Saturday, October 26, 2019

Reparations for Slave Descendants

I need to start with a disclaimer here. I have not researched the case for giving reparations to descendants of American slaves. There may be some compelling reasons for the U.S. to make these payments. But in my ignorance, I have a few observations.

Americans of African descent live in a context that white people cannot begin to understand. A black friend of mine told me recently that if his car broke down at night along a highway near Stokesdale, he would not consider leaving his vehicle to find help. It would be dangerous for him to flag down another car or to approach a house nearby. People would feel threatened by him and could cause him harm. That is not the world I live in as a white man.

Money fixes everything. Or so we think. Our American capitalist society agrees that everything can be monetized. Spending money equals addressing a problem. If Americans of African descent have been wronged, then we can buy our way of it. The payments might not make things right, but they will make things better, the thought goes. And if things are not actually better, at least we did something. We tried. This mode of thinking minimizes the struggles of black Americans. It is based on a false assumption: that money will fix everything. But reparations cannot make my friend feel safe on a roadside at night. No amount of money can change that.

Reparations can actually be harmful to the recipients. An American Indian friend of mine believes that reparations to Native Americans exacerbated their plight. He talks about growing up on "the res" and the struggles of his neighbors to navigate in the broader American culture. Not only did the reparations fail to help, they actually hurt Native Americans. I must confess that I was unaware of these payments to Indians, but my friend saw a lot of negative fallout from them. Reparations for African Americans might work better than those for Native Americans. But we would do well to anticipate unintended consequences from reparations.

I think reparation payments are the wrong approach to the racial divide in America. This divide runs much deeper than dollars and cents. Hearts and attitudes need to change. And maybe that will get us started on changing law enforcement, food systems, the judicial system, hiring practices, lending practices, and mistrust.