In 1865, the year all slaves were officially freed in the United States, African Americans owned 0.5 percent of the country’s wealth. Time hasn’t changed much. In 1990, they owned 1 percent. When freedom has given so little to African Americans and the legacy of slavery continues to cripple communities 150 years later, it is time to talk about whether reparations are in order. Jennifer Harvey’s Dear White Christians (2014) offers a compelling critique of the idea of reconciliation and then makes a strong case that the only way to bring racial justice to America is for white Christians to take the lead in giving reparations to victims of slavery and white privilege.
One of the presuppositions that lies at the heart of reconciliation is that we all share a universal humanity; that each of us can celebrate our heritage together in a beautiful display of multiculturalism. In the words of John Perkins, a well-known civil rights activist, “reconciliation assumes equality; that all people are equal. For people who look different and live different lives to become friends, we first have to be reconciled. For me to be reconciled to you, I have to feel and see dignity in you, not just accept you because the Bible tells me to or because it is comfortable.” Activists who promote reconciliation argue that difference is not the problem. To use Harvey’s paraphrase of Eric Law’s Living the Gospel of Peace (2004), the problem is “the ways in which access to social power varies depending on one’s racial or cultural identity, exacerbating the already existing challenges differences can create.” The reconciliation approach is far from simplistic, but Harvey is convinced that it is wrong. As evidence, she brings forward two examples that she uses in her classrooms. First, she asks her white students to list ten things that make them proud to be white. Then she asks her African American students to list then things that make then proud to be black. Of course, the white students feel uncomfortable and can find almost nothing about “white culture” that they value. As a follow-up, she asks how the class would feel about signs that said “White is Beautiful” or “Black is Beautiful.” Whereas the first sign makes people uncomfortable, the second is a reassuring affirmation of the value of people of color. Her point is that all races are not equal. Black and white are not two different types of an equally valued humanity. “To recognize race is socially constructed,” she points out, “is to realize that being Black literally means that one is eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than one’s white counterpart.”
Harvey writes, “race is not a clear, pre-existing, and self-evident category based on our innate biology. Instead, categories of race, or racial identities, are the ongoing, living embodiments of history and of material and structural relations. Categories of race and racial identities are also embodiments of the political, social, and moral agency (capacity for choice) that people life in, through, and in response to those histories and material and structural relations.” Calling someone white is not a comment on the color of their skin, but a description of the power and agency they wield in American society. “Whiteness,” Harvey concludes, “is a difference we simply cannot and should not embrace and celebrate – at least not yet.” The problem is not that white people are all bad, or even that we continue to benefit from the crimes of our ancestors, but that we “have failed to collectively or in a sustained manner resist and refuse white supremacy over and over again. In the course of this failure we have allowed the meanings white supremacy gives to whiteness to define our own white racial identities.”
Harvey demonstrates that when they talk about reconciliation, white Christians consistently demand it on their own terms. They want to be friends with everyone but without giving up the numerous privileges that whiteness gives them. She demonstrates this through a historical study of the way white churches responded to James Forman’s “Black Manifesto” in 1969. Forman pointed out that African Americans had to organize “because racist white America has exploited our resources, our minds, our bodies, our labor. For centuries we have been forced to live as colonized people within the United States, victimized by the most vicious, racist system in the world. We have helped to build the most industrial country in the world. We are therefore demanding of the white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues which are part and parcel of the system of capitalism, that they begin to pay reparations to black people in this country. We are demanding $500,000,000 from the Christian white churches and Jewish synagogues. This total comes to $15 per nigger.” Whereas the majority of black church leaders endorsed Forman’s manifesto, white leaders were horrified at the idea. Even those who did respond by increasing charitable giving to black communities insisted that they were not paying reparations, but were giving charity. Whites have the privilege to decide how “their” money should be spent, and refuse to recognize that they only have that money as a result of black suffering.
The value of a reparations paradigm is that it forces whites to confront the history of their privileges and to give up social power. When you pay reparations, you no longer have any say over what happens to the money. You have renounced that privilege, and given your agency to someone else. Whites and blacks cannot be equal so long as one group has power and the other doesn’t. Paying reparations is a practical way for whites to reject white privilege and to get on with the task of loving their neighbors. To provide a roadmap for what reparations work might look like, Harvey examines the work of two projects, the Presbyterian Church (USA) Task Force to Study Reparations and a series of resolutions made by the Episcopal Church in favor of reparations together with a film produced by Episcopalian activists called Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North (2008). Neither approach is perfect, and promoters of both have had to struggle with strong resistance within their denominations. Both projects have focused strongly on educating whites about the economic benefits they have derived from slavery and arguing that repentance is the first step towards change. As one of the members of the Presbyterian Task Force told Harvey in an interview, this is “a process that has to go on. It comes to each generation to become conscious of what, who they are, where they are, where they came from, and what they can project.” And reparations is the beginning of that process.