Berkeley professor Jovan Scott Lewis on what repair means for the future of Black communities in America

The Munroe Center for Social Inquiry regularly holds talks on Tuesdays at 4:15 p.m. throughout the semester. (Courtesy: Pitzer College)

By Ben Lauren PZ ’25

It’s not every day that students can listen to, engage with, and speak directly to a member of California’s Reparations Task Force, but it could be nearly every Tuesday.

Pitzer’s ongoing speaker series titled, “Apologies, Reparations, and Restitution” hosted by the Munroe Center for Social Inquiry (MCSI) is held in the Benson Auditorium at 4:15 p.m. on select Tuesdays throughout the semester. The series highlights several scholars speaking on what reparations does, and what they could mean for a number of marginalized communities.

It is also a key piece of the curriculum for the Pitzer class, “Apologies and Restitutions”, taught by MSCI director and Pitzer professor, Jesse Lerner. Students attend each lecture and structure their class discussions around the topics of that week’s speaker. On Sept. 12, that speaker was Jovan Scott Lewis.

Appointed to California’s Reparations Task Force by Governor Gavin Newsom and Chair of the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, Scott Lewis identified the present as a moment of action or a “Reparative Conjuncture.” 

Scott Lewis centered his talk around the belief that although economic reparations likely will not compensate for the true amount of damage done to Black Americans, what will come must be put towards spaces in which Black life is flourishing. After his talk, he dove deeper into his key concept of reparations versus repair.

“It is ideal for reparations to provide repair, but when we are living and working within political systems that really do not have any motivation to provide full justice to impoverished or otherwise discriminated populations, we have to recognize the capacity for individual communities to affect their own repair,” Scott Lewis said.

California’s Reparations Task Force published its final report to the California legislature on June 29, 2023. According to Scott, the nearly 1100-page report, with a somewhat more digestible 74-page executive summary, describes a fully ideal scenario in which Black Californians would receive financial compensation for harm experienced, significantly after emancipation.

As a member of the task force, Scott Lewis does believe some form of reparations will arrive during Governor Newsom’s current term. However, during his speech after citing a recent study from the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley which found 59 percent of Californians don’t support cash-based reparations for Black Americans, Scott Lewis stated plainly why he believes they will never be reached in full.

Although the task force has analyzed what they believe to be the exact financial harms of mass incarceration, redlining, environmental discrimination, and many more categories, Scott Lewis sees the historical false political promises to the Black American community as a major roadblock.

“White people get policies and Black people get programs,” Scott Lewis said. “I really don’t know how we get past that.”

Nevertheless, these barriers to reparations are what ultimately brought Scott Lewis back to the idea of repair, something he illustrates significantly in his 2020 book, “Scammer’s Yard: The Crime of Black Repair in Jamaica”.

The book centers around poor Black Jamaicans scamming white elderly Americans out of their life savings. Using training and technological infrastructure created for call centers of United States-based corporations, many of the scammers believe their actions to be a form of reparative work. Following his talk, Scott Lewis connected his idea of Black American repair to the philosophy of these scammers.

“I had to resist my initial inclination which was to be completely skeptical and completely reject the idea,” Scott Lewis said. “I was surprised to see him really work out this really complex political economy of the relationship poor Black Jamaicans had to the United States … While … the [United Kingdom] may have enslaved or colonized my ancestors, we really are living in the wake of American injury … My experience is one of injury, one of harm through poverty, and I identified the United States as being primarily responsible for that.”

While Scott Lewis highlighted Scammer’s Yard in connection with his talk, MSCI Director and Pitzer professor, Jesse Lerner named his 2022 book, “Violent Utopia: Dispossession and Black Restoration in Tulsa”, which takes an intensive look into the long-standing damage of the Tulsa massacre, as a guiding factor for bringing Scott Lewis to the speaker series.

“He goes to present day Tulsa … and there’s an ethnographic quality [to his work],” Lerner said. “And as a geographer he’s thinking about space which is almost always a component of [ethnographic research], but it’s not necessarily the first disciplinary toolkit that would come to mind.”

Using this as an example, Lerner further emphasized the series’s focus on varying the academic disciplines and careers of its speakers.

“It was important to me that this be interdisciplinary,” Lerner said, “[Scott Lewis is] a geographer, but we had a historian and we had a philosopher earlier this week. Also people that are not in the academy that are doing this work … to mix it up in terms of the perspectives and disciplinary tools that we bring to the conversation.

One of these speakers who will be offering her perspective on the same topic as Scott Lewis is Kamilah Moore, reparatory justice scholar, attorney, and Chairperson of the Reparations Task Force. Moore’s talk is scheduled for 4:15 p.m. on Oct. 3. Lerner described some areas of Scott Lewis’s talk that he believes Moore will cover in greater detail.

“One thing that I wish he had spoken to more and is … a task force recommendation to something that you can put into action,” Lerner said. “There’s a political component. You have to convince people.”

Even though these two conversations are specifically about reparations for Black Americans, the series has and will continue to feature discussions on Japanese internment, the return of pre-Hispanic artwork by museums, and a number of other topics. With a number of speakers still left in the semester, Lerner emphasized wanting to get the word out to the community.

“You don’t have to be enrolled in the seminar, you don’t have to be a Pitzer student, you don’t even have to be a student … it’s open to everyone [and] it’s free,” Lerner said.

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