Bearing Witness to the Truth
Let me tell you a story. The community in which your grandparents lived had it out for your family. For no justifiable reason, the county government along with your grandparents’ own neighbors treated them as interlopers, outsiders, and unequals, and not only made their lives miserable, but ultimately drove them from both their jobs and their home—which the county seized without eminent domain proceedings or compensation. To add insult to this injury, community members literally added insult, spreading false and stigmatizing stories about your grandparents to demean and discredit them in surrounding communities. Your family never recovered. Your grandparents could never get back on their feet financially, and when they died too young, downtrodden and devasted, they had little to leave your father but a legacy of financial and spiritual insecurity and loss.
Should the county government and citizens who targeted your family have to pay for their misdeeds, and pay back the net worth they effectively stole from your family?
I suspect that, at the very least, this scenario engages you viscerally with the question, and prompts thoughts that recompense might very well be appropriate.
If I were, instead, to say the word “reparations” in a discussion of American slavery, the visceral response of a majority of white Americans would be to stop listening.
Reparations has long been a lip-tightening conversation stopper, not a thought-provoking concept. Not even President Obama supported a reparations program. Nor did Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, who called such an idea “divisive.” Driven underground by characterizations of it as a “hand-out” and narratives about slavery being ancient history, reparations for a long time largely vanished from the national scene.
This despite the undeniable reality that Black Americans were forced to build a country they have been systematically excluded from participating in. African Americans have a 400-year history here: 245 of those years were in slavery; over 100 were spent suffering under legalized discrimination, and a tiny fraction of them involved anything marginally less onerous. The result, today, is that white households are worth 20 times African American households, and while only 15% of whites have negative wealth, more than a third of African Americans do. Black American wealth is one tenth of white wealth. Compared to whites, African Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed and earn 25% less when they are employed. The goal of reparations is to redress not only slavery and Jim Crow, but also the enduringly pernicious effects of our nation’s failure to rectify generations of accrued racism and oppression.
If you even considered that your grandparents in the story above were due some recompense, you ought to be thinking seriously about the moral necessity of slavery reparations.
This past Juneteenth—the day of the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery—Congress started talking seriously about it, in the form of a House Judiciary Committee hearing on H.R. 40: The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.
H.R. 40 is only a bill to sanction the study of reparations proposals, not the actual distribution of reparations. It was first brought before Congress thirty years ago by Former U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-MI) and reintroduced by him every congressional term until his retirement in 2017 (Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee reintroduced the bill this January).
But it has become part of the political conversation this election cycle. Candidates have expressed some support for reparations: Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro call the issue important. Other candidates say they support studying it. Senator Cory Booker testified at the H.R. 40 hearing, along with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Danny Glover, and introduced a companion bill to H.R. 40 calling for the federal government to study reparations.
This current iteration of the reparations conversation, instigated initially during the Civil War, was jump-started in 2014 by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “The Case for Reparations,” which posited that reparations would drive a “national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”
Indeed, the larger point of the conversation, and of this column, is not reparations—as important and, I would argue, morally and practically appropriate as are reparations. Instead, it is a larger discussion about American Racism.
According to Antonio Moore and Yvette Carnell, the co-founders of and the most prominent voices in the modern American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) movement, the call for reparations is part of a larger “Black Agenda” that looks across the board at issues like ending mass incarceration, investing in historically black colleges and universities, and increasing federal investment in small businesses.
Reparations are only an aspect of a much deeper American reckoning, furthered by academics like my alma mater Duke University’s Professor William Darity, examining the inextricable relationship between slavery, racism, and wealth, and the burgeoning body of research confirming vast disparities between Black and white Americans in wealth, health, education, home ownership, disenfranchisement and much more. (For a thorough, thoughtful, and deeply analytical understanding of the compelling case for reparations, look to Professor Darity’s forthcoming book, From Here to Equality: Black Reparations in the Twenty-First Century, due next February.)
A further component of this conversation is white America’s failure, or refusal, to see either the reality or the severity of the problem. Maybe even more of a barrier to its resolution than overt white racism is the blindness of progressives to their own complicity.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from his cell in the Birmingham jail in 1963: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
The reflexive response of many to any intimation of bias is “I’m the least racist person around,” or “there’s not a racist bone in my body”—both statements recently made by two of our most prominent politicians, one of each party. That defensive denial, while perhaps emotionally understandable, is unfortunate, misguided, and myopic. And if it frustrates me, imagine how it sounds to Black folks.
As Professor Ibram X. Kendi says: “[T]he American creed of denial—“I’m not racist”—knows no political parties, no ideologies…. The denial of racism is the heartbeat of racism…. Only racists say they are not racist.”
We in the ABA are not exempt from the effects of this “creed of denial.” It exists even in our marvelous Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice—a Section peopled by wonderful humans who are all well intentioned. (As Professor Kendi also says “a racist is not who a person is. A racist is what a person is.”) Some fail to recognize the racism bred into their being. Some are defensive and indignant if it is pointed out to them. I understand. I don’t want to face my own racism either. But we all need to try.
A couple of recent, more public and prominent examples serve to illustrate the dynamic.
During the House Oversight Committee testimony of Michael Cohen, after North Carolina Republican Representative Mark Meadows trotted out a black political appointee of President Trump to prove Mr. Trump is not racist, Michigan Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib fairly called it racist to “actually use a prop, a black woman in this chamber….” And, suddenly, it was Mr. Meadows who was the supposedly aggrieved party. He indignantly demanded that Ms. Tlaib’s remarks be stricken from the record, and Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings even asked her to explain. She had to apologize for her comments. Mr. Meadows never apologized for his patently racist posturing (and note, during the 2012 campaign he said he intended to send President Barack Obama “home to Kenya, or wherever it is”).
“Whose emotions do we put first?” asked Representative Ocasio-Cortez, who is on the oversight panel and witnessed the encounter. “We had to apologize for him getting hurt feelings over her…calling out a racist practice,” but Ms. Tlaib was also “hurt, and no apology was furnished to her.”
Another more recent example brings us back to the current campaign, and Senator Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Responding in the recent debate to Biden’s comments about working across the aisle with avowed segregationists, Ms. Harris said: “It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed to school every day and that little girl was me.”
Some have argued it was unfair of Senator Harris to inject her experiences, make race part of the conversation, and put Biden “on trial” for past positions, making ordinary Americans feel guilty about their views on race. Vice President Biden himself reacted defensively, both in the moment and in response to earlier critiques, saying, predictably: “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”
As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie observed, all of this misses Senator Harris’ point.
“When people from historically excluded groups take the national stage, they can bring new insights, observations and experiences to otherwise cloistered spaces. By simply speaking to the conditions in which their lives are lived, they can challenge consensus and unsettle conventional wisdom on issues and policies that affect their communities…. Whatever her faults as a public figure, it was good that Harris was onstage to confront Biden with what his choices meant for real people. It wasn’t the politics of “racial strife,” it was the politics of accountability. If any of it is new to the former vice president, it’s because the Senate of his era had very few people who looked like Booker and Harris—few people with any connection to the black side of America’s racial segregation.”
Bouie goes on to quote among our most sagacious commentators on race, the remarkable James Baldwin: “[I]t is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
Two New York Times Op-Ed pieces this week echo the point.
One, by palliative medicine and critical care doctor, Jessica Nutik Zitter, is entitled, “The Lifelong Mistreatment of Black Patients,” and concludes: “Doctors must do a far better job of caring for African-American Patients from birth all the way to death. There is so much we have to do, but a good first step would be to stay in the room and face our discomfort, instead of running away from it.”
All of us—from doctors to Mr. Biden to me and you—need to “stay in the room and face our discomfort” about our own entrenched racial biases.
The second Op-Ed article, by contributing opinion writer, Moises Velasquez-Manoff, discusses the psychologist view that “essentialist” thinking—ideas about the unchangeable essence of human beings—makes racism possible, and an intriguing testing ground of that view in a study in the Petri dish of Hawaii’s uniquely multi-cultural milieu. A Hawaiian mixed-race psychology professor did a study while a grad student at Tufts that showed “between ages 4 and 11, upper-middle-class children from mostly white neighborhoods around Boston increasingly viewed race as a permanent condition and expressed stereotypes about other racial groups: … blacks were aggressive or…good at basketball; … Asians were submissive and good at math. These children came from public schools in liberal areas. They probably weren’t deliberately taught these stereotypes at home. But they absorbed them from the American ether nonetheless.”
She repeated the study with grade-school kids in Hawaii and found they tended not to express the same essentialist ideas about race. They weren’t race-blind—they recognized skin color but did not attribute to race the inherent qualities—aggression or book smarts—that the mainland kids do.
Her hypothesis to explain the difference? “Whites dominated in the Boston area schools, but were a minority in Hawaii…. Hawaii also had the highest percentage of mixed-race people by a long shot in the country…. Mixed-race people [about ¼ of Hawaii’s population] serve as a kind of jamming mechanism for people’s race radar….Because if you can’t tell what people are by looking at them…then race becomes a less useful way to think about people.”
The article argues against the presumption that racism is human nature—an animalistic division into “us” and “them,” citing the economic interests of the African slave trade as driving justifications based on the supposed bestial inferiority of those enslaved. This view is supported by thoughtful studies like historian Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told.” As Ibram X. Kendi observed in Stamped From the Beginning, societal racism often arises to further political or economic goals, and these ideas then lead to hate.
The converse is also true: we have to learn the reality of our own racism and work, continually, to be anti-racist. Mr. Kendi says:
No one becomes “not racist,” despite a tendency by Americans to identify themselves that way. We can only strive to be “antiracist” on a daily basis, to continually rededicate ourselves to the lifelong task of overcoming our country’s racist heritage. We learn early the racist notion that white people have more because they are more; that people of color have less because they are less. To build a nation of equal opportunity for everyone, we need to dismantle this spurious legacy of our common upbringing. One… way to do this is by reading books…that force us to confront our self-serving beliefs and make us aware that ‘I’m not racist’ is a slogan of denial.”
Reading adventuresomely is one way. (We have posted along with this column an example reading list.) Another, better way is through challenging and changing cultural experience, like that of the mixed-race Hawaiian kids.
To bring this message back, through Kamala Harris, full circle to where we started, let me tell you another story. A true story (to paraphrase Senator Harris):
There was a little boy in California who was part of the first class to integrate his public schools, and he was bused to school every day and that little boy was me.
I was born in Oakland, California and—like Kamala, but before her—grew up in Berkeley. In 1968, Berkeley became the first city in the nation to voluntarily integrate its schools. The school population was 50% white and 42% Black. The city was almost 25% Black. But even in Berkeley, busing did not happen without a fight or white flight. Parents panicked. Kids resisted. A group of Berkeley residents wrote in an open letter to the superintendent: “To force total mixing in schools is neither constructive nor effective; individual families should have an option as to where their children go to school….” Some of my white classmates are still resentful. But it happened. I was bused to a predominantly Black school, where I was suddenly in the minority numerically. And it was among the best things that ever happened to me.
Another of the best things that ever happened to me was being punched in the stomach by a stranger with brass knuckles, on the first day of school the year after integration, at the newly named Martin Luther King Junior High School. I never saw the punch or the kid who landed it. I was walking to school and the next thing I knew I was doubled over. Why was that punch such a good thing? Because it helped put me immediately in touch with the anger and frustration—and the emerging ability to show both—of my Black classmates.
I was lucky. I was blessed with a foundation to receive that anger with empathy, instead of resentment. I was raised in Berkeley’s open-minded, socially progressive, politically aware, culturally and racially diverse environment. My mother was an attending member of the American Friend’s Service Committee, which in Berkeley in the 1960’s was essentially a battalion of peaceful warriors for social justice. My oldest brother (by 15 years) was part of the Free Speech Movement at Cal. My next oldest (by 14 years) brother was a Freedom Rider when just out of his teens.
Even as busing taught me to empathetically understand being in a numerical minority, my upbringing had prepared me to understand how profoundly privileged I was to be in a societal majority.
So, in that fateful, fulcrum year of 1968, before busing even began, I welcomed it. Before I ever went to King Jr. High School, I walked home from my neighborhood school sobbing on April 4, 1968, when Dr. King was murdered (and cried again, on the way to school, the morning of June 7, after Bobby Kennedy was killed).
I was lucky, because like those Hawaiian kids I had been given a cultural orientation that allowed me to see and understand race, empathize with people of other shades, learn to recognize racism’s pervasive presence—even in myself, and continually rededicate myself “to the lifelong task of overcoming our country’s racist heritage.” By contrast, in my first year of college when the professor in a 200-student history class asked those who had never met a Black person to raise their hand, well over half the class did. Even many of my white Berkeley classmates felt resentful or persecuted by the Black anger they experienced when bused.
None of my good fortune is a credit to me. None of it means I am not racist. It means I was conferred the benefit of cultural and emotional tools to recognize racism in me and society and constantly strive to overcome it. It means when the word “reparations” is spoken, I hear it, and the concept has resounding moral resonance to me. When I teach law school classes, one of my lessons that always initially confounds students is when I tell them that it does not matter what you say to jurors. It matters, I tell them, what jurors hear you say.
We all have to learn not to be blind to race, not to claim we are “not racist,” but instead to see race, recognize racism, hear angry people of color, and constantly rededicate ourselves to the lifelong task of overcoming our own and our country’s racist heritage.
Congressman John Lewis—to whom we will give the Thurgood Marshall Award on August 10 in San Francisco—said in admiring response to the comments by Representatives Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez about Congressman Meadows’ behavior at the Michael Cohen hearing: “You have to bear witness, bear witness to the truth,” as he applauded the young women of color for getting into what he likes to call “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
It is not a coincidence that Black and Native American children have by far the lowest rates of upward mobility in this country (white and Asian children have the highest). Their American history is utterly, uniquely, heinously different; their America is still a different America, separate and unequal.
Before we can bear witness to those larger societal truths—like how compelling the case for reparations truly is—we have to be prepared to bear witness to our own truths. Let us all commit to having the courage of self-reflection, to facing uncomfortable feelings and finding our way through them to unabashed support for redemptive and restorative resolutions—like aggressive affirmative action and slavery reparations—for healing the open wound of racial injustice in America.