When you see the word “reparations,” what pops into your head?
Guilt, shame, obligation, opportunity, repair? As a white-identified person, I have absolutely benefited from the fallout of slavery, and I would suggest that we all have in one way or another — housing, education, climate, healthcare, criminal justice, voting rights — to name a few significant ways.
I am guessing many of you agree with me. I am likely preaching to the choir, which is great! I believe there’s nothing more powerful than a group of well-tuned and practiced singers, belting out their songs of freedom to anyone who will listen. I listened to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” while writing this commentary, and the lyrics reinforced my belief that our redemption and our freedom depend on our ability to create a culture of repair and reconciliation.
On Oct. 9, Vashon-Maury Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and Indivisible Vashon’s Immigrant/Refugee Rights Group will host “Reparations & You” — a Zoom presentation featuring speakers from Seattle’s Civil Reparations Project (CRP). These white women — young moms with careers in social justice — have such a passion for this subject that they donate their time to provide their perspectives on the critical necessity of paying it forward.
I hope you’ll join us, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. that day, as we take a deep dive into our role as white people, the benefits we’ve accrued, and the opportunity we have to make amends. This event is not intended as a blame game. It’s an invitation to embrace our commitment to restorative action by investing in Black-led organizations as well as by supporting the passage of federal legislation, HR 40. (Visit hrw.org/ReparationsNow to find out more and participate.)
A friend argued with me that figuring out the repayment process was too complicated, that he was sure his ancestors had not enslaved people, and that it was a problem for the government and nonprofits to resolve. I disagree.
Only 1% of foundation funding goes specifically to Black communities, and the government has contributed zero dollars thus far toward reparations for Black people. The only reparations paid following the Civil War were made to former slave owners for their ”property” loss.
I believe our nation’s healing depends on acknowledging our past and taking responsibility for the future. I believe compensation for the harms done through enslavement, and subsequently through our nation’s systemic wrongs, will make a substantive difference. While reparations investment is only a piece of the process, it’s a critical one required to make meaning of any apology.
Regardless of how you view reparations, the important thing is to show up and engage. Whether you believe we each have a personal responsibility to make payments based on our collective histories or you think the obligation falls entirely on the federal government, closing our ears to the conversation will only prolong the discomfort and frustration inherent in a debt unpaid.
I believe in a “both/and” approach to the above. We absolutely need to pass HR 40, which would establish a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. Additionally, as someone who began making reparative payments after participating in a CRP presentation, I can speak to the impact of taking personal responsibility.
I was surprised to discover how much more connected I felt to the Black-led organizations I began making regular investments in than I did to organizations I episodically supported. I came away with a clear sense of what I can do now, without waiting for others to do it for me. I now experience a deeper sense of commitment that has come with my monthly investments.
I appreciate my friend’s reaction as it propelled me toward further learning and activism.
Paying reparations gives us white Americans, and others who believe they have benefitted, the opportunity to demonstrate those beliefs in a tangible and meaningful way. We have the choice to create the world we want for all our children and grandchildren — a world where adults are brave and bold enough to learn and tell the truth and contribute to the repair that must occur if we are going to get free.
We welcome you to add your voice to the conversation and become part of the solution. If you already pay reparations, come share your stories and please consider welcoming others to this event as well.
“Reparations and You,” a free presentation, will take place from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9, on Zoom. Pre-registration is required at bit.ly/3JX8hQY.
Janie Starr is a racial and social justice activist organizing with Vashon-Maury Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and Indivisible Vashon’s Immigrant/Refugee Rights group.