The Cost of Empire: Compensatory Justice in the United States

AHA Session 294
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Columbia 11 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Justin Leroy, University of California, Davis
Justin Leroy, University of California, Davis

Session Abstract

International organizations and humanitarian observers frequently criticize the United States for failing to address legacies of colonial and racial violence. In the instances where the U.S. has admitted culpability, the federal government has largely resorted to pecuniary compensation, rather than convene far-reaching truth and reconciliation commissions like those adopted by nations from South Africa to Guatemala. Through mechanisms of arbitration, treaty, and legislation, the federal government has calculated a price to offset a range of injuries caused by imperial expansion: territorial dispossession, extralegal detention, disenfranchisement, and murder.

Much scholarly debate concerning compensation for historical wrongs in the United States focuses on arguments for or against reparations. This panel instead lends critical attention on the theoretical and legal underpinnings of the range of compensation schemes undertaken by the federal government. Comparing various bids for redress, both realized and unrealized, this panel recognizes compensation as a practice that threads through the United States’ imperial activities abroad and its forced relocations on the continent. In other words, attention to these varying compensatory models reveals a technique of imperial statecraft central to American attempts to secure legitimacy worldwide and to establish the foundations of American territorial sovereignty. The panel suggests how profoundly the idea and practice of compensatory justice has framed debates over the legitimacy of United States imperial expansion across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Focusing on the fiscal relationships forged by compensatory schemes, this panel responds to calls from legal scholars and historians of American capitalism to examine how commercial personhood became a platform for political rights. We will explore how compensation depoliticized colonial and racial violence by reframing redress as a form of market exchange. As each panelist will discuss, financial transfers between governments and subjugated parties made possible certain circuits of wealth accumulation, and foreclosed others. In short, this panel reconsiders the political economy of American empire by surveying the uneven landscape of federal support.

We will confront two sets of interlinked questions. First, we will inquire about the rubrics -- moral, political, legal, and economic -- that guided federal officials in their selection of parties deserving compensation. From Mexican claimants considered too economically unproductive to merit monetary awards for loss of life, to the Japanese-American survivors of attacks that American public memory prefered to forget, the figures our panelists will address embody histories that through their exclusion clarify what compensation was intended to remedy -- and what compensation was supposed to bury.

Second, what were the multivalent effects of compensatory justice on political autonomy, especially for those seeking redress? For indigenous peoples, securing compensation from a federal fiduciary introduced mechanisms of surveillance and control that further undermined national sovereignty. Which forms of resistance to empire and war did the federal government evade by channeling demands for remediation into bids for compensation? By linking the legacies of Cold War atrocities, settler colonialism, and racial violence, this panel will assess the costs of limiting justice to compensation.

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