Note to my white self…
Imagine for a moment that someone owed you a great debt.
How would you feel…
… if that person laughed whenever you mentioned that debt?
…if they refused to acknowledge the debt existed, even when shown documentation confirming the debt?
…if they claimed that – if there ever was a debt – that it had already been paid?
…if they argued that – even if there was still an outstanding debt – it was unrealistic to think they would or could pay the debt?
…if they implied you should just forgive the debt and move on?
How would you feel?
Would you be angry toward that person?
Would you resent their wealth, knowing they owed you such a debt?
Would you doubt their oft repeated commitments to justice and equity?
Would you question their habit of extravagant spending on other priorities while pretending to be too poor to repay the debt?
Would you be skeptical of their excuses if you knew they had repaid other debts?
If you can empathize with the feelings above, you can understand why black people are so frustrated with the reluctance on the part of many white people to discussing reparations. Black people understand the white complaint that paying reparations is a complicated issue. Even they don’t all agree on the proper way to repay the debt. However, on whether reparations are due, there is strong agreement in the black community. Polling finds 88% of black Americans believe historic inequities keep black people at disadvantage and 73% of black Americans are supportive of some kind of cash reparation to the descendants of slaves.
What is deeply frustrating to black people are the many white people who mock the idea of reparations, who suggest there is no debt, who argue the debt has been paid with the Civil War or with the Civil Rights Movement, who whine that the process of making reparations would just be “too hard,” or who imply black people need to let bygones be bygones. This is especially maddening when they see white families with ten times the wealth as black families. It is not that white people don’t have the ability to pay the debt. White people simply refuse.
For the sake of the argument, let’s assume the person who owes you the debt is legitimately unable to repay you. What would you want from them? What would allow you to forgive the debt?
Would you be responsive to…
…derision, ridicule and mockery?
…the denial of any debt?
…claims the debt has been repaid?
Or would you need to hear, “I owe you a debt I may never be able to repay. Forgive me for ignoring this obligation for so long. I may not be able to adequately repay you, but I want to talk with you about making things right.”
If that seems like the proper response, then you understand why a national discussion on reparations is necessary. Whether we ever figure out exactly how to repay the debt is secondary. What is essential is that those to whom we owe a debt hear us acknowledge how the enslavement and oppression of black folk contributed to the creation of the wealthiest nation in the world and how the vast majority of that wealth remains in white hands. Black people need to know we’re open to this discussion.
If that seems like a reasonable discussion, I invite you – if you live in the Indianapolis area – to join me on Saturday, September 21st from 2-4 p.m. at the Indianapolis Central Library for Reparations 101: An Introduction to The Concept of Reparations. This two-hour event is a collaboration between the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), the Center for Black Literature and Culture and Note To My White Self. It will include a 30-minute introduction followed by two breakout sessions – one for the uninformed and unconvinced and one for those wishing to advocate for reparations. The event is free, but registration is limited.
If you can’t make this event, I encourage you to read my three past blogs on reparations and seek opportunities to discuss the question of reparations with others.
It truly is the least white people can do.