Reparations

Discussion about reparations for the historical wrong of slavery now emerging on the national scene have stirred a number of reactions in affected populations, and also in me. Let me start by saying I think the final decision about what, when and how any reparations might be effectively made should be left to the affected parties – i.e. those Black Americans who are the descendants of slaves.

I have heard widely differing views expressed within that population, about whether money is the proper currency for reparations, what other methods of balancing out the inequities of our society might be more effective, and whether the process should be individual or institutional. Not being a Black American descendant of slaves, I accept that I do not have a right to make decisions on the topic. I do believe, as an American citizen, that I have a right to an opinion on the options, and perhaps also an obligation to voice my perspective and reflections on the topic in order to assist the discourse and analyses that are inevitably going to occupy the public domain for some time to come.

My first observation is one that can easily be misinterpreted. I do not feel any personal responsibility for repairing damage done several hundred years ago, given that my ancestors were not party to that damage, and in my own life I have not furthered the discrimination begun then. 

My mother was a first generation American citizen and my father was an immigrant from Germany. They were Jewish, and endured discrimination on that basis, as they built a life in the U.S. I felt the exclusion of being the Jewish child in public school subjected to a teacher’s inclusion of “in Jesus name” at the end of the morning prayer with which classes began. (Now you know I am no longer young.) I was denied a summer camp job that “always” went to the captain of my college archery team, which I was, when it emerged that I was Jewish. The camp did not accept Jews

I have lived out of the U.S. for extended portions of my youth, have had friendships, dated and married across racial and cultural lines, have worked with and on behalf of groups considered by some to be the rejects of society. I do not feel that I personally owe anyone anything for whatever they have been held back from by skin color, lack of finances, or other residuals of their ancestors’ enslavement. I do feel a responsibility to speak up against that part of the society within which I live, which owes a great deal to many for past wrongs, yet who are presently continuing their campaign of disrespect, violence and exclusion.

I am at least superficially aware of the givens of being Back in America, having learned them in an earlier interracial marriage at a time and place where I was alternately treated with cold politeness or abusive disdain for my choice of mate. I have now verbalized some of those lessons to my current African husband including the types of cautions to exercise in our community and especially if he is stopped for speeding on the highway, or otherwise has an encounter with the law. He grew up without direct experience of racial disparity and has had to learn how to be a Black man in this country. He has great skill at “fitting in” and setting people at ease with him, while maintaining his personal integrity and values, so I am confident he will adapt and also be safe. I am deeply saddened that my country requires that he make such adjustments.

Institutional reparations make good sense to me. Hearing how Georgetown University was built and financed by slavery, I applaud its recent decision to provide free tuition (room, board and books should be included in that grant) to black students accepted into its programs. Going a step further, I think it should invest in school enrichment programs in predominantly black high schools, to expand the pool of students who can qualify to enroll in their college course or who can attend other solid college programs. Many other institutions in this country, if they take an honest look, will find how much they benefited from slavery, and what might be an appropriate form of reparation to offer. 

One of those “successful despite the barriers” Black Americans interviewed in a recent survey of attitudes about reparations stressed that it is “too easy” to “throw money at a problem” and think it is being addressed. Much harder is the work of changing the attitudes within our society that accept and foster intolerance and exclusion, and deny our ugly history. The interviewee stated that nothing less than a major change in the prevailing ethos of our country would suffice to make reparations meaningful. I agree with that goal, but also realistically accept it is apt to be a long time coming, especially given the major regressive steps being encouraged by some of the present political leaders in Washington. I deny them as “our” or “my” leaders – they are NOT!

I find it curious that a discussion of reparations has arisen at the same time as society as a whole is now openly manifesting much of the ugly negativity, violence and exclusion that it has been claimed lie “in the past.” How can we manage to change the country’s entire ethos, if we cannot manage to pass laws to reduce gun violence, as desired by the vast majority of all sectors of our society? Our elected officials pay lip service to “the will of the people” but too many of them go no further than that meaningless mouthing of a platitude. 

I am not prepared to get into an analysis of all that has been undermined and shoved awry in our political system. That would need multiple essays and mostly just duplicate what is already being loudly – at times stridently – proclaimed by other writers. I do acknowledge my discomfort with the quandary presented by our society’s ever escalating disrespect for differences, and the challenge of how to continue to go high as some segments go lower and lower.

I find myself refusing to sign on to petitions I basically support, when they are worded as “DEMAND” that Congress do this or that. I may “request that my Senators give attention to” my views, I will ask that they support a particular bill, and I will thank them for doing so. I am not going to DEMAND in an angry tone that they do so (and I have to say I am profoundly grateful to live in a state where all 5 of my members of Congress listen, largely share my views, and are people I am proud to claim as “mine”.) I might feel differently if I were living in a place where my views are less well represented.

(Off the topic note: I definitely feel offended by software that questions my having written that previous sentence as “I might feel differently were I living in a place where… I KNOW my English grammar while the programmers clearly do not!)

It might seem I am straying from my topic, but I don’t think so. Effective reparations require a change in ethos – and the tone with which one conveys the importance of that change is itself part of the change. It is easy to feel one must meet force with force, and I have heard the public criticism of being “too nice” or too tolerant of offensive opinions out of respect for the basic value of freedom of speech.

Is inciting to violence an aspect of freedom of speech? I don’t think so. No more than arming with the machine guns of war is an aspect of the right to bear arms. 

The principles on which our society is presumed to be based were put in place “for the general good” and not for the good of individuals or corporations. Their distortion into “rights” that have made this country outstanding in its risk of public massacre, and more recently in its level of public hate speech, is a perversion that must be resisted because both perversions are for the benefit of singular groups, not for society as a whole. 

The most effective arguments I have read for reparations – and for valuing immigrants – are those that state we must change the interpretation of our laws to be more respectful of our history with both these issues. Respect is the value that is being trashed by the “divide and conquer” mentality overwhelming not just the U.S. public scene, but that of so many nations worldwide. The protesters in Hong Kong are standing up (and sitting down) for respect and the honoring of promises made. The Anglophone protests in Cameroon are rooted in the failure of that government to respect agreements made when sections of two different colonial empires were joined into one country, at independence.

So respect for differences instead of intolerance of them would seem to be the basis for healing past damages, bridging current divides and moving ahead into a more congenial future. 

Would that I thought that as a society we could at least begin to head in that direction.

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One Response to “Reparations”

  1. Ronald Maltais Says:

    Thanks to this author for her essay about the difficult topic of reparations. I have listened to discussion by numerous individuals, and I suspect this issue will take years to resolve. Respect, acceptance and understanding are all words I prefer over use of the word tolerance, which implies something negative. Words matter, and Georgetown University should be applauded for taking decisive steps to forge real change in a world which seems more polarized than ever.

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