One Step Toward a Racial Apology

Remember the need for reparations.

Posted Jun 03, 2020

As I write this, protests blaze across the U.S., expressions of anger and grief about police violence and other dangers to the lives of African Americans. Have we finally approached a tipping point, the moment when enough (white) people are shaken awake to the racism that’s endemic in our country? As I stumble toward greater awareness of the need for antiracist understanding and actions, I also see the pressing problems of health disparities, housing inequities, voter suppression, and discriminatory incarceration.

If potential white allies want to battle against these problems of systemic racism, they can find serious proposals for what to do. I am not an expert on “what white people should do” in this painful moment. What I do know: We should keep listening and learning. We should support our sisters and brothers of color. We should keep our eyes open for injustice and our hands ready to combat it whenever we can.

I’ve written a book about apologies, in which I describe the actions that are necessary to repair a relationship. These steps apply to harmful governmental actions as well as hurt between intimate partners. Any good apology requires making restitution or reparations — that is, making up for harm. As a small contribution to the potential healing changes we need as a country, I want to keep a spotlight on the essential, longstanding issue of reparations for slavery – because so many harms grew from there. In order to address the question of why people today owe reparations for something that began before any of us were born, the book section below is entitled ...

Historical Inequities: Not your fault, but still your responsibility.

When your individual actions don’t seem connected to large-scale negative outcomes, a crucial distinction arises between accepting blame for harm and taking responsibility to address harm or its downstream effects. As conservative columnist David Brooks wrote recently, “Sometimes the costs of repairing sin have to be borne generations after the sin was first committed.”

“The costs of repairing” is exactly what restitution or reparation means. These costs can refer to compensation for victims, restoration to previous financial status, or making amends for injustice. In the United States, the issue of reparations for our two “original sins,” the near annihilation of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, remains controversial. Some hold a view I’ve seen on Facebook: “I refuse to apologize for something that happened hundreds of years ago.” I can see their point, but only if I accept the premise that an apology means accepting blame. Of course, I didn’t personally seize Native Americans’ land or kidnap people from Western Africa. I didn’t redline neighborhoods or participate in cruel Jim Crow practices. I didn’t force-march migrations of people far from their ancestral homes, send them to schools that robbed them of their culture and language, nor cheer on those who did. I abhor the effects of mass incarceration. So, you might ask, why should I apologize?

Here’s the thing: My white father went to college and got his first home as a result of his service in World War II. Because of their skin color, many other members of the armed forces were denied those opportunities. The wealth of white Americans (on average) has compounded over time, in addition to myriad other benefits I accrued, simply because I look a certain way. My family was poor, but my opportunities and those of my children may have been completely different, had I been a poor Black or Brown person.

From where I sit, personal benefit from injustice is as compelling a reason to take responsibility as is personal blame. I didn’t create the powerful system that ranked – and still ranks – some people as more valuable than others, but one way to begin to rectify the past is by taking my share of responsibility for changing the present and, we can hope, the future. Overall, it seems to me that the biggest overdue apology of our time is the one owed to Americans of color by white Americans.

When people discuss changing this legacy of inequity, the question naturally arises: How can reparations be made at this large a scale? In a high-profile 2014 essay in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that two centuries of slavery and almost another two centuries of discriminatory laws and economic policies call for direct U.S action to make things right. Further, he made a compelling case that financial restitution for the descendants of enslaved African Americans is possible.

In 2019, Congress addressed a plan to study such reparations, 30 years after a similar proposal was introduced. We can hope that the idea may again be gathering support – or we can help it happen. Five years after he questioned the validity of Coates’s assertions, Brooks changed his conclusion: “[R]eparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.”

Patricia Cohen, New York Times economics correspondent, addressed the questions of whom should be paid such restitution, how much they should receive, and what the economic impact of such payments would be. She began with General Sherman’s promise of “40 acres and a mule” for Black Americans released from bondage. Because that land was soon seized from the freedmen, she and other scholars have tried to assess the present-day value of those forty acres as a basis for restitution. If you find this model—or any other—reasonable, you may add your voice to the conversation about how the United States can best make reparations.

Aside from national policy, what can individuals do to make reparations for something as big as slavery? Michael Eric Dyson, professor and Baptist minister, wrote a book called Tears We Cannot Stop. Among many specific ways to help right our country’s racial wrongs, he recommended starting an individual reparations account, contributed to on a regular basis, that is used, for example, to provide support for a college student’s textbooks or fairer compensation for workers of color you hire. You could also support Black-led organizations addressing root causes of racial injustice. As I understand it, the idea is that you don’t have to wait for large, institutional change before you participate in reparations efforts.

In her movie Traces of the Trade, filmmaker Katrina Browne reports on her white, northern Family’s involvement in the slave trade. At one point, she states that learning about injustice makes a person want to make things right, but it isn’t guilt that drives that urge; it’s grief. Reparative actions appeal to our natural sense of justice and fairness. A good apology also helps you restore balance within yourself and, in this case, between communities.

For a white person trying to level the historically unfair field caused by disparate privilege, supporting reparations is just one of the antiracist steps you can take.