Excerpted From: Carol Klier, Understanding Discursive Framings of Reparations for Slavery and Jim Crow, 60 San Diego Law Review 481 (August-September, 2023)(93 Footnotes)(Full Document)


NoPictureFemale.jpegA meaningful reframing can be an effective tool for social change. The work of cognitive scientist and linguist, George Lakoff, explores the relationship between language use and the way we understand the world around us. Pertinent to the discussion of slave redress and reparations is the significance of discursive framing as a means of both promoting and dispelling worldviews. The manner in which we communicate particular ideas reveals much about how we conceptualize that subject. How we frame impacts the effectiveness of our messaging to others. As Lakoff indicates, “[F]acts matter enormously, but to be meaningful they must be framed in terms of their moral importance.”

Why is understanding framing significant to our understanding of the discourse surrounding slave redress and reparations in the United States? Understanding the different frames used by academics, advocates, and lawyers matters because more than half of Americans, and the majority of White Americans, oppose reparations as a means of redress for slavery and Jim Crow laws. In 2004, a study reported that 96% of White participants opposed reparations. That number only dropped to 81% in 2016. To put ideas into action, we must be prepared to face critics and opposing arguments with a persuasive discourse that effectively communicates why reparations are necessary and just. Finding the correct frame may provide the best chance of success for meaningful reparative efforts.

This Article investigates a range of perspectives and proposals for reparations paid to Black Americans for the atrocities of slavery and Jim Crow laws, with particular attention to how each advocate frames their argument. Addressing the frame employed by each writer may facilitate a more robust understanding of the desired outcomes, the means promoted to achieve those outcomes, and how these differing discursive frames might help or hinder progress in the face of opposition.

II. Initial Questions

A few preliminary questions lay the foundation for reparations discourse. First, should reparations be given? Or, stated differently, are reparations owed? A more complex question underlying whether reparations are owed is this: if reparations are owed to a section of the American population, why is this so? What are the logical and moral rationales underlying these assertions? A simple answer may be that the atrocities committed against Black people in this country by the United States government caused immense and enduring harm. However, the way advocates of reparative measures conceptualize and arrive at the answers to these questions is more nuanced. As this Article explores discursive frames in more depth, it will discuss how the frames employed by those advocating for reparative measures might fare against or feed into the oppositional frames.

A second primary question is, what is owed? Importantly, to decide what is owed, it is worth assessing how one arrives at such a determination. What is owed depends on the ultimate objective asserted by each proponent of reparations. The framing of the issue is dictated by the purpose or objective. This Article does not seek to summarize existing proposals, nor does it attempt to weigh the value of different proposed methods. Rather, it focuses on the concepts underlying arguments for reparations by exploring the discursive frames used in advocacy. Additionally, it discusses the ways in which particular frames situate the relationships between the key players of reparative measures, including Black Americans, White Americans, and the United States government.

A third concern related to reparative measures may involve the question of how to execute reparations. How should reparations be distributed? How should they be quantified or qualified? What is enough? However, this Article focuses only on the first two questions presented above: (1) Why are reparations owed? and (2) What is owed? These foundational questions and how their answers are influenced by discursive frames are discussed further in the following Sections.

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Discursive frames play a role in shaping our worldview, and when used effectively, they can be efficient tools for social change. In terms of reparations to Black Americans for the atrocities of slavery and Jim Crow legislation, frames may be employed to advocate for the implementation of reparative measures. For one, frames may prove essential in combating opposition arguments that promote only concepts of limited or direct causation. The appropriate frame allows advocates to communicate a systemic harm that is not always tangible, quantifiable, or measurable. An effective frame can bolster arguments for why reparations are owed. Framing may also provide an avenue for communicating the relevant relationships and objectives underlying reparations advocacy in a way that encourages support and action by rejecting the worldview of those opposed to reparative measures. Our frames must communicate that what is owed is owed by society as a collective that includes government perpetrators, direct beneficiaries in the form of descendants of slave owners, and those who accumulated wealth through systemic oppression. The question is not simply what White Americans and the United States government owe as beneficiaries of past atrocities but how that duty is best framed.

Carol Klier. J.D. 2023, University of San Diego School of Law.