Reflecting on Reparations
I find it hard to do the inner work of unpacking my whiteness without trying to answer the question, what do we white people owe Black people for centuries of chattel slavery and oppression? With every facet of whiteness that I explore and unpack, this question looms in my mind.
It's difficult to put a value on what 400 years of chattel slavery in the U.S. amounted to in financial terms. In human terms, the loss of lives, the separation of families, the trauma, and the cruelty endured by Black people at the hands of white people for centuries is not only inhumane, it's also impossible to value. Yet still, some recognition and admission by our government that it (meaning its white colonizers) profited from the labor and enslavement of an entire race of people for hundreds of years seems the very least we can do. The U.S. government has paid reparations only four times in its history, to the Japanese interned during WWII, to victims of forced sterilization in North Carolina, the victims of the Tuskegee experiment and to victims of the Rosewood riots in Florida during the 1920's. All of these instances are worthy of reparations given their heinousness, yet reparations have never been paid to the descendants of Black slaves.
I believe reparations are warranted and deserved in the case of Black slavery in the U.S. Ta-Nehesi Coates makes an excellent argument for reparations in his 2014 article, "The Case for Reparations." As I've worked through my white guilt and shame as the descendant of white colonizers, I've struggled to find a way that I can contribute to reparations for the descendants of slaves. It would be neat and tidy if the government would pay descendants of slaves so that I could stay comfortable with my whiteness knowing that amends were made and I didn't have to lose anything personally. What if all of us white Americans gave something up, something big and meaningful so that we may begin to feel a small part of what Black slaves and their descendants lost during the course of slavery and the subsequent years? What if I had to give up the money I've saved for retirement, or for my child's education, or my home, or my job? How would I feel about reparations then? I can't argue that those are not valid things to take from me to pay reparations. It seems a small price to pay for 400 years of chattel slavery and all of the losses and trauma that Black people have suffered as a result. I personally would be hurt; my loved ones would be hurt by the loss of those things; those things that I've gained in no small amount from the exploitation of Black labor and laws and privileges that favor white people like me. Is there any justice in taking from white people what has been denied Black people for centuries? I believe there is, but how and what is shifted from white people to Black people is another question.
There are many ways we can make reparations by reallocating resources to Black people. We can support Black-owned small businesses, we can support Black candidates for office, both financially and by volunteering on their campaigns. When we are educated by Black people about racism, we can pay them for their emotional labor. We can financially support funds for Black people to receive therapy for intergenerational trauma. The very least we white people should be doing, is digging deep into our own unconscious biases about race and how those biases harm BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color). We can center Black people and step out of our need to center our white selves by ensuring Black voices are heard on panels at conferences, and supporting art that centers Blackness and Black art.
Black people die every day as the result of our biases and ignorance. We can make reparations by fighting for fair housing, education and healthcare for Black people. There are a myriad of studies that point to the dehumanization of Black people at the hands of white people. For example, many white doctors believe that Black people have a higher threshold for pain, so they don't take the complaints of their Black patients as seriously as they do white patients. Many white medical students believe there are large biological differences between Black and white people, such as Black people have thicker skin, are more fertile and their brains are smaller than white people. No wonder Black maternal death rates are astronomically high, three times higher than white maternal death rates. Gains in Black home ownership made since the Fair Housing Act of 1968 have all but vanished. UNCF reports that systematic bias in teacher expectations for Black students and non-black teachers were found to have lower expectations of Black students than Black teachers. As white people, we have the power to make the systematic changes required to ensure that Black people have access to the same opportunities that we do. Power and opportunities are not finite; there is more than enough to go around for everyone.
Most of all, we need to call other white people in to do work on their unconscious biases. Layla Saad's "Me and White Supremacy" workbook is a great resource to share. When another white person makes racist statements or commit racist acts, we can use these opportunities to help our friends, neighbors, family and colleagues by encouraging them to dig deep into their racial biases and share resources for them to learn more about Black history, racial disparities, oppression and injustice. We don't have to be armed with all of the facts, just the willingness to use our voices and resources to support Black people. As for reparations, these small acts are the very least we can do.