketing Officer at FGX International, a subsidiary of Essilor.  Gina serves on the advisory council of HighSight, a non-profit focused on educational opportunities for low-income African American and Latino youth, as well as on the board of The Canales Project, a non-profit arts and advocacy organization.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


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