Reparations? Or Charity?

This is a reparations moment.

That’s not to say it’s newly or uniquely such a moment (as if we haven’t long been in a reparations moment). It’s not.

But it’s worth asking this right now: If something as entrenched in U.S.-American culture as the acceptability of flying the Confederate flag could finally be upended and repudiated in a period of three weeks, what else might be possible?

As we actively seek to respond to that question let’s be clear this is a reparations moment.

Words have seemed inadequate in the weeks since the massacre of nine Black women and men at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This inadequacy has to do with the layering of blood and violence upon blood and violence—anti-black violence and the shedding of the Black people’s blood by whites—that has drenched and consumed this nation since last August (2014).

The reality of being drenched and consumed in this nation is not new.

The level of white public awareness is.

Also new, perhaps, is the heightened level of national, public discussion of our actual national racial situation. Perhaps some white Americans are newly reckoning with how things really are here. Perhaps the inadequacy of our dominant public discourse on race for dealing with—let alone transforming—our actual racial situation will finally be exposed sufficiently to move more of us to try something new.

By “dominant public discourse” I mean everything from the focus on “diversity” that predominates the worlds of education and business, to the “reconciliation” work favored by Protestant Christianity, to the “colorblindness” still being transmitted via white parents and teachers to the next generation in the woefully misguided belief such teaching will equip that generation to do better than we have done. (While I’m sympathetic even in my criticism to the logic and goals of diversity and reconciliation, it’s mindboggling to me that the third of these beliefs persists.)

I see an urge among more white folks right now to do: To act; To respond; To try harder to figure out our role in supporting and fighting for and showing solidarity with Black communities in this nation.

We should have our eyes wide open about this. This urge to act will be accompanied by a great deal of angst and confusion. Because we have not done our work adequately for so very long and in far too few locales, we are very far behind in feeling (and actually being) facile in antiracist organizing, politics, conversations.

But if we are horrified by the anti-black violence in which we are all drenched we simply must step into this angst and confusion. There is no other way to start learning how to get it “right” other than by moving and acting. In fact, there is no completely “right” way in a racial situation already so utterly and deeply wrong.

And so we must step in and up, and move.

(Perhaps an important reminder here too is that none of us has to reinvent the wheel as we seek to respond. There are folks who’ve been long at work. We just need to decide to plug in.)

And as we step in and up, and move, I want to again insist we do so in a posture of reparations and not charity.

The difference between these two postures is vast.

Reparations means repair. Reparation is action taken out of the recognition of that there’s a debt owed and a responsibility that must be borne. The one making repair has done harm and owes something concrete, tangible, and costly to the party who has been harmed.

Reparations admit that the suffering and violence visited upon someone else is not random, distant or removed from me and, thus, compassion and empathy are not enough. Reparations admit that that suffering and violence is directly tied up in the insulation and safety I experience and on which I (knowingly or unknowingly) depend.

Charity is a completely different matter. Charity is something I do for someone or some group because I feel moved with, hopefully, a kind of humanitarian recognition to share from my abundance. My point in this writing is not to disparage charity.

But when your (my) “abundance” comes directly as a result of active or passive benefit in a system that insulates you while exposing others, when that system has continued to function rather flawlessly because you have claimed to despise it but have simultaneously—

-remained silent in the face of a racist remark at your Thanksgiving table for fear of ruffling family feathers;

-not challenged the higher ups at your place of employment on hiring/firing practices;

-looked the other way when your child comes home with uncomplicated stories about Thomas Jefferson’s greatness;

-shaken your head in sadness, even anger, in response to the killings of Black people and the exonerations of their killers, but not asked specific questions about white vigilante violence in your own community or how your neighbors in “x” town, USA are treated by police and then shown up to support those already at work in your local context challenging such violence;

—well, then you (and I, who has also done all of these things) better be clear charity is not what you are about.

My point here is not the invoke a litany that produces immobilizing guilt. It’s the clear-eyed recognition that to the extent some of us who are white are feeling galvanized in this moment, if we want to get it right we must also take responsibility for the reality that our prior apathy and relative quiet has been a significant reason just racial transformation in the country has been so slow.

In other words: that flag could have come down a long time ago if we had had the will.

So, in this moment of galvanization let’s start to get it right.

Repair is what is owed by white Americans to African Americans in this nation. Such repair can and must take many forms. From removing racist symbols to garnering actual resources to changing specific policies: every action in that direction is consequential.

But let our white responses be deeply and somberly informed by a desire to repent and repair for the harm and violence for which we share grave responsibility.

A number of organizations are raising funds for the churches that have burned across the South in the last several weeks. I urge you to reach out and take part in this particular action. Please click here, for several different links. (One of these is a link goes to a site where Muslims are raising funds to support these churches. Given the potential complexity of the racial constitution of this group, I don’t offer this as an example of a reparations posture. But, I do want to make visible the solidarity being demonstrated in a cross-religious manner here.)

As you do, if you are a white American and if you are part of a historical “white” institution (I’m especially thinking about mainline Protestant churches who I hang out with a lot) please take this financial action in a posture that resists and rejects the seductive feeling you are doing something good in an act of charity.

Instead, presume you are trying to start to respond to the moral imperative of reparations.

From this small start what more might become possible?

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