In the aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre, a devastating wave of racial violence that decimated Black Wall Street in 1921, many Black Americans were not given the means to rebuild their businesses and restore the Greenwood district back to its former glory.
The events that occurred in Tulsa are only a piece of the puzzle that reveal the ways in which Black Americans have been kept from achieving the elusive “American Dream.”
The American Dream posits the idea that if you work hard enough, then success and wealth will surely follow. But what should be done when economic prosperity for Black Americans is denied due to racial terror and systemic oppression?
There is no clear answer evident, but reparations have been brought to the forefront of many conversations about how to achieve racial equity.
Compensation for Black Americans has very limited support. In October 2020, the Pew Research Center reported that only 20% of people surveyed who felt the nation had not made sufficient progress on racial equality viewed reparations as an effective measure against racial inequality.
The same report also revealed that 39% of Black adults believe that reparations are the answer to closing the racial wealth gap, but only 11% of white adults think the same.
A June 2020 Reuters/Ipsos poll found “clear divisions along partisan and racial lines, with only one in 10 white respondents supporting the idea and half of Black respondents endorsing it.”
Among many other things, Republicans and Democrats do not agree on reparations for Black Americans. Reuters/Ipsos writes that, “Republicans were heavily opposed, at nearly 80%, while about one in three Democrats supported it.”
Despite the lack of public support, the possibility for reparations cannot be dismissed out of hand. It is important to recognize the long-term economic effects of racial subjugation in America, a practice that started with slavery and the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples.
In their April 2020 report, Rashawn Ray and Andre Perry from the Brookings Institute wrote that “the average white family has roughly 10 times the amount of wealth as the average Black family.”
They also noted that “slavery, Jim Crow segregation, anti-Black practices like redlining and other discriminatory public policies in criminal justice and education have robbed Black Americans of the opportunities to build wealth (defined as assets minus debt) afforded to their white peers.”
What are reparations?
Reparations are financial compensation given to certain groups of people who have endured some sort of injury or prolonged abuse.
One of the most well-known examples of the U.S. government utilizing reparations was the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, a federal law signed by President Ronald Reagan that granted $20,000 to each of the 100,000 Japanese Americans placed in internment camps during World War II (totaling $1.5 billion spent in restitution).
This Juneteenth, descendants of enslaved Black Americans are still awaiting their compensation 156 years after the 13th Amendment was adopted.
The U.S government had an opportunity to respond immediately after the Civil War, but President Andrew Johnson reversed General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Field Order 15 shortly after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Field Order 15 promised Black families 40 acres of land (located anywhere between a stretch from Charleston, South Carolina, to St. John’s River in Florida) and a mule as compensation for slavery.
President Johnson’s reversal of Field Order 15 returned the land to white men, formerly slave owners, effectively undoing what little had been done to assist newly freed Black families.
Since then, there has been little to no effort to recompense Black Americans on the federal level.
Supporters of reparations argue that it would help close the racial wealth gap in America and would take into account the centuries of unpaid labor that bolstered the Southern economy at the expense of Black lives.
Opponents of the measure do not feel that reparations would be appropriate, given how much time has passed since the end of slavery and are concerned with the cost.
Tala Hadavi from CNBC reports that there are various avenues the U.S. could take in providing restitution for Black Americans. Some researchers estimate that individual payments would cost the U.S. up to $12 trillion while some advocate for “baby bonds,” a trust account for newborns.
Ray and Perry from the Brookings Institute propose student loan forgiveness and business grants for descendants of enslaved Black Americans as opportunities for closing the racial wealth gap.
While the U.S. is far from seeing federal action anytime soon, many local governments have already taken initiative.
For example, Asheville, North Carolina, voted to apologize for their role in slavery by investing more money into areas that disproportionately affect minority communities like health care, homeownership and education.
Whether or not the U.S. should employ reparations for slavery is still hotly debated, but there is no doubt that distribution of financial compensation has the potential to positively impact communities hit hardest by racial injustice and systemic oppression.
Good Faith Media reached out to faith leaders for their response to the conversations about reparations and the cry for racial equity in America. Here is what they shared:
“America will never be the America it claims to be – democratic, just and civilized – until it kneels at the mourner’s bench of corporate repentance and confesses, ‘We have carried out and benefited from the enslavement and vicious oppression of Black people for over 400 years,’” said Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins, executive director of New Baptist Covenant.
“America’s road to recovery from the addicting opiates of racism, greed and violence must be tread over a way that with tears that have been watered. Reckoning is made possible through a revolution in America’s consciousness, a consciousness made whole only as it soaked in the blood of the Black slaughtered. We must face the truth about us. Repair of our fractured and frustrated national psyche begins with a desire to be or to be made well. And that wellness requires reparations,” he said.
“There are lots of well-meaning people who counsel African Americans to keep our mouths shut about the monstrous past,” Wright-Riggins said. “But tell me, what reasons do we have for keeping silent about the atrocities still to come? The heart of the nation must be kept with all diligence. For out of our hearts spring the issues of our lives.”
“I think one of the reasons Americans push back against reparations is due to a nationalistic mindset that says a person’s value is earned through their hard work,” said Terrell Carter, president and executive director of Rise Community Development and pastor of Webster Groves Baptist Church in Saint Louis.
“This mindset says that if a person is not willing to work, they should not receive any of the benefits that are typically reserved for those who do. We equate reparations with ‘giving away’ money that has not been earned,” he said. “We see reparations as an attempt to give money to people who have not earned it. Unfortunately, this mindset ignores the fact that multiple generations of people were given advantages over others, not because they worked hard, but because they were the right ethnicity.”
“Also, I think we incorrectly view reparations as an attempt to make all white people apologize and pay for things they had no part in. In some ways, it seems that white people believe that to acknowledge incidents like the Tulsa massacre, or the East St. Louis riots which clearly echoed the events in Tulsa, is to admit to some personal guilt,” Carter said. “One of the things we miss out on in these types of conversations is that an acknowledgment of the disgraceful actions committed by prior generations, and the negative effects those actions may have had on generations of people, is not the same as being personally responsible for those shameful acts.”
“The cover story in the June 28, 2020, issue of The New York Times Magazine, titled ‘What Is Owed’ and written by Nikole Hannah Jones, began with the following words: ‘If true justice and equality are ever to be achieved in the United States, the country must take seriously what it owes Black Americans.’ I agree with Hannah-Jones that the U.S. must move beyond slogans and undertake deep conversation about reparations for Black Americans,” said Wendell Griffen, an Arkansas circuit judge and pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“We will never have a serious conversation about racial justice in this society until we talk about reparation for the moral, ethical, political and monetary debt this society owes descendants of African people who were enslaved, robbed, raped, cheated, terrorized, kept illiterate and dehumanized,” he said.
“Many white religious people refuse to enter conversations about reparations for racial injustice even though they preach, sing and talk about repentance. Also, many Black religious people refuse to insist that conversations about racial justice include reparations for systemic injustice,” Griffen said. “It is ironic that ‘rightness of whiteness’ idolatry disables religious people – Black and white – from talking honestly together about the debt owed because of systemic racial inequities.”
“The encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) shows that the Spirit of God leads us to talk about reparations even when others prefer to hide and avoid the subject,” he said. “Jesus insisted on meeting Zacchaeus and talking about reparations. When will we follow his example?”