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We need to talk!  Having authentic conversations about reparations

 

Reparations have always been controversial, especially in mainstream national discourse. In the history of race relations in America, reparations for African Americans is a concept that evokes both resentment and challenge. Reparations as a form of justice that calls into accountability America and its original sin of racism is still for many in the church too “taboo” a subject.

But if we, as people of faith, are committed to the work of anti-racism, then the study of reparations and studying the history of slavery and legacy of racial disenfranchisement are essential to this work. No matter where you may stand on the issue, if we want to do due diligence to the work of anti-racism and promoting racial healing, then we as the church need to talk — especially about reparations.

It may (or may not be) comforting for you to know that Presbyterians are no strangers to this conversation. Several years ago, a few colleagues and I conducted a workshop on reparations in one of our Presbyterian gatherings. After the workshop, one of the participants approached me and was “absolutely shocked” (in a positive way) that we as Presbyterians “would even have conversations like this” about such a controversial subject such as racism and reparations. The person continued: “Wouldn’t it be great if we as a church made some kind of statement about it?” I answered, “We have.”

In response to a recommendation from the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC), the 213th General Assembly in 2001 created the Task Force to Study Issues of Reparations. The task force examined the issue of reparations to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color — this is an important new term that even I as a Black man had to learn) in addition to “others who have experienced unjust treatment.” In a three-year period, the task force intently studied the issue as well as sought input from a variety of Presbyterians. At the 216th General Assembly in 2004, the report of the Task Force to Study Reparations was adopted, “affirming that Jesus Christ calls us to repair wrongs done to one another and to work for personal and social reconciliation and renewal.” (Read the paper at: bit.ly/reparationstaskforce)

The task force report offers a prophetic theological analysis of reparations and harms done and lifted up biblical motifs such as creation and covenant as well as highlighted confessional statements that decry racism. The report insightfully named key theological motifs central to reparations such as remembrance, repair, restoration and renewal. In many ways, the report is a clarion call for the church to acknowledge its participation in – and how it has benefitted from – the sin of racism. It also implored the church to continue to do thick listening to communities directly affected by racism through oppression and marginalization. It was also a resonant call for the church at every level to create opportunities for further learning and critical discussion. In true Presbyterian fashion, this report is equipped with a study guide. The report justly illustrates the indissoluble connection between slavery and ongoing practices of systemic racism (institutional, historical and cultural) that create ongoing inequities for BIPOC in America.

Reparations, The Black Manifesto and the creation of The Presbyterian Committee on the Self Development of People

The PC(USA) Task Force on Reparations offered a compelling report that provides a sobering look at the history of racialized atrocities in American society. It is important to mention that this report is not the only time Presbyterians would interface and wrestle with the issue of reparations. One of the most significant and controversial encounters about the subject took place in 1969 when civil rights activist James Forman spoke to the then United Presbyterian Church (UPCUSA) at its 1969 General Assembly in San Antonio. This unsettling and uncomfortable presentation for the call to reparations came in the form of a document Forman read called “The Black Manifesto.” Prior to his Presbyterian visit in May 1969, in true protest fashion, Forman interrupted services at the famed Riverside Church in New York City to read “The Black Manifesto” and present its demands to white religious institutions that they would be responsible for paying the Black community $500 million dollars in reparations for America’s complicity in slavery, discrimination and ongoing economic inequities. The late legendary African American Presbyterian scholar, pastor, activist and leader, Gayraud Wilmore, like many African Americans in the denomination at this time, were concerned about racial justice issues secured a speaking opportunity for Forman to address Presbyterians at that year’s General Assembly.

“The Black Manifesto,” a prophetic document forged out of a turbulent time in late-1960s America, was prescient in laying out the manifold issues of concern about access to economic equity that can unfortunately still be echoed in America today. These echoes resonate in the demands for policy change and social justice evident in the contemporary movements for Black lives. The manifesto’s allusions to 1619 (The year that the first African slaves were brought to America) in addition to concerns about employment and labor, access to financial equity, education, access to media, anti-racism and defamation were raised as key issues to illustrate the intersectional relationship between white supremacy, racism and economic injustice. The document also controversially raised the question of the white religious community’s complicity in helping codify systemic racism.

Although Forman gained little success at procuring actual substantive reparation dollars from white churches and denominations, Wilmore and others who echoed many of Forman’s concerns central to the question of reparations were able to garner a response from the Presbyterian Church. This led to the creation of two initiatives designed to address issues of economic inequity, justice and lack of access to power. The first was the creation of the PEDCO fund (Presbyterian Economic Development Corporation), which helped leverage and strengthen minority businesses with low-interest loans. The second was the creation of The Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP), which since 1970 continues to do important anti-poverty work through building communities and seeking economic equity through community partnerships. (This writer is the proud coordinator of this ministry, which this year celebrates 50 years of doing God’s work of justice by listening, partnering and walking alongside communities as they engage in the work of anti-poverty.)

40 acres and a mule

When I was doing anti-racism training work some years ago, in reference to conversations about reparations, I was often asked, “How do you start the conversation?” A most obvious answer would be, “From the beginning, of course” — but I found that whatever way one starts, the history of race in this country will always play a crucial role in generating grist for the discussion.

With that said, there are more resources covering this topic than ever before, including television shows, books, newspapers, magazines and a veritable mix of social media platforms. Conversations about reparations are becoming more frequent and have even become part of a national political dialogue. Conversations and questions about whether and how reparations should, would and could be administered are gaining more attention in an amalgam of forums.

A good starting place for this conversation is the promise of “40 acres and a mule” — an early (though ultimately unsuccessful) attempt at reparations for newly freed slaves. Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates writes in detail about how radical this concept really was (you can find it here: bit.ly/gates40acres). In 1865, the year that marks the end of the Civil War, part of the “emancipation” of American Black people as slaves included the offer of 40 acres and a mule, which was intended to give Black people the means to support themselves. Field Order 15 (as it was then known) was reversed by then president Andrew Johnson after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the resources in question were returned to former slave owners. Instead of giving Blacks the means to support themselves, the federal government instead empowered former enslavers by failing to keep its promise.

Even with stories like this, a recent Reuters poll shows that most Americans oppose reparations (1 in 5 in favor). However, recent events in the news indicate that this conversation may be shifting. For example, on July 14, 2020, the city council of Asheville, North Carolina, unanimously voted to formally apologize and provide reparations to its Black residents. Accompanying the formal apology, the groundbreaking vote also entailed that city funds be allocated for investment in areas with significant racial disparities.

The winds of anti-racism work

It is important to note that the question of reparations is one that transcends the idea of a single check in the mail that would redress these injustices, but one that asks larger questions about the centuries of capital gained by institutions who have benefited from slave economy and continue to benefit systemic racism.

Conversations concerning reparations for African Americans have been ongoing and, as one scholar rightfully describes it, “thorny.” However, these thorny conversations about recompence and justice for past ills are becoming more fervent, especially in the wake of recent protests against police brutality that have surged across the nation. The killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey and George Floyd have again lifted to the forefront the call to question and confront a system where African Americans in the United States continue to face grievous injustices and inequities in historical discrimination practices connected to criminal justice, healthcare, education, employment, housing and the wealth gap.

The growing concern of “living while Black” – where white people have felt the need to call law enforcement on any Black person whether they be a child selling lemonade on the sidewalk, a college student resting in the school lounge, a Black tenant entering a building where they live, an admirer of birds in a park or a person sleeping in their car – is also illustrative of centuries of oppression and control through chattel slavery, legal segregation and persistent racial inequities, all of which culminate in the continuous devaluation of Black life and destruction of Black bodies.

If we are going to be real about studying and “facing” racism, we must be courageous in having many uncomfortable dialogues about reparations. In thinking about the difficulties of having these dialogues, I often think about the storm or winds when the disciples encounter Jesus on the waters (Matthew 14:22-33). Of course, this text has one of the most demonstrative imageries of crisis and fear. The disciples are in a boat during a storm, battered by waves and away from the safety of land. The boat is being strewn to and fro by violent winds. The disciples are frightened by the storm and they are even more frightened by Jesus. Of course, it’s Peter who gets out of the boat and walks on the water toward Jesus, but sinks when he notices the formidable power of the wind. He cries out, and it is Jesus, the savior, who reaches out his hand to save him.

What winds prevent us from having critical conversations about reparations? In the journey of anti-racism and racial healing, the winds of resistance will be at your back. Winds of doubt, winds of fear, winds of denial, guilt and confusion and misunderstanding will blow among us in this work. If the boat in some way is a symbol of the church in this story, expect the violent winds of racism, skepticism and uncertainty to jolt you to and fro — akin to the slave ships departing Africa en route to America. Like the disciples in that boat in Matthew’s Gospel, doing the work of anti-racism and reparations is going to distance you from your comfort zones. Like Peter, the fear of the winds may prevent you from taking the necessary steps needed to meet Jesus in this work. As Jesus stretched out his hand to grab Peter in his time of fear and uncertainty, be ready to grab the hand of history that is reaching out to greet you in learning more about reparations and its place in the study of anti-racism.

Alonzo T. Johnson is the coordinator for the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People Program (SDOP) in Louisville. He has 25 years of experience in urban, congregational based organizing, youth/education, creative arts, peacemaking, anti-poverty, anti-violence and social justice ministries.

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