Bernard E. Harcourt | An Introduction to Abolitionist Futures

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“The responsibility is entirely yours. You must make your efforts to uproot caste, if not in my way, then in your way.”

— R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste (1936)[1]

We arrive at the final session of Abolition Democracy 13/13 with our eyes on the prize: looking forward, forward toward abolitionist futures. Inspired by the mounting momentum among abolitionist social movements, by the growing number of abolitionist writings and scholarship that is being published today, by all the abolitionist organizing and activism that is now transforming American society, we turn in our final session to explore three key dimensions to abolitionist futures:

  1. the productive global conversations and exchanges on issues of abolition;
  2. the growing movement to make reparations and to repair the injustices of the past—as evidenced by the recent vote by the House Judiciary Committee, for the first time, to recommend the formation of a reparations commission to explore both reparations and a national apology for centuries of injustice;
  3. and the future of the prison abolition movement and the Movement for Black Lives in the United States.

As a prelude to our discussion, we will be joined by the remarkable poet, Ian Manuel, who opened this series at Abolition 1/13 back in September 2020 with his inspiring poetry. A dear friend and collaborator since before the pandemic, Ian Manuel will share some poetry with us, discuss his efforts to abolish solitary confinement for detained young men and women, and present his forthcoming book, due out on May 4th, titled My Time Will Come.

The Global Dimensions of Abolition

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who was with us at the beginning of Abolition Democracy 13/13 when we discussed W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of abolition democracy from his masterpiece, Black Reconstruction in America (1935), will kick off our seminar discussing the global dimensions of abolition and the importance of global conversations on the questions we have been addressing this year.

This time, Gayatri Spivak will be in conversation with B.R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste (1936), which Spivak rightly added to our readings for the seminar. Written practically at the same time that Du Bois published Black Reconstruction in America, Ambedkar prepared the lecture for presentation at the annual meeting of a society of caste abolitionists in India (the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal of Lahore, or Forum for the Break-up of Caste). In the lecture, Ambedkar advocated for the overcoming of Hinduism as the only way forward to successfully annihilate caste from Indian society. Ambedkar sent the lecture in advance of the meeting to the conference organizers, but as soon as they read it, they quickly disinvited Ambedkar because his challenge to Hinduism was perceived as too radical and dangerous (it remains so today). Ambedkar nevertheless published his lecture at his own expense, and it has, since that moment, been widely read and praised as articulating one of the most forceful arguments for abolition of racial hierarchies.

It is important to emphasize that Ambedkar does not equate caste with race, nor does he trace caste distinctions to racial distinctions. He specifically argues that the caste system in India is not based on race. “To hold that distinctions of castes are really distinctions of race, and to treat different castes as though they were so many different races, is a gross perversion of facts.”[2] No, caste differences do not amount to race differences, he insists. “The caste system does not demarcate racial division,” Ambedkar emphasizes. “The caste system is a social division of people of the same race.”[3]

As evidenced by the debates surrounding the recent publication of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, the distinctions between caste and race remain a controversial topic. Charisse Burden-Stelly, recently writing in the pages of the Boston Review, argues that equating race and caste can often lead to the erasure of the relationship between race and class, hollowing out the notion of racism so that its material and distributional consequences are replaced by purely affective ones.[4]

Setting aside the current controversy, Ambedkar is prepared to equate the forms of discrimination, at least for purposes of his argument. There is a functional homology—which is why he is prepared to “assume” that caste is “a case of racial divisions” and argues against it.[5] It may factually and theoretically be wrong to equate the two, but they operate in similar ways and thus similarly call for counterargument.

Ambedkar is a crucial voice on abolitionist futures because he rebelled against milder forms of assimilation. He was not satisfied with simply allowing inter-caste marriages and inter-caste dining. Those reforms were insufficient to redress the power structures that enabled the caste system in India. Instead, Ambedkar challenged the religion itself, Hinduism, which he considered to be the very condition of possibility and maintenance of caste hierarchies. “Hindus observe caste not because they are inhuman or wrong-headed,” Ambedkar wrote. “They observe caste because they are deeply religious. People are not wrong in observing caste. In my view, what is wrong is their religion, which has inculcated this notion of caste.”[6]

The solution to the problem of caste then turns on the elimination of the deeply-rooted religious belief itself. “The real remedy,” Ambedkar noted, “is to destroy the belief in the sanctity of the Shastras.”[7] Or, as he wrote in response to Gandhi, who defended Hinduism against Ambedkar’s critique, “The sanctity of caste and varna can be destroyed only by discarding the divine authority of the shastras.”[8]

The analogy to our present situation in the United States could hardly be clearer—and the question that Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste poses for us is equally straightforward: What is it in American society that, ideologically and materially, is responsible for the perpetuation and maintenance of racial hierarchies? What is it that corresponds in the U.S. to religious belief in India?

We know well what does not qualify as an answer. It is certainly not merit, although the ideology of meritocracy contributes; in that sense, the solution cannot simply be to eliminate corruption. Nor is it merely unequal opportunity. In that sense, the answer cannot be limited to affirmative action. Rather, it goes to the very structure of society—the history of property accumulation, the way that capital gets concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, the power structures that reward management over labor, the police force that brutally protects private property—the fact, for instance, as Esther Maddox documents, that the Insurrection Act of 1807 has been applied throughout American history against unionization and Black protest movements.[9] In sum, the brutal enforcement of property rights and concentration of property—what I call elsewhere the tournament dirigisme of American society. And just like Hinduism for Ambedkar, the only way forward today is to abolish that tournament dirigisme.

Ambedkar was uncompromising. “There cannot be a more degrading system of social organization than the caste system,” he declared. “It is the system which deadens, paralyses, and cripples the people, [keeping them] from helpful activity. This is no exaggeration. History bears ample evidence.”[10] He also could not have been clearer about the way forward: “I have, therefore, no hesitation in saying that such a religion must be destroyed, and I say there is nothing irreligious in working for the destruction of such a religion.”[11]

Reparations and Repair

This raises the connected question of how to repair past injustices, even if we could put in place new forward-looking practices and institutions—and how the two are connected: how is repair necessary to achieve a just society?

Katherine Franke tackles precisely those questions in her book Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition, which forms another key reading for our seminar. In Repair, Franke recounts the tragic history of failure in redistributing property to freed Black men and women after the Civil War, focusing in her book on two case studies, one in the Sea Islands, South Carolina, and the other at Davis Bend, Mississippi. Through the use of remarkable archival materials, Franke details the broken promises made to the men and women who had toiled those fields when they were enslaved. She reveals how, through deceit, Northern land speculators ultimately purchased the vast majority of the property at the very auctions intended for formerly enslaved persons to acquire land.

In the face of these injustices, Franke calls for reparations through property redistribution. She targets specifically those property rights that were denied the women and men at the time of their emancipation.[12] And in order to render this tangible, Franke does not argue for money reparations to individuals who are descendants of persons who were enslaved—as some have proposed—but rather for new forms of reparative collective land ownership.

The problem, as Franke sees it, is not one that attaches to individuals, but is tied to the collectivity. Taking a broader societal approach entails broader societal solutions. So instead of individual compensation for harms done, Franke proposes forms of social redistribution, specifically “creative new forms of collective land ownership in which property is placed in trust for a community, removing it from the speculative market and placing it in the hands of community-controlled nonprofits.”[13] The legal devices are, effectively, new forms of cooperative ownership, such as Limited Equity Cooperatives (LECs), Community Land Trusts (CLTs), and Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs).[14] In order to make this possible, Franke not only proposes a tax on intergenerational wealth,[15] but also urges voluntary renunciation of property inheritance by those who have benefited from generations of inherited wealth. “It is all the more compelling,” Franke writes, “that we do this voluntarily because it is the right thing to do.”[16]

“Reinvestment in Black communities through community land trusts, limited-equity housing cooperatives, zero-equity co-operatives, mutual housing associations, and deed restricted housing”: these are the interventions Franke endorses.[17] They represent “a transformative form of repair of Black communities that transfers resources and property into those communities and empowers them.”[18]

The Future of Abolition

Woods Ervin, an extraordinary abolitionist organizer with Critical Resistance, is joining us to discuss abolitionist organizing on the ground today. In conversation with Ervin’s activism, we are reading for the seminar Mariame Kaba’s new book, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, just released in March 2021.

In her new book, Kaba offers a vision of what an abolitionist future would look like, and it revolves in important ways around the vision for a society of coöperation:

People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all? This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.[19]

This vision of coöperation is only achievable by constructing new institutions and economic forms of exchange that ensure equal citizenship, as well as public health, education, welfare, mental health, housing and homeless services, and employment.[20] In this sense, a racially just society must be accompanied by democratic institutions that seek to put everyone, especially those who have suffered the most, on an equal footing. That is the full ambition for a democratic vision that carries out the aspiration to end racial injustice.

On this view, there is a need for an ethic of coöperation and care, and a wealth of recent writing by activists, lawyers, and scholars reflect its importance. Mariame Kaba writes eloquently about this in her new book. Dean Spade, too, writes powerfully about the link between care and mutual aid in his new book, published during the COVID-19 pandemic.[21]Bryan Stevenson, who has written about the human brokenness he has witnessed in his work representing individuals on death row,[22] also focuses attention on the need for care, health, and well-being. In an interview on The Ezra Klein Show, “How America Can Heal?”, Stevenson explains: “We’re going to have to talk about ending crime in a meaningful way and that’s not more police, and more prisons, and more punishment. It is actually interventions rooted in care [and] a belief in what can happen when people recover from the things that have burdened them.”[23] Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, adds:

Abolition is about how we treat each other. It is about how we show up in relationships. Abolition is about how we respond to harm caused and how we respond when we cause harm. … We need to be committed to building a culture that is rooted in care, dignity, and accountability.[24]

As we saw at Abolition Democracy 12/13 in the context of borders and migration, the effort to imagine a world without racism is what Harsha Walia, drawing on Hannah Arendt, refers to as an exercise in “worldmaking.”[25] There, in arguing for a world without borders, Walia describes her vision as “worldmaking as a process of ‘homemaking’,” and she closes her discussion with a passage from Toni Morrison’s essay “Home” from the collection The House That Race Built: Original Essays by Toni Morrison, Angela Y. Davis, Cornel West, and Others on Black Americans and Politics in America Today:

“In this new space one can imagine safety without walls, can iterate difference that is prized but unprivileged, and can conceive of a third, if you will pardon the expression, world ‘already made for me, both snug and wide open, with a doorway never needing to be closed.’ Home.”[26]

The notion of coöperation has been at the heart of other bold and audacious imaginations about a world without race or class oppression. Karl Marx famously envisaged a society governed along those principles, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”[27]

In concluding her book and looking forward, Kaba invites everyone to join her and others in the struggle for abolition, not merely as allies, but as what she calls “strugglers”:

I believe in strugglers and I believe in coworkers and I believe in solidarity. I believe we need more people all the time in all of our work, in all of our movements, in all of our struggles. The question is how do we get folks to struggle alongside us and with us. As an organizer, this is the constant thinking I am engaged in. What are points of entry for people, so that they can find a way to lend what they know how to do, their talent, their ideas to whatever it is that we’re doing, while also learning in the process?[28]

Welcome to Abolition Democracy 13/13!


[1] B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste (New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2018), 100-101.

[2] Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, 44.

[3] Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, 45.

[4] Charisse Burden-Stelly, “Caste Does Not Explain Race,” Boston Review, December 15, 2020,

[5] Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, 45.

[6] Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, 79.

[7] Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, 79.

[8] Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, 116.

[9] Esther Maddox, Note on the Insurrection Act of 1807, Columbia Law School.

[10] Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, 71.

[11] Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, 93.

[12] Katherine Franke, Repair (Chicago: Haymarket, 2019), 110.

[13] Franke, Repair, 131.

[14] Franke, Repair, 132.

[15] Franke, Repair, 16.

[16] Franke, Repair, 138.

[17] Franke, Repair, 16.

[18] Franke, Repair, 16.

[19] Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us (Chicago, Haymarket, 2021), 17.

[20] Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, 16. As Kaba notes, “We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs.”

[21] Dean Spade, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next), (New York: Penguin, 2020).

[22] Stevenson writes in Just Mercy: “Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.” Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2014), 289.

[23] Bryan Stevenson, speaking on The Ezra Klein Show, “How America Can Heal?”, available at (discussion of care and health at the 65:55 mark). Joe Margulies expresses something similar in his essay “Who Deserves To Be Forgiven?” when he writes that “To approach each person in a spirit of forgiveness rather than condemnation, to treat them as a member of society rather than an outcast, will slowly unwind the punitive turn of the past fifty years.” Joseph Margulies, “Who Deserves To Be Forgiven?,” Boston Review, February 23, 2021, available at

[24] Patrisse Cullors, “Abolition and Reparations: Histories of Resistance, Transformative Justice, and Accountability,” Harvard Law Review 132(6):1684-1694 (2019), at 1694.

[25] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021), at 215. As Seyla Benhabib reminds me, the term “worldmaking” comes from Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, which elaborates on the notions of the “loss of world” and “loss of earth.” See generally Adom Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire. The term “worldmaking” has been used in philosophical discourse, especially by Nelson Goodman who used it in Of Mind and Other Matters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).

[26] Walia, Border and Rule, at 215-216, quoting Toni Morrison, “Home,” in The House That Race Built: Original Essays by Toni Morrison, Angela Y. Davis, Cornel West, and Others on Black Americans and Politics in America Today, ed. Wahneema Lubiano (New York: Vintage, 1998), at 12.

[27] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2d edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), at 531.

[28] Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, 191.

Bernard Harcourt