It is un-controverted that African slaves were not compensated for their labor. More unclear however, is what the effects and remnants of this relationship have had on African-Americans and our nation from the time of emancipation through today. – John Conyers, Jr.
In my elementary school, there were only two students of color – a boy named Ricky, who was in my grade, and his sister. Our neighborhood was completely white, and my church was completely white. So it wasn’t until junior high that I spent any real time with people of color, and it wasn’t until high school that I actually got to know, personally, any African American people. These were simply the facts of my childhood, an experience that was segregated, I now know, through circumstance and also through intention, although not the deliberate intention of my own family.
Because of this largely white childhood, I never much thought about issues that might be particularly important to African American people. I didn’t think about economic injustice or rates of incarceration or even about the kind of every day racism that most of the people of color I know now experience regularly. It just wasn’t in my realm of experience or in the experience of most of the people I knew.
Until I got to high school, but even then, our school was so segregated that I spent little time with the African American students who attended. I could have changed that dynamic through my own choices, but I didn’t even think to make those choices. That’s the reality of racism. We assume differences are dividers, when really, the dividers have made differences. (Love this article by Ta-Nehisi Coates – “How Racism Invented Race.“)
I share that part of my life experience because of this one reason: if you are a white person who does not have regular, personal, meaningful conversations with people of color, particularly African American people, it can be very difficult – probably impossible – to understand their perspectives on the world, and thus, we are making choices based only on our way of being in the world, a way that is privileged – through a privilege that is very difficult to see because we are in it. I know this because I am one of those white people.
It took me a very long time to come to understand why reparations for slavery – or at the very least a meaningful, thoughtful, expansive study of the place of reparations – is so important for our country – for ALL the people in our country. My experience in an almost exclusively white world led me to see only the white, privileged perspective on reparations, and from that perspective, reparations are often seen as unnecessary, unfair, expensive. “We” don’t need reparations because “that” is “history.” “Slavery was a long time ago.” “I didn’t enslave anyone.”
But when I step outside of that white world, suddenly, I can see it – “The first is I think when you say reparations, people think you’re talking about people who are long dead. There are people who are alive who have been disadvantaged and injured by policies that were in our name. The second part of that, in addition to that, that damage is such that it doesn’t go away when we don’t talk about it. New things happen that are compiled on top of that damage,” says Coates in an interview with Stephen Colbert. I can see the way that slavery has left African Americans with a harder ladder to climb to success, the way economic disadvantages continue because slavery didn’t pay, because Jim Crow perpetuated the economic oppression of black people, because racist policies and systems carry on the economic disadvantage of people of color.
I can see those things because people I love live through them. I watch my students of color struggle harder than many of my white students to get good-paying jobs. I see women of color fight hard to have their voices heard in feminist discussions. I witness the incarceration of black men at a rate that is so unbelievable disproportional to the rate of incarceration for other men that it can only be a result of oppression and racism.
But I only see those things now because I love people who live them. And I have had to fight to build those relationships – to step beyond what is comfortable, beyond my own fear of rejection, beyond the vitriol I sometimes receive for the ignorant things I say. Yet, to understand just a tiny bit of an experience beyond my own – well, that’s all so worth it.
So that’s why I support HR 40 Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. I support it because it’s the right thing to do to try and make – in some small but hopefully meaningful way – right on our history as a nation – a history from which we all benefit, a history built on the backs of people who had no compensation and no choice but to build our country – both physically and economically.
You may not agree with me, and that’s really okay. But before you argue against reparations – or even the study of reparations – I hope you’ll read the links I’ve provided here, including this one where Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses the 4 common arguments against reparations. I hope you’ll consider that your perspective might be one informed by privilege (and it might not, too), and I hope you’ll engage the conversation with an open mind and a willing heart.
And if you do agree that a study of reparations is something we need, I hope you’ll consider signing the Coming to the Table Petition to encourage Congress to Pass HR 40. It’s time. It really is about time.
What are your thoughts about reparations for slavery?
Note – I encourage us all to engage in honest, hard conversation here. Ask questions. Express opinions. But name calling, racist language, or hate speech of any sort will not be tolerated, and those comments will be deleted at my discretion.