Jovan Lewis, an assistant professor of Geography and African American Studies at UC Berkeley, gave a talk on November 17 titled "Reparations, Deferral, and the Promissory of Poverty" as part of the Haas Institute's Research to Impact speaker series.
Lewis began by acknowledging the unique opportunity to make anthropology more responsible for theorizing poverty, an opportunity, in part, created by the interdisciplinary research focus of the Haas Institute. Here, he described his work as bringing an economic anthropology background, and theories of “reciprocity” and “economics of exchange,” to study Jamaican poverty.
The landscape of Jamaican poverty and the everyday experience of economic deprivation and sufferation, provide the backdrop against which lottery scamming is presented as a critical register of the Black diasporic political economy. Lottery scamming—an intricate criminal activity where contact information lists are purchased and used to extort money—can also be understood as the rationalization of crime as part of the Black experience of navigating poverty.
In the context of sufferation, the Black urban poor respond to poverty through lottery scamming, which serves as a type of reparations for post-colonial exploitation. According to Lewis, reparations are conceived, and sought, as a novel form of reciprocity.
Scammers endeavor to take reparations, and the force of taking creates a “transferability of debt through whiteness.” Central to the lottery scamming as reparations scheme are “crews,” groups of young men who work together, and often meet through the Jamaican school system, engage in casual labor, and live with family within the same poor neighborhoods, like St. James Parish and the Elizabeth Commons public housing.
The economic contours of these neighborhoods, having been shaped by urban renewal policies of the 1980’s, create a figurative culture of poverty that limits social mobility and economic opportunity. Often denied access to viable economic mobility opportunities, “crews” engage in a series of steps to secure economic opportunity through lottery scamming: they acquire data, engage in direct and sustained phone communication with victims, and collect money in increasingly negative ways amid increased scrutiny.
Decades of failed government development, abuses of economic social justice, and a development structure of exclusion produces scamming as a viable means for attaining the economic opportunity and financial resources that might not otherwise be attained.
Parallel to the lottery scamming of Jamaican crews, the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC) Ten Point Plan for Reparatory Justice, is presented as another claim for reparatory justice, albeit one that makes direct evidentiary claims to reparations for slavery and its postcolonial effects.
The radical requests and demands made by the Caribbean governments to various European governments connects the colonized and colonizer, and acknowledges the colonial reciprocal obligation of reparations as a transaction reconsidered in the context of slavery.
Lewis describes the anticipated repayment of debt maintaining a contemporary colonial relationship and, in the absence of economic recompensation, it enables for a moral recompensation. Slavery, therefore, is recast as both a theft and a gift, and the transaction upon which a claim for reparations is made.
Lottery scamming is also recast, from a form of theft and criminal activity, into a form of reparation for contemporary American exploitation via its tourism and corporatization of Jamaica. Jovan Lewis describes an important “historization” that skips across Great Britain’s transgressions towards Jamaica, and focuses on America as being responsible for the contemporary economic and social oppression in Jamaica.
For the lottery scammers, a conflation of race and whiteness renders the British and Americans as being “the same white people,” and scamming becomes a justified form of repayment for colonial and postcolonial exploitation. However, within this context, the lack of fiduciary responsibility for poverty results in the ongoing deferral of reparative debt.
In concluding his talk, Lewis describes a “geography of suspension” where both lottery scamming crews, and Caribbean nations, engage in an uneven and unequal compensation sufferation, awaiting the repayment of debt.
The poverty they experience serves as a suspended deferral, and a reminder of the need to maintain patience and a relationship through deferral for any hope of economic recompensation.
Jovan Scott Lewis is an economic anthropologist who works in the field sites of Tulsa, Oklahoma and Montego Bay, Jamaica. His research examines the cultural mechanisms, institutional forms, and social practices through which an unequal living of, and coping with, the economy, its failures and contingencies are understood. Central to this inquiry is an exploration of contemporary inequality, which supports a generative definition of the economy in which poverty and race informs its articulation and spatial organization. Working between the US and the Caribbean, Jovan’s research endeavors toward an understanding of the political economy of inequality and race within the black diaspora.