ESSAY #9 – 10.10.20, POSTED 2.26.21

Race, Repair-ations, Reconciliation - Resetting the Relationship

For many, many decades, our nation has been plagued by the social and political structure established by slavery. Many support “reparations” as a solution, but is that really what is needed? What would it take to reset the relationship between Blacks and Whites, through a conversation of true reconciliation?

A Series of Essays On Race, Repair-ations, and Reconciliation: Resetting the RelationshipRecently, after reading one of my essays, a friend of mine asked why I didn’t talk more about “reparations” (or “repair-ations,” as I call them—more about that in a later essay). He also asked what was meant by the term, and whether I could perhaps give some examples. My first thought was that the word had been used for about 25 years to suggest something, without actually saying what that something was. I also felt it wasn’t up to me to define someone else’s word. However, what is probably more true is that I was specifically avoiding the topic. Why? Because I am more interested in how we talk about things than I am about what we talk about.

Even so, in this series, though I am not going to stop talking about how we talk about things, I am also going to talk about what we talk about. This will be a group of essays specifically about the big picture of racial relationships in America. I will talk about reparations in the context of reconciling and resetting the relationship between Blacks and Whites.

“Why Blacks and Whites?” you might ask. “What about Latinos, Indigenous Peoples, Asians, and Italians?” My response? Over the years, there has been a lot of destructive behavior on the part of European immigrants toward every other ethnic group in America, as well as toward other European immigrants. None have been spared denigration at the hands of the descendants of wealthy (and subsequently poor) white Anglo Saxons. However, in no other group but Africans have the majority of immigrants to America arrived in chains, as the property of other men, and been consistently relegated to poverty and legal and cultural inequity. Nor has any ethnic group in America been as consistently prevented from achieving equal status by governments and by para-military agents of those governments (police) who had the responsibility to protect them.

By redressing the inequalities that have developed in education, opportunity, and cultural standing for Blacks, we can learn what we need to do to address all other institutional biases that afflict our society. I could spend a lot of time addressing the grievances of other ethnicities, but that takes us away from the main event. Also, the Italians have pizza and lasagna, so we don’t need to worry about them (just my reading of history).

An open and honest conversation

In the beginning, someone will ask, “What solution can we possibly hope for that will make everything all right for everyone involved? I just don’t see it!” Exactly. You just don’t see it because you can’t just see what isn’t there. There is nothing to see…yet. There are plenty of people who think they can see it, who already have an answer, and at some point, we may discover that those people are just as much of a hindrance as those who can’t see it. All they can really see is what they think, which makes it difficult for them to listen to others, and to see anything else. It’s just human nature. We might be better off not having any idea of what “it” looks like, but then we wouldn’t know what to talk about at all. If that’s the case, a lot of us—especially those who work in organizations that have a lot of meetings—will imagine attending one of those boring meetings, and will be overtaken with situational anxiety and depression.

(At this point, I hear my younger brother, also an Old White Guy, say, “You are talking nonsense, damnit! Get to the point.” And that plugs me into a memory of my sweet Catholic grandmother, re-virgined in her forties, asking me almost fifty years ago, when I was in my early twenties, “Do you ever say anything that makes any sense at all?” My brother still talks to me that way, but my grandmother died years ago, shortly after the Church cancelled purgatory, undermining all the just suffering that she had logged. But we’ll talk about that another time. For now, just imagine that I am making perfect sense.)

Anyway, I am not saying that we shouldn’t name some things that we want to accomplish, or express an ideal of a more perfect union for the future, or even establish some specific goals and measurements. We probably do need to do all of those things. What I am saying is that an open and honest national conversation on the relationship between black people and white people could provide more benefits than we might imagine. One benefit might be that the understanding we gain about how we see each other, think about each other, and subsequently treat each other, will give us insights on relations with other people of color or cultural differences. If that is true, resetting relationships with other ethnic groups might be simpler and quicker. Besides, even in evaluating historical eras, 400 years of belittling, underclass treatment of blacks, is enough.

A promise not yet fulfilled

We are a powerful nation, and for most of the last 75 years we have set the example in the world for economic success and how democracy can work. We are a multi-racial, multi-cultural country that is a magnet for people from all over the globe. But we have been doing all of this with one arm tied behind our collective back. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” said Abraham Lincoln, when accepting the Illinois state Republican nomination for senator in 1858. At that time, he understood that the future development of the country was being hampered by internal disagreement and strife that was more damaging than was apparent. It was creating a drag in the psyche of the nation, which was holding it back from becoming what it could be. He knew then, as we know now, that the words, “all men are created equal,” had not yet become manifest in this great land. The promise of the Declaration of Independence had yet, and has yet, to be fulfilled.

Please don’t get me wrong on this. I am not saying that at that point in time, Lincoln was imagining equality as many of us imagine it today—in education, opportunity, and under the justice system—for all people, regardless of racial or ethnic background. He was expressing severe doubts about maintaining an economic system based on human bondage as a viable option for our growing and developing country. It was becoming morally repugnant to too many people on both sides of the Atlantic, and the internal squabble was becoming ever more costly for the nation. Black people were in the middle of the great conflagration that followed, but neither were they the cause nor were they seen by most white Americans as equals at that time.

The point is that, even now, we are still divided in a way that limits our ability to meet both our economic and leadership potential in the near future. If statistics tell us that, on the day when our black brothers and sisters are seen and treated as equal to whites, our economy will explode and the benefits will be broadly distributed across the nation, why wouldn’t we want that day to come?

In addition to issues related to race, we are facing an existential crisis due to global warming, and a future that is unknown, possibly laden with repeating pandemics, hurricanes, and flooding. A united nation, working on all cylinders, is our best protection against the uncertainty we face on many fronts.

But most importantly, regardless of whatever national goals we pursue, the pursuit has to be an open, generative national conversation, which allows us to learn the things we need to learn to prosper in peace, and perhaps fulfill the promise of universal equality for all members of our society—”all” meaning all people, of all sexes, colors, races and national origins.

Beginning the inquiry

If you don’t believe a problem exists, use the internet and educate yourself on several statistics by googling these simple questions:

> What are the average financial assets of the average white person?

> What are the average financial assets of the average black person?

> What is the ratio of white to black people killed by the police over the last 20 years?

> What is the ratio of white to black people in the United States?

> What percentage of white people in the United States have been incarcerated at one time in their life?

> What percentage of black people in the United States have been incarcerated at one time in their life?

> What percentage of white people graduate from a four-year college?

> What percentage of black people graduate from a four-year college?

Now I have gone and created a means of measurement, and someone is going to think we now know what we need to fix and where to put our focus. No, no, and no! That idea has so many limitations and consequences that it will both skew the inquiry and the results. I’m only saying that those statistics are examples of how we can see that there is still a systemic inequity. But the conversation still needs to be had in a way that we all benefit from the engagement, where we learn something new about our social dynamics and how they work. I promise you that more will come from engagement in a broad, open conversation than from any social program, or from any answer. We will begin to know ourselves, and from this will emerge a greater nation than we have ever thought possible.

We will get an idea of what that conversation might look like in the series of essays that follows.

Just give it some thought.