Riding the Reparations Bandwagon: A White Woman’s Perspective


I admit it. I, a middle

aged white woman, have jumped on the Reparations "band wagon". When I was asked

several years ago if I thought reparations for the enslavement of African

Americans were in order, I stammered and shuffled my feet and said, "it

depends". A safe response for a liberally minded white woman who had absolutely

no idea what I was really being asked. Like so many other whites (and people of

color) I thought reparations was only (and all) about money. I thought

reparations meant someone tossing out an arbitrary number and someone else (the

government) writing a check and that was that.

This is exactly why

most white people who hear and/or read about the Reparations movement get

nervous and defensive and respond with one of several classic objections:

1) "I didn’t have

slaves, nor did my family benefit from slaveryS" 2) "Slavery hasn’t existed for

over 140 years, why do we have to pay for something that happened thenS" 3)

"Blacks have been getting preferential treatment for years and frankly I’m tired

of it". 4) "It is only going to divide us moreS"

There are of course

dozens of other responses but these seem to be four of the most popular and the

most worthy of addressing in such a brief article.

First of all

Reparations is not a recent notion nor is it something born out of the 60’s

civil rights movement. Reparations advocates (both black and white) have been

around for over 100 years. Reparations is a verb and not a noun. The movement is

a process of exploring the damages inflicted upon the descendants of those who

were kidnapped and held captive in the United States throughout a period of

several hundred years and dialoguing about potential compensatory remedies. Also

included in this exploration are all the corporations and governmental

organizations who benefited from the slave industry and who are prosperous today

because of their practices.

No one would argue that

receiving an inheritance from a relative might affect what kind of future one

might have. African Americans have inherited the injustices inflicted upon their

ancestors and are living with them today in various forms. For those who are not

educated about our American history, it is tempting to view the few civil rights

laws and affirmative action programs of the last 30 years as remedies for

several hundred years of hatred, mistreatment and oppression.

As Congressman John

Conyers pointed out at the Race Relations Institute Conference on Reparations in

Nashville in February, those who are promoting reparations on the governmental

level are (at this point) only requesting a study of the damages. These damages

are not limited to money, and frankly, there is not a dollar figure large enough

that could provide healing and justice for all the victims of the legacy of

slavery. And, it is not even concluded that money will be the end result of

reparations. So far the government has refused to support a study. This does not

mean studies are not being done, just that the government refuses to acknowledge


It is telling that many

Americans don’t object to billions of dollars being spent on strategic air

missile defense systems–which don’t even work or the money spent on the studies

which examine why they don’t work. And yet, many white Americans vehemently

object to a study of Reparations–something that could specifically identify the

injustices heaped upon our African brothers and sisters which have had lingering

effects. A study of Reparations is a study of our history and something that

could help promote racial healing and justice for blacks and whites alike.

In regards to one of

the primary objections, my family didn’t have to own slaves in order for me to

benefit from slavery. As a white woman I have enjoyed first class privileges my

entire life and I do not come from an upper middle-class family. In fact I have

never forgotten the shame of seeing my mother pay for groceries with food-stamps

when our family was destroyed. But regardless of my economic status, I was (and

am now) the recipient of numerous invisible advantages every day. I never knew

what those advantages were or meant until I started working with those who dealt

with discrimination and oppression all of their lives. As a white person,

understanding the insidious nature of racism was an effort to educate myself

because it had no bearing on my everyday life. I couldn’t see it so it didn’t

exist for me. I had to open my mind in order to see that racial discrimination

is a stain in the fabric or our American culture. I’m not just referring to the

obvious kinds of racial injustices but all the subtleties that keep people of

color enslaved–today.

As far as blacks

receiving preferential treatment they most certainly do. Blacks and other people

of color are preferred targets of the police and other law enforcement

officials. People of color are certainly recipients of preferential treatment in

our criminal justice system as is evidenced by the fact that they receive longer

sentences for the same crimes committed by whites. It is certainly preferable to

many white owned financial institutions to deny home loans to people of color in

particular neighborhoods where whites are the majority.

A cursory study of the

criminal justice system will support these allegations in black and white. When

we look at the figures of who is in prison and we realize that there were few

(if any) prisons in America during slavery we must ask ourselves some honest

questions. Why are American prisons one of the fastest growing businesses in

this country? Is it possible that our prison system has replaced slavery on some

level? Are black men (and women) less threatening when they are held captive in

controlled environments? These are all very complicated questions that are

relevant to the issue of reparations and in need of consideration.

I’m most fascinated

when I hear someone suggest that reparations will only serve to further divide

the races and therefore should be abandoned. I can think of nothing more

divisive than what has already been done to African Americans in this country.

Are white Americans honestly convinced that race relations are so good now that

we don’t want to jeopardize them?

Learning about and

acknowledging anothers oppression does not take anything away from me. If

anything, I have benefited enormously from re-visiting history and making

connections between the historical truths and contemporary social ills. I’ve

also learned a great deal from those who have been brave enough to tell their

stories. This is another reason I believe so strongly in the Reparations

movement. The road to healing race relations is the process of discovery and

listening. When whites and blacks join together to look truthfully at the past

and jointly explore what the damages were (and are) to those of African descent,

it is clear that money is not the only solution. Healing can occur in many forms

and no one–so far that I know–is suggesting that money is the total solution.

After hearing some

preliminary figures of how much the U.S. government profited from taxing the

slave trade (it’s not that far from George W’s proposed tax cut ironically) I

personally believe that a check of some kind must be written. But again, it is

only part of the solution.

We whites need healing

too. Otherwise we wouldn’t get so angry when we hear the words reparations or

compensatory remedies. It’s not the words that cause such a violent reaction in

some, it is something much deeper that we must address. Our own fear, hatred and

anger has done a number on us whites. It has made us arrogant. And our arrogance

is just a by-product of our ignorance–which fortunately can be remedied if we

can stop blaming the victims long enough to seek the truth.

It is often our

arrogance that prompts us to dismiss (out of hand) the idea of reparations. We

have been in the driver’s seat for so long that we can’t abide the notion that

someone else might have another route worth exploring. I say let’s scoot over to

the passengers seat and ride the Reparations band-wagon. No one knows where we

will end up but we will at least end up there together–which is better than

where we are right now.

Ms. Secours is a

counselor to youth-at-risk, a columnist and racial dialog facilitator in

Nashville TN. She can be reached at mollmaud@telalink.net and msecours@oasiscenter.org



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