Thinking about Racial Reparations

June 10, 2018

Growing up in the Deep South you get to hear white people say a lot of foolish things. Things like, “I never owned a slave, why are black people angry at me?” And “racism ended with the Civil War. Black people need to get over it!” In 1992, a white student of mine at Reinhardt College (in rural Georgia) said this to me; “Racism ended in 1865. Black people are just complaining.” I asked him, “What day? There had be a day when there was racism and then a day when there was no racism that we can celebrate. There should at least be a stamp or a commemorative plate to honor the day that racism ended and black people just started complaining.” He had no response.

Unless you are Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed “least racist person,” you know that racism didn’t end with end of Confederate slavery in 1865. It folded into brutal lynchings and the madness of Jim Crow, and then institutionalized into the “war on crime” and every type of systematic racial bias you can imagine; housing, health care, hiring, and on and on. People of color know this in 2018. White people, not so much.

Obviously, this country still needs to have an on-going conversation about race, not a one-day Starbucks seminar. Having a successful black president for eight years didn’t solve the problem and kicking Roseanne Barr off ABC didn’t solve the problem. White people can’t switch on a Beyoncé song and proclaim themselves woke. I think some whites are figuring that out. But if you want to talk about racial reparations, all that white liberal wokenness goes right out the window.


I was one of those who was leery of the call for reparations for a crime from centuries ago but I should have not been so fragile. For decades I have lectured about the legacy of slavery and how the psychological effects of the enslavement of an entire race are still with us all, including with African-Americans. It’s not just rednecks waving the Confederate battle flag, declaring, “the South will rise again!” (That’s code, y’all, for bring back slavery.) It’s not even the persistent brutality towards young men of color by police. The dehumanization of the people of Africa is manifested in daily life. If you are black and your last name is Jackson or Lincoln, you family history starts with slavery. (Something those named Obama could sidestep.) If you’re black and worry that you’re not light-skinned enough or don’t have the “good hair,” that legacy is there. Do you think there might be a price tag for all that trauma?

Another thing you will hear white people say is, “Well, black people can be racist, too!” This is true but not in the way my cracker brethren think. Black people don’t think white people are inferior, but many think black people are inferior. Studies have demonstrated that many African-Americans have internalized the racism that the world has laid on them for centuries. Just ask a little black girl which is better, the black doll or the white doll. “Black is beautiful” tried to undo the imposed self-hatred but it’s still a light-skinned black person’s status that reminds those who are “too black” that not much has changed.

I was lucky enough to (briefly) serve on the dissertation committee of Dr. Joy DeGruy at Portland State University. She’s the author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing and it needs to be assigned reading for white people. She outlines the gut-wrenching inhumanity of slavery and how those deep psychological traumatic wounds are passed down from generation to generation. That blacks are savages, rapists, thugs, or (as Roseanne just tweeted) apes deserving of what pain comes their way persists to this minute. Where is the class action suite on that?

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There is a young black activist in Portland named Cameron Whitten who has really forced me to take the issues of reparations seriously. We are a long way from “40 acres and a mule,” but there are real ways we can talk about making an amends today for the sins of the past. He has started to host “reparation happy hours” (now “Power Hours,” since it doesn’t have to involve alcohol) where white people who get it can contribute to gatherings for black people. At these gatherings black people can build community, political agency, and, yes, leave with a little bit of cash. (There is something poetic about black people being handed a ten spot with abolitionist Alexander Hamilton on it.) It doesn’t make up for the cumulative impact of slavery but it’s a powerful symbolic act that has real, tangible value.

Of course the right flipped their shit. Fox News tried to paint Cameron as a huckster, playing on white guilt to put money in his pocket (a thought I probably have been guilty of in the past). For the record, he is doing this as a non-profit called Brown Hope. Still, the troll army came after him, lampooning the idea of racial reparations. “Get over it!” they screamed. “You had Obama! What more do you want?” Whitten appeared on a local NPR show last week and calmly laid out his case. I was in my car listening and a big ol’ black light bulb lit up over my head. It made perfect sense. Reparations are not some type of sociological blackmail and it is time to talk about it without fear of attack from the same old defenders of white supremacy, be they Fox News trolls or white liberals.


Think of being black in America as an invisible tax. Whether it’s the poorer health outcomes that come from discrimination in the health care system or decades of tobacco companies targeting black communities with their cigarette ads. Think of lost wages from job discrimination and lost wealth from housing discrimination that has prevented African-Americans from buying homes. (From 1934 to 1968, less than 2% of FHA loans for homes went to people of color.) Think of the cumulative stress of “driving while black” in a country that still sees police use-of-force disproportionately targeting minorities, not to mention all those traffic tickets I don’t have to pay because I’m not the one who is racially profiled. I could go on and on to the break of dawn, but I think you get the idea. There is a financial cost to being a person of color (this goes for brown, red, and yellow people, as well). This is a cost that I don’t have to pay and it translates to more money in my pocket. According to one measure, “for every dollar owned by the average white family in the United States, the average family of color has less than one dime.” My white privilege obscures the real reasons for this massive imbalance but it’s as real as the balance in your bank account.

We can’t undo the hell of racism in one happy hour or one generation. But we can acknowledge the price of racism financially. Don’t expect there ever to be a tax on white people to right the wrong. (You think racists like Trump are popular among “undereducated” white folk now…) But white people can think of ways to give to people of color in meaningful ways, even if it’s just supporting a black-owned business or buying someone lunch. Let’s deal with the actual cost of being black in America.


12 thoughts on “Thinking about Racial Reparations

  1. you gave me so much to think about. hard to comment on. i can only tell you the story of my white dad, growing up in the deep south. as an child i was taught to be kind to everyone black, brown, green or blue. i saw the paradox of the black but so called equal schools, as we drove by the shanty that was the school for blacks, i saw as we were driven to the nice brick school in town. i was schooled to allow older black people on the bus first when traveling. my mom had a black worker that came in once a week to clean, iron, etc. my dad would drive to her house and bring her to ours and back again. they sat down together to eat lunch, and thought that was not strange to do. my dad paid into SSI so she would have something for her old age. he taught me by example. am i frightened when i have to pass a large group of black men, yes. it is in the bones of southern people and maybe everyone. we are afraid because we know we have done wrong to these people and they might just beat the shit out of us for it someday. i tried to teach my children these values but they grew up in So. Ca. so have a (strange to me) bad attitude toward Mexican America people they don’t even know. where does it come from, this fear of people that aren’t white, i have no clue. believe me i got a lot of comments from my peers with my attitude. as you can imagine. but i never went along with them, when they would jeer at black children. how do we make it up ? i have no clue. just know there are no “do overs” am i special, i hope not. i hope there are many more that think as i do, than those that are racist. for having nothing to say, i did ramble on and on. it is a complex problem , made for scholars far more brilliant that i am.


  2. As a woman who is “light-skinned” & has “good hair” (a.k.a. stringy white girl hair) we endure the double-edged sword of white supremacy. A white father who “conquered” my black mother, impregnated her then left the scene, never to be accepted by white folk, looked at with hatred & suspicion by white folk & fellow black folk because of my skin tone & hair texture. All things I cannot control. These are the legacy of slavery that we live with EVERY.SINGLE.DAY.

    What white folk fail to realize is that God Almighty *specializes* in RECOMPENCE, so no need to “ask” white folk for reparations, they WILL be forking it over when the time arises. Read Exodus, the Israelites departed Egypt with ALL of the gold & silver, FREELY HANDED OVER.


    1. I think you missed the mark with Exodus Esther. The book of Exodus is not only where we get the first law of God, but it’s where God’s chosen people (the Jews) are freed from slavery from Pharaoh. To say that they WILL be forking it over when the time arises


      1. I think you are forgetting about something, white people weren’t the only ones who were slaves. William Ellison, Anthony Johnson (the first black man to own slaves in America) are just a couple of names off the top of my mind.

        One thing history doesn’t talk about anymore is whites were treated and used as slaves to build the railroad, along with the Chinese. Native Americans were treated as slaves. Even people of Latin America were treated as slaves. If you wanted to get biblical Esther, we are all slaves today. Slaves to Satan. But it’s because of the love and grace we have been saved (Ephesians 2:8-9). Matt. 20:16 states that the first will be last and last will get crowned. That’s not referring to one particular group of people, that’s meant to everyone.

        When it comes to reparations, that’s someone telling me that they want a handout. I don’t usually like to use YouTube as a citation, but there’s a good message from Barbershop about it:

        Rather than pointing fingers and blaming everyone for the past, we need to look and seek God for everything. The bible has yet to be proven wrong through anything and everything. If there’s one thing we have learned about history is we haven’t learned anything at all. We are continuously blaming, fighting, and arguing over the same thing. Where did that get us?

        I encourage everyone to read the bible. There, we can find the true answers.


      2. Yes, I meant Exodus as I said. “Jews” are not enslaved today, black folk are. The day that this nation REPENTS of the atrocities of genocide, chattel slavery, white supremacy is the day that black folk will be “set free” from white supremacy. Until then, black folk must continue carrying the burden [cross] of white supremacy, because white folk won’t “own up”, they say “but *I* don’t own slaves”. Repentance can’t come until one “owns up” to ours & our ancestor’s sins. We don’t get to just “skip over that part” or say it’s “old testament & no longer applies” in our “repentance”. REPENTANCE means go & sin [racism] NO MORE.


      3. Just for clarity, it definitely isn’t all just “black & white”, I am aware of the fact that other races of people, including poor white folk, have been enslaved by white folk in power, which is white supremacy. No finger pointing necessary, just repentance. If the Lord walked me through the process of repenting of white supremacy in my own family line, then He DEFINITELY will do the same for people who identify as white, if they *genuinely* wish to repent. God’s word says WE pay for our ancestors’ sins, as well. God is NO respecter of persons, correct?


  3. When people turn their life over to God, that change happens. However, even when someone becomes a Christian, that doesn’t mean they stop sinning because we are all sinners. However, Ephesians 4:32 says “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” God forgave us even when He didn’t have to. He did because He loves us that much. Yes, I do try my very best to treat everyone just as God would. Not saying I’m perfect because I’m not. I do get off track sometimes, but God brings me back where I’m supposed to be. When Paul tells that to the church of Ephesus, he isn’t saying forgive certain things and hold on to the rest. No, he says for us to forgive just as God forgave us.

    If someone says they are a Christian, but doesn’t forgive others, what does that make them? I’m not saying what happened in our history is right because it’s not. I had family who were slave owners in Alabama. Does that make me a slave owner because there were? No it doesn’t. We live in this mentality that slavery still exists when it doesn’t. Yes, racism is still very alive and active, but not slavery. I’m deeply and truly sorry about what happened in the past. But if the bible says to forgive as God forgave us, then I’m going with the bible.


  4. I understand everything you said.

    If one truly repented of white supremacy & one TRULY trusted that God removed that “sin” from us via repentance, then we should have NO PROBLEM whatsoever treating ALL PEOPLE *INCLUDING BLACK PEOPLE* LIKE HUMAN BEINGS worthy of LOVE & RESPECT. As followers of Yeshua, we don’t get to say, “well, I’m just an old sinner.” No, we aren’t, we were BOUGHT by GRACE. Also, “forgiveness” can only come after one “owns up” to whatever OFFENSE needs forgiving, correct? Otherwise one cannot be “forgiven” of something they have not admitted to. And yes, always go with the Bible. It says we MUST CONFESS OUR SINS to Him prior to forgiveness being rendered.


  5. Again, check your Bible for how many generations down the line people suffer because of the hands of their ancestors. U.S. chattel slavery fits snuggly inside that window. Everyone in this nation is suffering because of it, it’s the national baggage we all carry. Everyone here is tainted.


    1. If you are truly familiar with the bible, the group of people who have been enslaved, persecuted, and mistreated the longest are the Jews. They’ve been martyred because of their faith. I have several good friends of mine who are Jewish. Not once have they ever felt they needed special privileges or reparations.

      They are God’s chosen people and and will be blessed. If we can learn anything, we need to look at the Jews. Given EVERYTHING they have been through and still stand strong, that says something.


      1. Not once did I say anything about reparations or special privileges, but this is the part that trips white folk up the most. If you know anything about the Bible, you know that there are patterns. We all must REPENT. Take care, Brian.


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