There’s something eerie about hindsight. The ability to reflect on past experiences and opinions — whether they’re ours or someone else’s — through the lens of expanded perspective is often unsettling. And when it comes to race in America, it’s enough to make anyone queasy.
Our nation has a long history of oppression and separation. Protests over the past few weeks have shown that, from Los Angeles to New York, starting in Minneapolis and spreading here to Salt Lake City. Protesters are calling for more than redress for one officer’s egregious missteps. They scream that racism is much, much more deeply rooted in our nation than that.
At some point, protests will subside. No one knows when that will be. We’ve seen them become increasingly peaceful over the past several days, even while crowds grow each night and protests turn global. Utah is leading the way in proposing police reform legislation, but protesters seem to be awaiting something else. And, in all honesty, they — and we — deserve something much bigger.
I spoke this week with Dr. Rashawn Ray, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He and a colleague, Andre M. Perry, published a brief on Brookings’ website several months ago titled “Why we need reparations for Black Americans.” They make the case that reparations — “a system of redress for egregious injustices” — are owed to descendants of North American slaves. A few years ago, their ideas would have been laughed at. A few months ago, when the piece was published, it received modest reception. The events of recent weeks now have Americans on notice. Through today’s perspective, Ray and Perry are right.
“White people need to recognize that it’s not about you,” Ray told me on an early-morning phone call. “The United States of America did this, not you as a white person. No one’s saying you did this. But if our nation wants to fully recover, this is the way.”
Together, Ray and Perry argue that African Americans remain the only group formally discriminated against by the U.S. government without receiving some sort of atonement. Japanese Americans and Native Americans both did, and the U.S. helped Germany dish out reparations to Jews after the Holocaust.
But every plan to recompense slaves or their descendants fell miserably short — the promise to deliver 40 acres and a mule to each freed slave family in the Civil War’s aftermath was scrapped with Lincoln’s death. Instead, many slave owners were repaid for their “loss of property.” Since then, blacks have remained freed by law but oppressed by Jim Crow, separate-but-equal, racist housing policy, mass incarceration and now — most visibly — police brutality.
The effects seep further than simply social separation. Black college graduates, on average, have one-third less wealth than white high school dropouts. Ignoring education level makes the statistics even more dizzying: The most recent Federal Reserve numbers show that the average median family wealth for white Americans is $171,000. For black Americans, it’s $17,600.
Racism is more than just a social issue — it’s an institutional one. It’s infected American society to the point that owning homes, attending and graduating from college and having successful careers can largely be predicted by skin color. The solution isn’t just changing hearts, it’s changing systems.
In his groundbreaking analysis published by The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates teaches that reparations aren’t just the butt of a bad joke — they’re the legitimate step forward in addressing America’s ugliest vice. And when I questioned the economic feasibility of such a gargantuan undertaking, New York Times columnist David Brooks assures that conservatives, too, could support such a venture, because fixing America isn’t about politics, it’s about morality.
Reparations, by Coates’ definition, is comprehensive. “What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe,” he wrote. “What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” Ray told me much of the same — “it’s more than just a payout. It also includes an awakening and reconciliation that doesn’t just include black Americans. It includes white Americans.”
That awakening is the step on which America finds itself. The nationwide protests serve that purpose. But if that leads us to believe that racism is strictly interpersonal — that simply being kind and humane to each other will fix it — we’re missing the mark. Human dignity does not erase four centuries of oppression. Only comprehensive reform will do that.
Starting on a federal reparations plan that would level the playing field for descendants of slaves could take many forms. Ray and Perry suggest awarding them individual financial support, when needed, while attending college, purchasing a home or starting a business. Others, like David Brooks and Howard Rahtz, suggest strategic investments in black communities instead of individual payments.
“(Reparations) would, No. 1, be an acknowledgement that there’s been a problem for a long time, and we’re finally addressing it,” Rahtz, the author of “Race, Riots and the Police,” told me. And, in Rahtz’s view, we’re already in that “awakening” phase — the overwhelming support of white Americans for these protests is evidence.
The particulars of reparations aren’t what matters right now. What Americans need is to have the discussion — and to take it seriously.
I grew up in southwestern Virginia, a region steeped with history and tradition. The names of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were given as much reverence in history classes as Jefferson and Madison. My favorite summer activity was bathing in the Maury River, named for a Confederate general. We were taught the history, but to us, it was just that — history. It was never contextualized. It was separate, unaffecting the present. We didn’t see how these “heroes” perpetuated problems that scourge demographics and plague zip codes to this day.
Reparations would change that. The national awakening that Ray, Coates and others call for is more than a financial program to recompense descendants of slaves. It’s an essential step toward a national acceptance of our flaws and a plan to move forward. That’s why Americans are calling for change.
For the time being, protesters will keep marching and America will keep crying for equity. But before we can see long-term change, we need to recognize that the playing field isn’t level — and balancing it will take far more than simply being nice.