An Associated Press article today says Presidential candidate Barack Obama opposes reparations. If you read the article closely you’ll find that what Obama opposes is one definition of reparations (writing checks to descendants of enslaved Africans). I agree with Obama.
I, along with several cousins who participated in the Traces of the Trade journey, have long advocated taking a broader view of reparations and it appears we are in agreement with Senator Obama. In response to a 2004 NAACP questionnaire he wrote: “I fear that reparations [the definition referenced above] would be an excuse for some to say, ‘We’ve paid our debt,’ and to avoid the much harder work.”
As I write in Inheriting the Trade, we will not heal from the legacy of slavery–and the subsequent discrimination and oppression of Jim Crow–in the United States without having a true understanding of our history, a full acknowledment of that history (the apology offered this week by the House of Representatives is an important symbolic step in the process), and a commitment to repair the damage that continues to impact all of us today–with disproportionate negative impact on people of color.
Obama recently stated, “I have said in the past–and I’ll repeat again–that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed.”
From the AP article: Pressed for his position on apologizing to blacks or offering reparations, Obama said he was more interested in taking action to help people struggling to get by. Because many of them are minorities, he said, that would help the same people who would stand to benefit from reparations. “If we have a program, for example, of universal health care, that will disproportionately affect people of color, because they’re disproportionately uninsured,” Obama said. “If we’ve got an agenda that says every child in America should be able to go to college, regardless of income, that will disproportionately affect people of color, because it’s oftentimes our children who can’t afford to go to college.”
There are “reparations” advocates who flatly disagree with Obama. I believe he’s right. No matter how much money would be paid out in “reparations” to individual descendants of the enslaved the result would not address the difficult issues of lingering systemic inequity in education, housing, employment, health care, the criminal justice system, and so on. It would not address the changes needed in the hearts and minds of people who remain polarized from each other.
The real work involved in repairing the damage of hundreds of years of slavery and racism is recognizing our shared humanity with people we’ve been raised to see–and often fear–as “the other.” Once we truly recognize our kinship with each other comes the hard work of establishing and enhancing committed relationships and working together to eliminate systemic inequity and injustice.
The traditional definition of “reparations” is polarizing and will not solve the real challenges we face. Obama’s view of repairing the damage is far more comprehensive and harder to accomplish. It is also the correct path to healing.