Thursday, April 22, the Student Assembly Reparations Committee hosted an event discussing the meaning of reparations. It featured three speakers: professor of law Vivian Hamilton, archaeology doctoral candidate Chardé Reid and social historian Jajuan Johnson.
Ifeoma Ayika ’21, Reparations Committee co-chair, introduced the discussion by providing some background regarding the history and purpose of the committee.
“It began in 2019 in order to bring together scholarly research on reparations and dialogue on ways to enable the community.” Ayika said. “We hope to come to a consensus on what reparations should look like on campus, and collect the thoughts, comments and concerns of our community with regards to reparations.”
Reparations Committee co-chair and discussion moderator Victor Adejayan ’23 began the discussion by asking the speakers how their work and expertise related to reparations. Hamilton discussed her work’s focus on the legal framework which governed the treatment of African Americans in the United States.
“We focus on how the nation’s legal structures have operated to enable the horrors of slavery, then Jim Crow, followed by the systemic discrimination we see today,” Hamilton said. “One of the things we need to emphasize is the law’s role, and that we remember that slavery was legal, and that there was a whole system of laws that regulated it.”
Reid emphasized the material focus of her work, which examined the direct material legacy of the role African individuals played in the early colonization of Virginia.
“I’m really researching the development and the ongoing legacies of the creation of a racial hierarchy system within the colony of Virginia,” Reid said. “I’m really interested in following not just the law, but also through archaeological practices looking at material ways that racial inequality was actually played out, right on the ground.”
Johnson explained that his work focused largely on racial terror in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and in particular, the way in which racialized violence is imposed on Black spaces before being used on Black bodies. He also mentioned his focus on ensuring that his historical work was relevant to present-day concerns.
“I’m really only interested in a history that’s useful in dismantling oppressive systems and upending unjust systems,” Johnson said. “I kind of approach reparations through that paradigm.”
The speakers were then asked about the history of slavery in Virginia and Williamsburg. According to Reid, the history of Black people in Virginia began in 1619, when 32 African individuals were forcibly transported via ship to Hampton. The city of Williamsburg was originally known as “Middle Plantation,” and many enslaved people labored on that land.
“Pretty much everything related to the founding of this country, and the founding of Virginia, can be traced back to enslaved labor,” Reid said. “By about 1776, at least half of the population of Williamsburg were African descended people.”
The discussion then turned to the many ways in which current laws embodied discriminatory practices from the past. In response, Hamilton described two different categories in which current laws codify racism. Firstly, laws which seek to maintain the status quo as opposed to affirmatively seeking to undo justice are, according to Hamilton, racist given that the status quo embodies centuries of discriminatory legal systems. In the second category are laws which are designed to have disparate impacts on communities of color, such as laws passed after the abolition of slavery which criminalized loitering and, most famously, the war on drugs.
After discussions of the history of racism and slavery, Adejayan asked the panelists which form reparations should take. Ayika described an evolution in her thinking away from nationally based reparations for slavery and towards a more local, community based approach.
“Ultimately, while racism and slavery are national and were done on the United States as a whole, they were also community based, localized. I’ve become more amenable to the idea that reparations are going to be a series of localized efforts across the country and less so a federal approach.”
“Ultimately, while racism and slavery are national and were done on the United States as a whole, they were also community based, localized,” Ayika said. “I’ve become more amenable to the idea that reparations are going to be a series of localized efforts across the country and less so a federal approach.”
Hamilton, on the other hand, argued that localized efforts were a necessary but not sufficient part of reparations.
“The entire political order was complicit,” Hamilton said. “And for that reason, it does make sense to call on Congress to take leadership and authorize payments to be made by the US government.”
Johnson emphasized the need for direct monetary payments as opposed to symbolic gestures. In addition, Johnson contended that reparations should not just be a local and federal effort, but an international one as well due to the international nature of the slave trade.
The discussion concluded by focusing on the role the myth of Black inferiority has played in stymieing reparative efforts. Hamilton argued that the myth allows people to describe the worse social outcomes experienced by African Americans as a product of their own faults. According to Hamilton, shifting the blame for these social gaps between races from racist policies to individual failings allows people to avoid taking responsibility for repairing those gaps.
Johnson described the personal impact of the myth of inferiority on African Americans, focusing on the terror and trauma it inflicted on people of color throughout history.
“We haven’t really had time to sit and think about the ways that we have been terrorized and traumatized generationally,” Johnson said. “And I think there’s a place for that, maybe there should be a national day of mourning as it relates to this.”
In his closing remarks, Adejayan encouraged audience members to be mindful of their obligations as members of the college community.
“We all have a duty to understand how William & Mary systematically oppresses Black people in the Williamsburg area and benefits from that oppression,” Adejayan said.