FOR PARTS 1 AND 2, SEE SIDEBAR
The first way those of us with light skin need to respond to the moral challenge of being White is to recognize the crushing unfairness of White Privilege and work to become allies rather than oppressors.
Response #2: Support Repair Efforts
The second way we Whites need to respond to the moral challenge we face is to consider seriously two fundamentally different ways to approach actually doing something about this challenge: reconciliation and reparation.
In this context, reconciliation basically means working to build collaborative relationships between Blacks and Whites. Reparation means focusing first on fully understanding and owning our history, apologizing, and working to repair damages Whites have inflicted on Blacks.
Most 20th and 21st century diversity and inclusion efforts have focused on reconciliation. These include programs to promote intercultural competence and intercultural dialogue, for example, by several Civil Rights groups in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and currently by UNESCO,[i] the Intercultural Development Research Institute,[ii] the Courageous Conversations project,[iii] the Presbyterian Church USA, the Episcopal Church, and other Christian groups.[iv]
So far, reconciliation-based efforts have done almost nothing to reduce systemic racism. Sunday at 11AM is still the most segregated hour in U.S. culture. Primarily White law enforcement organizations and primarily Black urban neighborhoods in Furgeson, Milwaukee, Chicago, Baltimore, Miami, and scores of other U.S. cities are deeply divided and clash violently. Schools serving mainly Black students are still grievously under-funded; mortgage lending practices are still broadly discriminatory; arrest and incarceration rates are dramatically skewed; racist employment practices persist; and millions of primarily White voters support politicians focused on protecting “us” from “them.”
Reconciliation is still an important ultimate goal, and empowering people to develop genuine relationships with those who are culturally different from them can be fruitful.[v] Local NAACP chapters, for example, have been strengthened by contributions from White allies. Individual White teachers have helped boost successes in some primarily Black schools, and Black teachers have helped strengthen White schools. A few intentionally multicultural congregations, service clubs, and equity initiatives have helped members develop strong cross-cultural relationships. But I have not seen many regional, state, or national diversity or inclusion needles that have been moved much by reconciliation efforts.
AND reparations-based efforts need to be much better understood and more effectively implemented. First, it’s crucial to understand that reparations does not mean just writing a check. A widely-quote definition from Bernice Powell Jackson explains that
Reparations is the process to remember, repair, restore, reconcile and make amends for wrongs that can never be singularly reducible to monetary terms. The process of reparations is “an historical reckoning involving acknowledgement that an offense against humanity was committed and that the victims have not received justice.”[vi]
In 2014, The Atlantic published a well-documented essay by Pulitzer prize-winner Ta-Nehisi Coates called “The Case for Reparations” in which Coates clarifies that, for him, reparations means “full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences. . . . A national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”[vii]
Yet, at this point in U.S. history, reparation is widely unpopular with Whites. Harvey notes,
A variety of polling indicates that only 30 percent of whites believe the government should even apologize for slavery, in contrast to 79 percent of Blacks. Support for reparations among whites is even lower—hovering at around 4 percent, contrasting mightily to the 67 percent of Blacks who say reparations are due.[viii]
A major reason for this disparity is that both racist and well-meaning Whites wonder why they should apologize and make amends for something they didn’t personally do. This sounds reasonable, and it doesn’t recognize the moral challenge of just being White. Although most Whites are obviously not guilty of creating systemic racism, we still need to be response-able. For example, Georgetown University’s 2016 effort to make amends for the sale of 272 slaves in 1838 included a formal apology from its President, who wasn’t even born until 1957.[ix]
Wouldn’t it make more sense to support at least talking about reparations? When well-meaning Whites learn about the immoral ways our racial identity has been socially constructed, don’t human decency and common sense dictate that we at least consider the question, “What can be done to help repair this?” How can we continue, in such large numbers, to insist that the topic not even be taken seriously?
Coates’ essay demonstrates that reparations have been successful in recent history when it looks closely at one historical example of productive reparations from Germany to Israel, and mentions the 1988 U.S. government’s apology and compensation paid to over 100,000 Japanese who had been forced into internment camps during World War II. So the practice is clearly not unprecedented.
Coates and Harvey both also point out that those who want to do something about the moral failures and injustices of slavery can start by supporting Michigan Congressman John Conyers, Jr.’s HR40, “The Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.” Conyers first proposed this piece of legislation in 1989, and has resubmitted each of the 27 years since. It’s not yet been voted out of committee. The Act does not even propose actual reparations; all it does is establish a way to talk about the topic. Strong public response could at least begin this conversation.
In the conclusion of her 2014 book, Jennifer Harvey writes,
Those of us whose identities have been forged and continue to be shaped by white supremacy in this nation, and who have inherited the heavy weight of ancestral complicity in its legacies, need to repent. We need to apologize and take responsibility. And repentance and apology. . . need to be made meaningful with concrete actions and programs for repair.[xii]
I’m sorry to be the bearer of uncomfortable news, but for those of us who are White Americans with families who have been in this country more than a few generations, our great-great-great-great. . . grandparents almost certainly did actually “steal the car” of one or more Black families, and, while the car is not in one of our garages, we profit from our White ancestors’ exercises of power every day.
What are we willing to do about this? As I ‘ve said, you and I are not “guilty” of what our ancestors did. AND, because of the defining features of the White race that we have been born into, we are automatically in a power relationship to Blacks and others that is often unfair and oppressive. We don’t get stopped for “driving while Black.” We are eight times less likely to get arrested for marijuana possession (where it is illegal), and, if we’re arrested for a drug violation, we are more likely to get a deferred sentence. It is easier for us to search for a job. We are more likely to get the lowest-interest loans. Our parents are more likely to have an estate to pass along to us when they die.
Are we willing to acknowledge that we are “heirs of oppression?”[xiii] Are we willing to respond to these material realities by learning more about Whiteness and white privilege and to apply what we learn to our own lives? Are we willing to study and think about the case for reparations and to support HR40? Are we willing to grasp opportunities in our own spheres of influence—our family, workplace, friendship and professional networks, church—to discuss, acknowledge, apologize for, and repair the racial climate our ancestors left us? Are we willing to work toward “full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences. . .” and to participate in “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal?”
[iv] See Harvey (2014).
[v] My book, Personal Communicating and Racial Equity works toward this goal.
[vii] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/ Another very helpful resource is A. Brophy’s Reparations: Pro and Con. (New York: Oxford, 2006). https://global.oup.com/academic/product/reparations-9780195304084?cc=us&lang=en&#
[viii] Brophy, 2006, p. 5, cited in Harvey, p. 195.
[xii] Harvey, p. 251.
[xiii] Corlett, 2010.