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 them.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com