Friday, September 30, 2016

True Reparations Begin in the Heart

 My brother and I were discussing reparations for slavery the other day. He was saying he believed that maybe, yes, in theory the U.S. should pay reparations for slavery but went on to name all the difficulties. "Who is going to pay for it?" he asked. The taxpayers? Did any of today's taxpayers own slaves? Who is going to receive the money? He felt that only black Americans whose families can be traced back to ancestors who were enslaved should be paid. While I tried to splutter out a response, I had no answer for overcoming all these sticky issues.

I do think reparations are important and shouldn't be entirely dismissed. Ultimately though, they will do nothing toward really healing our nation's racial divide. I believe that true healing will start with white Americans deeply examining our past and feeling real regret. I don't mean flippantly tossing out, "hey, I'm sorry black people were enslaved, I really am, but that was over 150 years ago. We need to move on."

Yes, absolutely, we need to move on but we can't until we white Americans truly, deeply feel remorse for our country's past injustices, even though we weren't there and are not responsible for what happened.

Everyone wants to point out how far we've come and it's true on one level. In the 150 years since slavery, we have come a long, long way from literally treating human beings worse than we treated our farm animals. But the progress has happened slowly, slowly, inch by inch. Somehow, over this long span of time, the magnitude of the horror and degradation black Americans have dealt with in past decades has faded in the minds of white Americans to the point that many want to dismiss it as irrelevant to our lives today. I don't believe this reaction is necessarily out of meanness. I believe that many of us, myself included, have just lost touch with other people's reality.

Not too long ago, I listened to a super informative podcast that spoke about the misunderstanding held by white people who had grown up in the 70's, 80's and 90's. It said that those people had grown up with a few black kids in their neighborhood. They saw their black friends with the same quality of house and car as themselves and believed African Americans lived that way all over the country, completely unaware that there were pockets of extreme poverty.

I recognized myself with some shock. In the 1970's, as a kid in Muncie, Indiana, living with my family on a college campus in married student housing, every one of the many black adults I knew either attended college or worked as college staff. By the time I became an adult, I had come to believe that we all have truly equal opportunities. But the truth is, policies and practices put in place decades ago, such as redlining for just one example, have made it harder for many black Americans to gain equal footing.

I'm harping on Facebook comments again but I am reading things like, "Yeah, but what about black on black crime? What about the violent, hateful lyrics of hip hop? What about black people who abuse the welfare system?" (By the by, white people abuse the welfare system, too.) Of course, these are all issues that need to be addressed. But are we really going to repair society's problems with angry retorts of, "Yeah, but what about YOUR flaws?"

I'm not a sociologist but my guess would be no.

I believe we each have to start with ourselves. Don't wait for "the other side" to go first (in my mind, much of the other side has already gone first by continuing to be cordial to us.) We white Americans need to really come to grips with our nation's past.

I feel like we have this protective wall built around our hearts. I don't know why. It's like we think that if we really realize the magnitude of the damage our country has wreaked on the lives of African Americans through slavery and Jim Crow, and we say, "my god, what have we done?" it's tantamount to taking the blame, to being personally responsible for the atrocities that occurred. Of course, we today are not responsible for the actions of people who came before us. No, I did not sell or buy human beings. You did not scream threats at black children seeking an education at your neighborhood school. We do not need to sit around feeling guilty. Yet, I do believe we need to be responsible enough to face full on what happened in the past and cry, "my god, what have we done?

Somewhere in the Bible, maybe I'll look it up before I'm finished here, but somewhere in the Bible it says the sins of the father are visited upon the sons for generations. I always thought, "Well, that's not fair, God. Why would you punish kids for what their parents did???" But I think what it really means is the natural consequences of one generation's sin will have repercussions that will negatively affect future generations. If I choose to go around lying and stealing in front of my young children, that's certainly going to negatively affect them and, depending on their response, their children as well. As a friend said to me the other day, our nation is currently suffering from the repercussions of the sins of our predecessors. We can be the generation that takes responsibility and really makes progress.

I say really because, think about it, all those slow, inch-by-inch steps toward progress were tolerated begrudgingly by most white Americans. Black Americans, with the help of some white Americans, had to fight and fight and fight for each tiny step. What if they didn't have to fight for it any more? What if love and understanding flowed freely from our hearts?

But love and understanding aren't going to flow when the heart is encased in a wall built to keep out the discomfort of any sense of responsibility. For me, tearing down that wall and taking on responsibility means giving up my conviction that I can't be any more enlightened. I need to swallow my pride and stop thinking, "but not me. I don't benefit from white privilege." I need to take a moment, maybe repeatedly, to really let the shame and horror of what our ancestors did to Africans and to African Americans soak into my heart. I need to feel terrible about it. Maybe let myself cry about it. I need to be ashamed of not noticing that systemic racism is still affecting people all around me today. Although I do need to recognize that the media is manipulating us and playing us for fools, I also need to stop reducing a large group of individual human beings to statistics that I see plastered on Facebook memes as proof that the other side is wrong and dismissible, proof that I don't need to do an ounce of changing myself. I need to stop being so quick to judge and take either side over the other.

I know my life is far too full of Facebook but I have to mention another meme I've seen. This meme is very well-intentioned, featuring kids of different skin colors and text saying something like "love is natural; hate has to be taught." I do appreciate the sentiment but I think I disagree. I think hate and fear tend to be our go-to responses toward people who seem different from ourselves. I think love and understanding and empathy have to be carefully modeled, taught and encouraged. Here's our chance.

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Do be nice to everyone.