Could reparations for slavery lead to spiritual renewal?

Published 6:27 pm Friday, April 19, 2019


Contributing Columnist

About 81% of white Americans are opposed. Only 58% of African-Americans are in support (another study said 68%). Presidents Clinton and Obama were opposed. Baby Boomers (ages 51 to 69) are 79% in opposition; for Generation X (ages 35 to 50), it’s 73%. Only Millennials (23-38) show a majority in favor or not sure (51%), and 44.2% of those in favor belong to a minority race or ethnicity.

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We are talking, you may have guessed, about reparations for slavery and its ensuing injustices and cruelties. And recently it seems that more people than ever are talking about this issue, especially those on a growing list of presidential candidates.

Some 30 years after Michigan Congressman John Conyers proposed a reparations bill, only to see it languish long in obscurity, we have recently seen first Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and then New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker introduce bills to study the possibility of reparations for the impact of slavery and the century of semi-slavery enforced by Jim Crow laws.

Regarding this resurgence of attention to reparations, conservative columnist George Will, after raising numerous objections, warns the Democratic Party that this “flippant talk” only serves to advance President Trump’s electoral aspirations. The counterpoint comes from columnist David Brooks, who calls himself a “different kind of conservative.” After earlier reservations, he now makes a case for reparations if we are to move forward as one nation.

In June, we will be five years past the article in The Atlantic entitled “The Case for Reparations” by award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates. It generated quite a buzz, and Brooks calls his initial response “mild disagreement.” With trenchant documentation, Coates traced the deprivation of property ownership, home mortgage opportunity, equal employment and educational opportunity, and location in better neighborhoods that stalked African Americans wherever they went.

The red-lining and the denial of loans needed to gain the benefits of the G.I. Bill for black veterans have not only been the fault of banks and other lending institutions. In his 2019 study, “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” Richard Rothstein joins Coates in showing the role of governmental policies in enforcing residential segregation, which is a key ingredient in the maintenance of economic inequality.

Another economic feature of the African American experience is what Brooks calls “the gigantic wealth divide.” The income gap remains — still roughly the same as in 1970, but the wealth divide is even more startling. White households are on average worth 20 times as much as black households; 15% of white households have zero to negative worth, whereas more than a third of black households do.

Brooks calls this reality the lack of a financial safety net, and he has also discovered in his study of America’s divides that African Americans have suffered from the lack of a psychological and moral safety net that comes when society consistently affirms that you belong, that you are part of us.

After sustained study of America’s divides in various parts of the country, Brooks is ready to make his own “case for reparations” (N.Y.Times, March 8, 2019).  True, paying reparations is a drastic policy, and it is hard to execute, but the African American experience is “at the core of our fragmentation” as Americans. This experience is unique among our divisions, and it requires “a concrete gesture of respect” for what African Americans have endured. Respect, more than guilt, is the issue in the here and now for Brooks.

Brooks names slavery as a sin that “assaults the moral order.”

It is “the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as the model and fuel for other injustices.”

“It is a collective debt that will have to be paid.”

Slavery and discrimination not only steal labor, “they attempt to cover over a person’s soul.” As long as this evil goes unacknowledged and unaddressed, we cannot move forward as one people with one uniting story.

Brooks knows all of the questions. He has asked them himself. Who should get reparations? Irish? Italians? Asians? Is there no statute of limitations on our forebears’ sins? Who should receive reparations?  What about poor whites? Recent African immigrants? What about LeBron and Oprah? What form should they take? Direct cash payments? Tax credits? A universal basic income? Affirmative action in education and employment?

Several advocates for reparations in the current discussions do not support direct cash payments to descendants of slaves, and several believe that something benefitting all people that have been “left behind” is needed.

A particularly vehement form of criticism comes from white nationalists and white supremacists such as Stephen Miller and Richard Spencer, as well as others. To them every remedy attempted or advocated to address past injustices and cruelties suffered by African Americans is an unearned benefit taken away from deserving white people. All affirmative action is discrimination in reverse. Accusation trumps acknowledgement and acceptance.

Coates wrote his article in part to make people stop laughing about reparations. Some of his words that resonate especially with Brooks and others of us who want something done that responds to our country’s original sin are these: “Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely … What I am talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I am talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to a spiritual renewal.”

If we could agree that something more needs to be done, that would be a start.  And if we could heal the racial divide, we could move forward as a far less polarized people.  Until then, we are left with William Faulkner’s words:  “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

Eric Mount is the Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor Emeritus of Religion at Centre College.