Racism, Reconciliation, Reparations
The United States has seen major changes in the past week. Healthcare subsidies were upheld for residence of states not participating in the federal healthcare exchange. Same-sex/gendered partners can marry in all 50 of the United States. Social institutions and laws can change the social fabric and cultural rules by which we live. Legal decisions that grant access and afford human rights do impact society. But, they are never the full realization of equality or freedom. While I rejoice in these legal decisions and the practical, material realities of people’s lives that will be impacted, I am also outraged by the deaths of Cynthia Maire Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC and recent fires at Black southern churches that have been linked to arson.
In the 1960’s, Civil Rights Acts, the Economic Opportunity Act, and the Voters Rights Act passed into law. Legal challenges to interracial marriage bans were won. Civil Rights for African Americans was achieved, right? So, why are Black churches burning and Black men and women shot in bible study in 2015 (not to mention all the police brutality and deaths of African Americans finally being given national attention)? As history has taught us, changes in laws create new rules, ones many of us will follow. But they do not usually change hearts and minds.They often do not change economic situations. And they certainly do NOT right the accrued wrongs, immoral and illegal laws created in the first place. I’m not suggesting that legal action is therefore pointless. On the contrary, it is necessary, but it is not enough. Consider current proposals for changes in immigration law, any form of legal status for millions of mostly [email protected]/Hispanic and Asian descent peoples would be significant. Legal reform alone would not end the racism and violence that many immigrants face in their jobs, at school, and in their neighborhoods.
As a white feminist Christian, who struggles to be anti-racist, I experience daily what Jennifer Harvey calls the “moral crisis of whiteness.” In her recent publication Dear White Christians: For those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, she writes “‘Whiteness’ literally and directly emerged from violence as a socially real, meaningful, and recognizable category. It was constituted by and forged through systems and structures of violence and oppression. White racial identity itself meant [means] complicity and violence.” (52) In the United States, we continue to live in communities, states, and a nation that employs whiteness in systems and structures of violence and oppression buoyed by the everyday complicit actions of white people. I find that I am often “caught” wanting to change a system from which I benefit and thinking the system is too big for me to have an effect. I talk myself out of the very real facts that I know. Racism exists; it is perpetuated by little actions and big systems everyday. I choose to participate. I should choose not to participate.
One of the primary ways that well-intentioned, justice-seeking white Christians participate in racism is by attempting to advocate reconciliation. Harvey argues, reconciliation assumes that separation is the problem without admitting how African Americans, in particular, and communities of color in general, benefit from having their own spaces and places apart from white communities. For example, my almost completely white church could benefit from the diverse presence of racial/ethnic minorities. But an African American church does not benefit from the diversity I bring as a white person, because my whiteness represents and reinforces a legacy of harm and oppression. Our racialized identities and privileges are not materially or morally equal. Second, Harvey points out that the theology behind reconciliation is premised on a universalist ethic that requires everyone in the discussion/movement to be represented fairly and equally. This approach often leads to whites using their privilege to create space for African Americans while still controlling the purpose and parameters of the conversation. Reconciliation sought on universalist terms also ignores and downplays the fact that whites have a much greater responsibility for the “diversity problem.” Harvey provides the reader with many concrete examples of how reconciliation approaches have been unsuccessful, so I won’t belabor the point here. Given current events and Harvey’s concentration on African American communities in her book, I keep that focus aware that this choice continues a black/white binary construct of racism.
If not reconciliation, then what? Harvey suggests, reparations. When we shift to reparations, “the diagnosis is historical and material, and there is a prioritizing and centering of the need to rigorously and robustly redress the alienated conditions in which we relate to one another and to the history we share.” (129). Harvey uses the historic example of the Black Manifesto and white Protestant churches’ responses to exemplify the ways reparations were demanded and denied at the end of the Civil Rights movement. Harvey is clear to note the difference between a reparations and reconciliation paradigm. Reparations makes clear there is a disparate responsibility and something is owed from one community to another, something a reconciliation approach does not realize. Harvey suggests a few steps that may move us towards a reparations response: take history (all of it) seriously, bring whiteness into view (my own and other white people around me), ending racism “will require letting it cost us (white people) something.” (236)
One specific, if tongue and cheek idea for current reparations comes from Jay Smooth on illdoctrine.com responding to news of the campaign to put Harriet Tubman on the twenty dollar bill.[click link to view, embedding not enabled] In a less polished manner, I offer another idea and invite other white educators to join me. As much as legal systems have an impact on everyday living, I think education has a greater impact. I have spent the last week reading the Wabash Center’s anti-racism pedagogy blog to better equip myself to be an anti-racist educator and to teach anti-racist approaches in ministry contexts. What I have read there, reinforces what Harvey calls white Christians to as well. Here are a few initial commitments for this coming semester: Add in more history to ground current ethical conversations. Explicitly name whiteness as it operates not just for the authors of texts, but also for myself as instructor and within student interactions. This costs me writing time on other projects as I rework my classes and educate myself. I recognize that my “cost” is minimal and privileged. Nonetheless, it is an intentional move away from white moral agency that coerces me to fulfill the publishing tenure demands of a white institutional education system. I’m tired of the same outcome when it comes to racial reconciliation; and I know many Black and brown colleagues, students, and friends have waited far too long for me (and many others) to make these shifts.
As an ethicist, I believe everyday actions impact our souls and our social systems. For racism (or any injustice) to end, more than just laws need to change. The changes we make in our classrooms may both lead to legislative change and also bring such changes into fuller material realities.