White Woman Embraces Black Reparations
by Marie Roberts
REPARATIONS FOR WHAT?
To make clear at the outset exactly what I believe we owe reparations to African Americans for, I see them as due not only for what we did under the enslavement, but for what has followed since.
For 250 years we robbed millions of enslaved Africans of the wealth their labor created. The wealth that was rightfully theirs, which they should have been able to pass down to their descendants, went instead into our pockets to be passed down generation after generation to our heirs, doubling and tripling in value all the way. That is the root cause of the huge economic disparity between blacks and whites that exists in our country today.
We also committed indescribable mental, physical, and spiritual brutality against these enslaved Africans in order to coerce them into submitting to our exploitation. We robbed them of their identity as a people as we stripped from them their mother tongues, their traditional religions and original cultures, and forced upon them instead European language, religion and culture. We destabilized their social structures, relations between men and women, the family, and did everything we could to break their spirit, set one against another, and demoralize them as human beings. The heart-wrenching, far-reaching results of this, too, are very much with us now.
Then, far from apologizing and making restitution for what we’d done during the enslavement–including robbing millions upon millions of African persons of their very lives–we followed it up with another crime: institutionalized racism which is still alive and current in our country even now, 136 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. This is because the mind-set slavery was based on–the belief that a person of African descent is less than a white person–has not changed centrally. Yes, laws have been passed that have forced people to refrain from some of the most flagrant racist practices that took place in the South under Jim Crow. For example, Black men no longer live in fear of being torn from their families in the middle of the night to be brutally lynched and their bodies mutilated. But, as every honest person will admit, there has been and still is a colossal amount of discrimination, both blatant and subtle, carried out violently or with a velvet glove, that permeates every aspect of American life–in education and housing, in the job market and finance, as to medical care, in relation to police profiling and the prison industrial complex, and much more–all causing tremendous suffering to African Americans, as well as making it just about impossible for most to achieve financial parity with whites.
What this all means is that there has been one long, unbroken line of economic exploitation and racial injustice (the two are inextricably related) that has lasted from 1607 when the first captive Africans were brought in chains to these shores, to the present. Therefore, I believe we owe trillions of dollars in reparations for the wrongs committed throughout that entire span of time, not just up to 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified, officially ending slavery. And reparations will have to be the real thing, not just a few token social programs put in place to make it appear as though we’re doing something serious when we’re really just dropping a few crumbs from our table.
Reparations will also have to take in much more than money: it will have to include as a central feature the restoration of all human rights to the descendants of enslaved persons. They must have their identity as a people restored and recognized throughout the world with all the human rights attached to it. This restoration of identity is crucial: any offer of reparations that does not include that is totally inadequate.
WE MUST BEGIN WITH AN APOLOGY
However this must be followed up with reparations–which means to repair the damage–for without that, an apology is nothing more than hollow words. As we each know from our own life’s experience, when we sincerely regret something we did, we are impelled not only to apologize, but to do everything in our power to make amends in every way possible for the harm we brought about. Any apology not accompanied by the willingness to make restitution is a fake.
THE OPPOSITION TO REPARATIONS
I am aware, nonetheless, that with all the well-documented horrors of the enslavement, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the question of whether reparations are owed or not, and, if so, how they should be paid and to whom. Some frequent arguments against reparations put forth by European Americans are that slavery took place too long ago for us to do anything about it now and, “Why should we, who never enslaved anyone, be held responsible for what some of our ancestors did?” or “My ancestors got here long after slavery ended–why should I have to pay?”
My response is that slavery has left its lingering effects. These ravages of slavery, both economic and spiritual, are very much alive and current in our nation now. African American persons are still seen and dealt with in a way that is very far from what they deserve. European American persons still receive a subtle white privilege in every area of life. All other ethnicities and immigrants, including even African immigrants, are more respected as human beings than the descendants of persons enslaved in America.
As to what one’s own ancestors did or did not do, the truth is that the early American economy, in the North as well as the South, was based on revenues generated by the institution of slavery. Not only slaveowners but practically every white citizen reaped the rewards of it in some way. Even those who seemed to have nothing at all to do with slavery benefitted from the taxes on cotton that poured into government coffers. And, as I said earlier, the wealth created by enslaved labor has come down through the generations in such a way that each of us European Americans continue to benefit from it even now.
As to the final question, every immigrant who has come here came because they hoped to participate in the wealth of America–usually without knowing that this wealth has its origins in enslaved labor. They should not expect to share in what really amounts to ill-gotten gains without also having to share in making amends for the unjust way it came to be in the first place.
Reparations is a well established principle in law and in international law which the US has supported over and over. Our government was instrumental in obtaining reparations for the victims of the Jewish holocaust. It currently backs reparations for the victims of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The US government has recognized the need to pay for violating the treaty rights of the indigenous peoples of this land, and they also awarded reparations to Japanese Americans for our country’s inhumane detention of them during World War II.
In the face of every argument any person can make against reparations, heart and soul I feel it was a crime of such monstrous proportions that a way must be found to make restitution–and, to use the old cliche, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Any injustice, personal or international, which has been committed against anyone must be seen for what it is and regretted. It cannot be lied about, smoothed over, or swept under the rug as though it’s no longer important–whether it happened three days ago, three years ago, or three centuries ago. If it was wrong, it is wrong, and it still must be looked at honestly and sincerely revoked! That’s the only way we will ever put an end to the brutal and insidious institutionalized racism–the aftermath of slavery–that continues to plague our country even now at the beginning of the 21st century.
You can contact Marie Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2001 Marie Roberts and The Multiracial Activist. All rights reserved.