By Jovan Lewis
This essay is part of PoLAR Online Emergent Conversation 9, a special series of essays, On Reparations for Slavery and Colonialism.
In 2003, Jamaica liberalized its telecommunications industry, opening the way for multiple telecoms companies to compete in the Jamaican market, which was quickly adopting a variety of internet technologies as part of everyday communication. Limited mobile phone and internet café use gave way to the widespread adoption of smartphones and in-home internet. British-owned Cable and Wireless, which long held a monopoly in the country, was surpassed by Irish-owned Digicel, whose Caribbean footprint grew exponentially over those early years. The liberalization of the industry also spurred the incentivization of the nearshore Business Process Outsourcing industry to the country. Located in Jamaica’s primary Free Trade Zone in Montego Bay, several companies arrived offering data and customer service services for companies like Amazon. The call centers would soon come to compete closely with the historical tourist industry in dominating the local economy of Montego Bay, as scores of young Jamaicans competed for these white-collar jobs. With low wages and high attrition, frustration, if not dismay, would come to characterize call center work. But within those circumstances, a new opportunity would present itself.
With access to the contact details of thousands of US-based customers and having learned the art of “customer service,” the “lottery scam” would prove the industry to be profitable after all. While many theorize that the practice was initially a secret of the city’s upper-class elite, it eventually spread throughout Montego Bay’s poor garrison communities—poor neighborhoods, typically controlled by a local don, or gang leader. The scam would ultimately become a radical means of accumulation. Scammers mainly targeted vulnerable White American senior citizens, promising them various awards from cash to cars. Like the young men I discuss in my book, Scammer’s Yard, some scammer crews used a sophisticated form of credit relations, telling their victims that they had been overcharged through a miscalculation of their credit card’s APR, and in order to receive the refund, they would have to pay a processing fee. These fees were collected through money transfer service providers on the island such as Western Union and MoneyGram. Working with the crew, which was comprised of three young and poor men, I wanted to understand the moral framework by which they could justify or make sense of their participation in the scam. I was surprised when, inspired by a then-current and popular song by dancehall artist Vybz Kartel, they argued that the scam was a form of reparations.
The crew’s reparative justification was very obviously convenient. However, given that they were able to articulate a reparative rationale to my request for explanation, I had no choice but to take that justification seriously. For the crew, the reparations they claimed from their victims had very little to do with the normative bases on which reparations were based. Rather than situating reparations within an argument about slavery, they viewed reparations as an explicitly contemporary concern. The contemporary poverty that they experienced, and used the scam to escape, was more meaningful and identifiable than the injury of slavery. In this way, the crew departed from the global question of reparations that was taking place across the formerly colonized world.
But choosing to take the claim as a valid one, valid because it was born out of the genuine circumstance of intergenerational and structural postcolonial poverty, one sees how the scammer framework would serve that global project of reparation and not undermine it. This service is so because the scammer claim did much to disrupt the usual discursive hindrances to reparative claims, namely recognizing deserving victims and, critically, identifying complicit and guilty parties. In taking this approach, scammers engage in what David Scott (1999) calls the (Jamaican) rudeboy’s “refusal.” He argues that this form of refusal recognizes the unattractiveness, if not expiration, of “the old options” of liberal, progressive rationality.
Predominant reparative frameworks are born out of this rationale (Scott 1999, 215). The refusal is paired with a form of self-fashioning produced by vernacular articulations that resist emancipatory ethics. This move frees the rudeboy from being bound by liberal, respectable representational politics. Moreover, the scammer embodying this rudeboy refusal is able to expand beyond the respectability underpinning the reparative frameworks and proposals from reparations leaders and programs. Those frameworks demand a collectivist mode of recognition that can simultaneously reflect the scales of injury and of recompense. An example is the platform of the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC). The CRC, invested in the post-independence structure of “development,” advances a program that seeks reparations for the various social ills and structural disinvestment that the Caribbean regions have endured since slavery. These consequences are framed as a collective grievance, with the collectivity of the claim demanding the integration and compliance of all claimants.
In part because of their criminality, scammers are discursively if not morally excluded from respectable integration. As such the scammer can prioritize his preferences and ambitions to shape a more honest and thus novel sense of repair, which is the capacity to accumulate. Accumulation as a reparative possibility is one that cannot accommodate a neat or scalable articulation. It is in this sense that the reparative claim, which is much less a claim than a demand, must be understood. Reparations, as organized on a collectivist basis, requires the ability to accommodate a multiplicity of parties and a diversity of members. The scammer demand forgoes the complications of that accommodation by levying the injury as held by the Black individual as valid enough, and weighty enough, without concern for recognition, because repair is not given, but taken as reparations. The scam, therefore, qualifies as reparation simply because the scammer says so. Herein lies one of the most central challenges of any reparations program: the ability to argue for the validity of the claim. The scammer refuses to argue, and moreover, refuses to concede to the requirement of validation. By sitting out and outside the normative demands of recognition, the scammer rationale enables the scam to be interpreted as a legitimate form of reparations.
Through refusal, scammers prioritize a temporal shift away from the history of slavery to the contemporary experience of poverty. The scam’s reparative formulary is radical because it “mobilizes a reparative logic capable of reformulating the sites and perpetrators of postcolonial transgression in a manner that stretches and bends the conventional history of colonial exploitation” (Lewis 2020, 23). The reformulation is possible, however, explicitly because of the spatial and racial negotiations of scammer recognition. When answering my question of how they could think that scamming North Americans could pay the reparative debts earned by the centuries of British slavery and colonialism, one member of the crew replied in turn with a question: “Aren’t they the same White people?” By reconfiguring time as a reparative marker, this crew member had brought up something unexpected, but unmistakable. Indeed, they were likely the same “kind” of White people, if we overgeneralize Anglo influence in the United States’ formation, but they were different because of their colonial pasts. Lumping both Britons and Americans together was semiotic maneuvering that accounted for a long history of Jamaican experience in which the British and then Americans functioned in the same capacity. If the British once had Jamaicans work the plantations, the Americans now have them work hotels and call centers that trap them in cycles of poverty. Beyond that, but perhaps as witnessed in these latter spaces, it was evident to them that the United States held the most viable, accessible, and profitable purses that could provide the quantity of reparations that they were after.
Again, through refusal, the crew radically redefined the normative geographic delimitations of reparative blame, and in the process uncovered, or made bare and apprehensible the true interconnected, globally conspiratorial crime of western development. In other words, there was not just one guilty party; it was every party that participated and then benefited from their current poverty and the system that produced it. The rationale is a demonstration of the “disjuncture between the misery and hardships of [Jamaicans’] lived experience on the island and the imagined experience of participating in the material well-being of America” (Gray 2004, 100). As I write in Scammer’s Yard, the scammers produce an accounting “that skips across time and geography to transform Britain’s transgression into the United States’ is a genealogy that can be traced through the postcolonial custodianship of Jamaican exploitation, which has changed hands over the decades with the reorientation of British-Jamaican trade and political relations to that of Jamaica and the United States” (Lewis 2020,158). As a result of this exploding of the geographic remit of injury and responsibility, scammers offer novel and capacious terms of transgression. The mobility of transgression is made possible by a sophisticated capacity to trace colonial debt across both time and space.
Race, Fungibility, and Repair
Reparative debt, and specifically its mobility, is made apprehensible because of the debt’s core racial capitalist foundation in Whiteness. This Whiteness, the kind that is the same between British colonials and the middle-class North Americans that scammers target, “serves as a mode, or function, of inequality and thus offers a steady marker of blame across its permutations and exchanges” (Lewis 2020,159). The transferability of debt is facilitated by the operation of Whiteness as an object that is overrepresented, to draw on Sylvia Wynter’s determination of Western hegemonic formation. Therefore, the White Western project’s geographic scale and scope have meant that its overrepresentation can be manipulated wherever it is most vulnerable. This is the sophistication of the scammer’s reparative project, and it succeeds, to use a generous term, where most conventional reparations programs fail. As discussed by previous pieces in this series, the CARICOM Reparations Committee struggles because it has made its argument and taken its claim to the most impenetrable and intractable site of the Western project: the state. For scammer logic, which recognizes the subjective flattening that makes racialization possible, the White state is no different or less complicit than the State’s White subjects. And here is where the convenience of the scammer notion of repair demonstrates its genius.
With this approach, the scam “broadens the ability for claims to be made at a growing scale charted along the tangled path of relations made through globalization and the compounding of injustices carried forward by neoliberal economic policy” (Lewis 2020, 159).
This move remedies the full depth of the colonial injury by recognizing the fungibility of Whiteness. This fungibility rearticulates Whiteness as a modality capable of carrying blame and holding it in sites that facilitate the most accessible claim-making for repair. Fungible repair reconfigures the basis for repayment on the terms and the bases most suitable for its satisfaction, scammer satisfaction. Other, more conventional programs for reparation are hampered both materially, but more importantly, discursively, by fixed ideas of blame, which are rooted in a morality made by the colonial powers who inflicted their injuries. With a deft shifting of blame, scammers manipulate, through relocation, reparations’ relations and expectations. Their practice, therefore, eschews the need to be “made right” by the assertion and the acceptance of colonial wrongdoing.
Set against the broader movement for reparations, which has over the past couple years seen growing political recognition, the scammer framework is unlikely to qualify as legitimate. The point here has not been to legitimize the scammer rationale, nor to endorse the criminal modality by which it is executed. The power and value of the scammer claim, however convenient, is that among the various reparations frameworks, it is the only articulation that centers the need to recognize the specific and personal ideals that constitute everyday experiences of life in the injury’s wake.
Moreover, emancipated from the expectations of both respectability and collectivity, the scammer reconfigures repair as the direct and undiluted satisfaction of those who carry the reparative claim. Through this reconfiguration, scammers upend conventional relations between North Atlantic powers by eschewing any expectation for mutuality, recognizing that the world as it is, by design, will never function on terms of equality. Thus, if not formally offered, reparations must be taken by any means necessary, as long as those means satisfy the individual’s pursuits, which unapologetically qualify as repair.
 Vybz Kartel, “Reparation (featuring Gaza Slim),” track 1 on Reparation, Adidjahiem Records, 2012.
Gray, Obika. 2004. Demeaned but Empowered: The Social Power of the Urban Poor of Jamaica. Barbados: University of the West Indies Press.
Lewis, Jovan S. 2020. Scammers Yard: The Crime of Black Repair in Jamaica. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Scott, David. 1999. Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3 (3): 257.