By Kevin C. Peterson
Lately there has been much positive talk on the national level from white people concerning reparations for black people. That’s good.
Talk about reparations — and its connection to the national sin of slavery — is ameliorative for the body politic. Such talk makes the possibility of a truly multiracial democracy more reachable.
The enslavement of humans in America has never been a favorite topic among white and black Americans alike. Among other things, our collective racial history in our country summons mass murder, human trafficking, forced miscegenation and stolen labor. More poignantly, at the bottom of the slave trade discussion, is inarguable evidence of the economic foundations of the nation — which is also the source of America’s political, economic and cultural hegemony.
Harvard Divinity School Professor Cornel West wrote a book some years ago titled Race Matters. Well, slavery matters too — in more ways than we like to admit.
This week, presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, called for a racial dialogue on reparations. The senator from Massachusetts was in no way tentative in her words, calling our silence around the insidiousness of slavey a long unaddressed conversation within the protracted American narrative. “This is a stain on America and we’re not going to fix that, we’re not going to change that, until we address it head on, directly,” Warren said, shaking her head. “And make no mistake, it’s not just the original founding. It’s just what happened generation after generation.”
Warren made her comments at Jackson State University, a historically black college in Mississippi, where her comments about racial dialogue were met with enthusiastic applause from black students. At the crux of her argument is our failure to compassionatley criticize what Thomas Jefferson once described America as the “empire of liberty.”
Garnering similar national attention was a column in the New York Times this month by conservative cultural writer David Brooks. Brooks seldom travels into the deep end of the pool on race, so his commentary was both blunt and arresting.
In a particularly moving passage, Brooks calls slavery a gargantuan moral failure tantamount to sin. He offers: “[S]in is anything that assaults the moral order. Slavery doesn’t merely cause pain and suffering to the slave. It is a corruption that infects the whole society. It is a collective debt that will have to be paid.
Brooks writes further: “The need now is to consolidate all the different narratives and make them reconciliation and possibility narratives, in which all feel known. That requires direct action, a concrete gesture of respect that makes possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life. Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.”
Sen. Warren and Brooks are prodding white people in elite and segregated American circles toward the importance of looking at the past as a means of addressing the future. As white people, their voices carry a certain kind of pragmatic salience — not necessarily because as white people they are more valuable than others — but because other whites might find their message more palatable as coming from another white.
Brooks and Warren serve as powerful tools because of their skin color. They are not the proverbial street corner black activists pealing for financial redress over slavery. They are not the Marxists, ultra-left wing professor waxing philosophical about arcane categories of race and class intersectionality. They are not the womanist, literary theorists academic at Princeton, Wellesley or Dartmouth spouting out tropes of sexual domination embedded in deconstructionist slave narratives.
No, Brooke and Warren represent the possibility of bringing the case for reparations into the mainstream, into the households and around the dinner table of average whites. Two decades ago, president Bill Clinton attempted the Herculean task of putting race at the epicenter of American discourse with his national conversations about race. But it failed miserably. Perhaps because the nation wasn’t ready.
Afterall, the nation had not yet experienced the law enforcement killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland and the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement. It had not witnessed the civic absurditity that while a black man held command in the White House, a white supremacist murdered and maimed scores of black parishioners in a house of God in Charleston, South Carolina. The nation, too, had not witnessed the slaughter of a white woman in Charlottesville, Virginia over the desire among activists to challenge the morality of revering iconic images of the Confederate South.
Now, all this needs to be put in proper context. It needs to be noted that while white voices may now be joining the national call for a conversation on race, African-American leaders have steadfastly championed the cause of reparations, particularly in the U.S. Congress. For three decades Congressman John Conyers filed legislation in the House of Representatives calling for reparations as a means toward racial reconciliation. The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has written brilliantly on the issue in dulcet prose. Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee filed reparations legislation this January.
This is important to mention because it speaks to certain forms of white supremacy and bias that may go unnoticed. African American leaders have never failed to see the moral center regarding reparations. They have not been focused on the money that might come from reparations — although that’s important. But black leadership has long recognized that tough, expansive talk on our national sin should not be avoided and that our desire for a fuller democracy is linked to our collective reckoning on the race question.