Reparations and Reconciliation

12-year-old Reggie Fields mowing the lawn © Washington Post

12-year-old Reggie Fields mowing the lawn © Washington Post

Another day, another story about a timorous white lady calling the police because she has discovered a black person sharing public space and going about his business. It's easy to laugh at trembling, weeping white folks unable to parse the notion that Black People Live Here Too. But it's also incredibly strange, and incidentally very dangerous - for 12-year-old Reggie Fields, who could easily have ended up like Tamir Rice. "Who does this?" asks Reggie's customer Lucille Holt-Colden. Good question.

White people do this. A lot.

Someone called the police on a black man who was reading a book about Christianity while watching the ocean. Black people have had the authorities sicced on them while going to the gymshopping for underwear, waiting for the school bus and couponing. (Washington Post)


I'd like to hazard a guess. I think it's displaced guilt. Our original sins of genocide and slavery have been bundled under the rug and now there's a big lumpy spot that's driving us all crazy.  I think the entire nation is sick in the head over this thing. White people are terrified lest Native Americans and black people actually express the anger that they have every right to feel. It's not a good feeling, that you have personally benefited from something unspeakably awful, something so wrong. And it's certainly not a good feeling to feel that white terrorism is returning, that it's open season on people of color. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an article, The Case for Reparations, a few years ago in the The Atlantic. I urge you to read it - he's a far better writer than I am. And I think he's on to something. 

We are the largest economy in the world. And our economy was established to a significant degree on the uncompensated labor of people who were stolen, bought and sold, tortured and worked to death. Large tracts of the land we live on and use were stolen from indigenous people. Reparations will not bring back the dead, nor cause children to live who were never born because of violence suffered by their parents. But it represents a meaningful gesture towards reconciliation. It would drain the poison. Black people and Native Americans would feel heard, seen, their experiences no longer dismissed, their suffering no longer acceptable. White people would no longer feel like guilty dogs. And yes, many of us white folks do not descend directly from slavers, but every single one of us has enjoyed the presumption of innocence, that does not, apparently, extend to black people, no matter how young.

There are precedents for healing antagonistic peoples. Reparations were paid to Jewish Holocaust survivors and their families in the wake of the most shameful, appalling episode in German (or any other) history. It has taken a long time, but about seventy years of demonstrating sincerity and decency in word and deed has repaired the relationship between Germans and Jews. The virulent reflexive anti-Semitism that so many Germans felt is largely gone, as is the automatic assumption that all Germans were Nazis. There is a much more nuanced understanding now.

I'd like to see us heal as a nation, for the most selfish of reasons. It will make me feel better about myself, and better about my country. The alternative is continuing to compound past injustice in the dozens of ways that racism impacts black bodies and black lives in this country. We're clearly not living in a post-racial society here. Can we agree that pretending nothing happened is not working for any of us? 

German has a word Bewältigung, which basically means processing something. The only way we can process the unspeakable sins of genocide and slavery is by the seeking and granting of forgiveness. Reparations would be a good first step.