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.

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11 thoughts on “Why A National Discussion On Reparations Is Necessary

  1. So well said! There will still be much work to do after reparations are made (I hope people don’t think reparations will make everything OK), but reparations are long overdue.

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  2. Every member of every imperial nation who has benefited from the depredations of the empire owes those it pillage, raped, plundered and murdered, reparations. Men owe women the greatest reparations of all for millennia of oppression and abuse. Exchanging money would only be a symbolic gesture, those on the top would quickly find ways to get that money back, and with interest. The only “reparations” that can ever mean anything at all is to become compassionate beings so that misogyny, racism, enslavement, extortion, oppression, including all forms of war-making and genocide become horrors of the past. That’s my opinion stated.

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    1. You may want to read my recent post entitled “Kindly Be Just.” While the hope that more people will become compassionate is noble, in my experience, justice can and should be legislated. It does not change hearts, but it does change behavior.

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      1. One thing Earthians have yet to learn, particularly those who would enforce legislation aimed at promoting justice: forced behavioral change has horrible consequences when the force is remove. To wit, Yugoslavian breakdown and most of Africa current violence that was held in check by the various empires who needed their slaves alive, not massacring each other. Injustice is never a new thing but a recurring nightmare. So the only answer is indeed, for people to choose compassion as a way of life. If they do not, then they are well on the way to make themselves extinct. Forced behavioral can be beneficial during an enforced period of balance of power, or better put a balance of disempowerment, but when that balance is no longer sustainable, or the will to sustain it is lost, so are its benefits. Those who relied on its protection and trusted that the change was permanent are soon disillusioned as they become victims of oppression all over again, to wit, blacks and non-white immigrants in America today. The level of fear is rising as is the level of oppression by police and ICE. We should all know how the unthinkable happened to the Jews and non-Aryans in Hitler’s 3rd Reich. When “things” no longer work, the mob instinct takes over. They identify their usual scapegoats and with nudges from authorities, are off and running.

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      2. While I think there are certainly examples of behavior regressing to mob violence and anarchy, there are also examples where legislated justice gradually alters societal standards and cultural norms. Many people only choose compassion when this becomes the societal norm. I think we ask the oppressed to wait for people to become compassionate. Until people become compassionate, legislated justice is better than oppression.

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  3. I support having a conversation about reparations as long as it’s based in fact rather than speculation, and as long as counter arguments are addressed logically rather than simply dismissed as typical white misinformation or lack of perspective—as long as the weight of gaining new understanding falls on all sides, whites appreciating the black perspective as well as blacks appreciating the white perspective.

    In the second of your three posts you say, “Our nation owes people of color a great debt. If not for their service, this nation would not be the strongest, most affluent country in the world.” There’s a lot of accepted history that challenges that statement. By my understanding (or misunderstanding), slavery was the worldwide norm 400-500 years ago, not something white Europeans came up with spontaneously to develop the New World. In that view, Europe and the US were on the leading edge of the Abolition movement worldwide, which the rest of the world was considerably slower to adopt. It wasn’t until 1926 that the League of Nations held the Slavery Convention and 1948 when the newly formed United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 1956 is when it finally proclamed the worldwide abolition of slavery. Even so, it’s estimated that 20-45 million people worldwide are still trapped in some form of slavery.

    If the 350+ years of slavery from the early 1500’s to 1865 is the critical factor that established the US as the “the strongest, most affluent country in the world,” what happened to the parts of the world that started slavery earlier and continued it longer? Why isn’t Latin America, which benefited from the African slave trade decades longer than the US, at least somewhat on par with the US instead of languishing in poverty?

    Do only white people think that at our founding, the US was attempting to establish a brand new economic philosophy that was in fact antithetical to slavery? Was it not, in theory, based on individual rights and a constitutionally constrained ruling class—constrained precisely to ensure individual liberty? Again, slavery and the rule of the powerful was the standard operating procedure of the time that was supposed to be in the process of being upended. By 1776 and 1789 our founders, by my understanding, were hoping to turn the corner on that sad legacy. Slavery was a contentious issue that delayed the initial ratification of our constitution. It wasn’t just nonchalantly built into our founding principles. While the north was all in on the Abolition movement that had already begun in Europe, the south was still very comfortable with and economically dependent on slavery. That balance, however, was already and still is shifting away from slavery and the vestigial racism it produced.

    What actually makes the US economy exceptional, in my take of history, is the very same anti-slavery, anti-racist principle that clashed with slavery from our beginning, ended it in the 1800’s and should someday soon end what vestages remain. That principle is the yet-to-be-perfected cultural belief in the inherent dignity, value, and uniqueness of the individual along with individual unalienable rights and essential liberty. No other governing principle comes close, in my mind, to truly unleashing the vast human reserves of creative ingenuity and mutually beneficial collaboration.

    Can you show me how my thinking is wrong there? Are my dates off? Are my general characterizations misleading? What corrections or additional context can you provide? What historical authority weighs more heavily than that with which we were brought up?

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    1. Keith, I always appreciate the thoughtfulness of your comments. I think one of the historical realities you miss is how slavery morphed in the United States. Based on the Caribbean model, the US instituted what I would call “industrial slavery” where enslaved people become cogs in the emerging industrial revolution. Additionally, in response to the Haitian revolution, slavery in the United States racialized slavery, justifying the slavery of a specific race of people on the basis of their inferiority. This too was a relatively new type of slavery, driven ironically by a misunderstanding or misappropriation of Darwinism. I would highly recommend Edward Baptist’s book “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.” Baptist argues convincingly – and with the data you seek – that slavery in the US was a different dynamic than ever seen in human history. For this reason, the US faces a unique set of challenges in unpacking this history and rectifying the damage done to a specific race of people.

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  4. On your prior recommendation I did get Baptist’s book and began reading it. I admit I have a hard time reading a book that challenges my perspective. I also picked up Kendi’s ~How to be an Anti-Racist~ and got a bit further. I very much prefer to interact in person with another’s ideas that diverge from my own experience. Books are ok, but they keep marching on past the ideas and the questions they leave me with, so I have to set it down and marinade in it for a while as life and responsibilities take back over, before I can drag myself back into it.

    I actually was aware that the version of slavery that evolved in America was unique in the ways you mentioned—massively scaled up and racially infused. It’s extraordinary, is it not, that in a world immersed in the practice of slavery a new nation being forged in that context spent the first 90 years of its existence ridding itself of the practice and the remaining time healing from its effects? While 12% or so of whites today may identify themselves with the slave holders, that leaves around 88% of us who identify ourselves with the slave liberators. I understand that the incidental benefits of slavery did extend to all whites to a significant degree, but in an individualistic society such as ours, that doesn’t carry the same weight of moral culpability. In the analogy of your post, the man owed a debt is confusing the other man with his long-dead great-great-great grand uncle—who the family despised and disowned.

    I will continue Baptist’s book. I’ve come across some critiques of it, unfortunately. I will do my best to consider it carefully on its own and consult other more favorable responses to it. It’s easy for me to see the enduring disadvantages suffered by blacks due to slavery. I think most whites do. It’s a much harder sell to translate that disadvantage into a literal cash debt. I still doubt that that’s a very helpful approach.

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  5. Whether we ever figure out exactly how to repay the debt is secondary.

    While I would agree that acknowledgement would be a refreshing, the “Whether or not we ever…” seems to imply that not repaying the debt is somehow a satisfactory outcome. I would argue that without any real intention of debt repayment, any discussions or acknowledgements are simply hollow lip-service that will ultimately create more animosity. You’ll have those White folks that already thought they absolved their racism by voting for Obama who will now be doubly certain it’s behind them once they acknowledge the true place that slavery had in developing our economic systems -> national wealth -> global influence. I don’t know… if you owed me a debt, I guess I’d rather you pay it back or at the very least, stop inhibiting my ability to earn my way to position where I’m profiting from your labor anyway. Words don’t pay the rent. But, I’m White, so it’s entirely possible I’m way off base here.

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