Thursday, July 16, 2009

ruminations on reparations and racial justice

i read with interest professor allen guelzo's opinion piece in today's christian science monitor, entitled "should blacks get reparations?" while i concede the difficulty of making reparations, i question significant aspects of his argument, as i outlined in a letter to him, which i am appending below.

for those who are willing to read his article and reply, i'm curious: how do you view the question of reparations to african americans -- or japanese americans or native americans, for that matter? would you advocate a formal apology from the government(state or federal?), a check, or perhaps some other form of compensation or corrective for the injustices of that past whose effects are, at least arguably, still with us to some degree? or is it enough to simply acknowledge the past and try to make things as fair as possible today?

race matters. we can confront these issues head-on or try to ignore them, but they won't just go away. the recent high profile case of the new haven firemen and the nationally-reported incident at a swim club pool in huntington valley, pa demonstrate that. do we believe that God has anything to say about these things -- and if so, will our voice be heard in this generation?


dear dr. guelzo,

thank you for addressing the significant and too-often ignored subject of racial justice.

for the record, i have never been in favor of ‘reparations’ in the form of direct payments to african americans. however, i think your reasoning is peculiar in places and thought it worth addressing the questions you raised, at least briefly:

1. who was legally responsible for slavery? i’m not sure this is even the right question. are you trying to limit the responsibility for reparations only to those who held slaves or overtly sanctioned it? slavery was perpetrated by individuals, but legally sanctioned by many states and allowed to continue without interference by the federal government for generations. even individuals who did not own slaves or commit acts of violence against black people benefited socially and monetarily from the systemic injustice. there is enough responsibility to go around. also, are we limiting reparations only to slavery or are we willing to consider the ongoing systemic (and in many cases, legal) injustices that followed for at least 100 years?

2. who should be paid? you raise a couple of points here – one about the mixed racial heritage of african americans, the other about whether or not blacks whose ancestors were not slaves have any right to reparations. the first case, from which you draw the conclusion that paying reparations would be paying money to the descendants of slave owners, seems ridiculous. as you point out, the original mixing generally happened as a result of the rape of slave women. you apparently reason from this that the descendants of such ‘unions’ are to be identified with the oppressors – a dubious conclusion. do you also think that the children resulting from modern day rapes should be identified with their rapist fathers? i’m guessing not.

on the second point, i would reply that racial injustice did not end with the legal demise of slavery. many blacks who came to this country after that time still suffered violence, threats, jim crow, and disenfranchisement, and the effects of that legally-sanctioned oppression are arguably still with us today – financially, educationally, socially. things aren’t nearly as bad as they once were – we have a black president among other things – but even today, the playing field is hardly level. i will concede that what should be done to address that is a separate question; for instance, whether checks from the federal government to americans of african descent would be more harmful than helpful is at least debatable.

3. what about the civil war? in this section, you seem to say that since a lot of people died in the civil war, that should pay (or at least greatly reduce) the debt resulting for slavery. perhaps that is at least partially true, to the degree that those from free states fought and died to help free the slaves. but while every drop of blood drawn with the lash may have been paid for with blood drawn by the sword, that hardly amounts to reparations to the slaves and their descendants. how much of a ‘payment’ is it to get back the freedom that never should have been taken in the first place? what about the productivity and years that were stolen? the high casualty rate among southern white males is tragic, but hardly payment to those who were kidnapped, raped, beaten, threatened, and killed for so many generations. if i kidnap, rob, and abuse your family for decades, then lose a leg in a battle with the police who finally apprehend me, can we call it reparations?

your point near the end of the article is key: many americans are not big on seeing their present reality as growing out of their past. we tend to underestimate how much our current success is built on what came before, both good and ill. and we hate taking responsibility for addressing the actions of our ancestors. but if a baseball game is played for 7 innings with rules that clearly favor one team, and consequently, that team ends up 20 runs ahead, is it enough to notice the discrepancy during the 7th inning stretch, decide that the rules have been unfair, and determine to play the rest of the game treating everyone equally, without acknowledging the major advantage that’s been ‘given’ to one side?

you advocate that we seek racial justice directly in our generation. sounds good. what, precisely, do you have in mind?

thy kingdom come
thy will be done
on earth
as it is in heaven
(matthew 6:10)

1 comment:

Bevy said...

My family's white and we were horribly treated by people in a certain Alaskan town. Who should PAY for his/our treatment?
Everyone's been treated HORRIBLY at some point in their lives - this is what forgiveness is all about. Unfortunately, when someone is unhappy and offended - you can empty out your treasury and they still WON'T be satisfied ... there's a scripture that says that .. though you give them all you have ... still.
Some people will NEVER forgive a transgression and some people forgive readily b'c they KNOW it's best for themselves - not even taking into consideration the other party.
Welfare is a type of reparation ... albeit subsistence. :(
God bless!