Does America owe a moral debt to her African-American citizens? Thanks to a head-turning column in the New York Times by influential opinion columnist David Brooks, the reparations question may be back on the table. After years of conversations with ordinary Americans, Brooks now seconds the motion laid out five years ago by Ta-Nehisi Coates in an essay in the Atlantic. If the center-right Brooks finds Coates persuasive, you might too.
I write as a white male Baptist who has spent the past 20 years standing up for the victims of racial injustice in little southern towns like Tulia, Texas; Church Point, Louisiana; and Winona, Mississippi. Most of the people I have assisted over the years received a measure of justice, but it came after years of struggle. The evidence presented in court by the state in these cases was typically so flimsy that I was initially convinced that no reasonable jury could convict.
Then I would walk into a courtroom, check out the cold blue eyes of the white judge, the white prosecutor and the ladies and gentlemen of the all-white jury, and the sheer inevitability of a guilty verdict would hit me like a haymaker to the solar plexus. This groundhog-day psychodrama forced me to think long and hard about the tragic racial history of America.
There are five interlocking reasons why white America thinks reparations is a nutty idea.
- Reparations talk messes with our social boundaries.
Brooks writes that he has spent the last few years asking himself why America is so divided between old and young, rich and poor, urban and rural, male and female, immigrant and native-born, black and white. There is something unique, he says, about the black-white division: “The other divides are born out of separation and inequality, but the racial divide is born out of sin.”
Sin isn’t about a misunderstanding or miscommunication; sin is open rebellion against the ways of God. And until we repent our rebellion we are consigned to the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing our teeth.
Racism is a corporate sin, a communal affair. Typically, white folks live out their lives in the company of other white folks. Rarely, if ever, are we forced to listen to black men and women speak painful words rooted in personal experience. Our social barriers protect us from such talk. That’s why we work so hard to keep them in good repair. You can’t engage honestly with the debate over reparations unless you move outside your comfort zone and live like a stranger in a strange land. It’s a move we must make together.
- Reparations talk messes with family pride.
“Some are guilty,” Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “but all are responsible.” Ryon Price, my pastor at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, referenced Heschel’s statement as a fitting reminder at this year’s Ash Wednesday service. Most white Americans can recite a family story full of struggle and hard-fought success. For us, slavery and Jim Crow segregation belong to an ancient world that has no bearing on the present.
“You can’t engage honestly with the debate over reparations unless you move outside your comfort zone and live like a stranger in a strange land.”
I am justly proud of my family heritage. Quakers encouraged Jacob Bean to bring his family to Pennsylvania in 1649 precisely because Mennonites renounced slavery. But after a few years of indentured servitude (to remit the cost of the voyage from Germany), every member of the Bean family received two new suits of clothes and enough money to buy a farm. They were free to gradually acquire the wealth from which I have personally benefited in hundreds of ways, large and small.
The first Bean family to set foot in America wasn’t separated upon arrival and sold off to the highest bidder. They never felt the sting of the whip. True, an ancestor named Ana Bean was burned at the stake in Germany for challenging the state religion. I’m proud of Ana. And my Mennonite ancestors took a lot of flak from their neighbors for refusing to take up arms in the Revolutionary War (which is why the Beans ended up in Canada). I’m proud of that too. But the Bean family came to America of their own free will and left on the same terms. They were free to move, plant and prosper. Thank God Almighty, they were not slaves.
“In America,” Coates writes, “there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife.”
Once you know the savage details of real history, our white-folks-had-it-hard-too excuses crumble to dust. Self-esteem can’t be purchased with the counterfeit coin of self-deception.
- Reparations talk messes with our religion.
A woman once told me that the black folk should thank their lucky stars that the providence of God brought them to America as slaves. Only here would they encounter the glories of western civilization and a shot at eternal life. Of course she had been carefully taught to think this way.
“Once you know the savage details of real history, our white-folks-had-it-hard-too excuses crumble to dust.”
Thankfully, some Christians have a more enlightened perspective. For the past quarter century, R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, has been calling his denomination to confront its ancient sins. The Southern Baptist Convention was created so foreign missionaries could own slaves, and the founders of Southern Seminary were avid slave owners. Southern Baptists stood foursquare in defense of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Mohler calls this sin.
But there’s a problem. The most prominent buildings on the seminary’s campus bear the names of the school’s slave-owning founders. While he decries the racial sins of men like James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus and Basil Manly Jr., Mohler still feels they are worthy of high regard due to their “courageous affirmation of biblical orthodoxy, Baptist beliefs, and missionary zeal.”
A man with the Bible in one hand and a whip in the other will use the Bible to justify the whip. You can’t understand Moses when you think like Pharaoh. You can’t understand Jeremiah when you think like Nebuchadnezzar. You can’t understand Jesus when you think like Herod. Jesus Christ will not be taken seriously unless his followers repent in sackcloth and ashes. And repentance isn’t about saying you’re sorry; it’s about taking responsibility.
- Reparations talk messes with our patriotism.
“A child is to grow up a Christian,” Horace Bushnell wrote in 1847, “and never know himself as being otherwise.” American patriotism works in much the same way. We want our children bathed in the mythology of American greatness from their first toddling steps. Which is why Colin Kaepernick can create such a stir by taking a knee during the national anthem. It’s as if the preacher opened the Bible on Sunday morning and said, “You know folks, there’s a lot of morally questionable stuff in here.”
Patriotism blurs naturally into religion. It is easier to worship a nation we have seen than a God we have not seen. So we place the flag in the sanctuary and use “God” and “America” as virtual synonyms. Prophets like Kaepernick who question American greatness – and rightness – must be silenced.
We want our children to come of age hearing the same message in church, at their “Christian school” and on Fox News. For those who live in this kind of environment, reparations talk sounds like heresy.
- Reparations talk messes with our politics.
After two decades on the front lines of criminal justice reform I concluded that white racial resentment was the dominant force in American politics. I was still hoping I was wrong when Donald J. Trump was elected with the support of 62 percent of white men, 52 percent of white women and 79 percent of white evangelicals. Trump was the choice of 71 percent of white males and 61 percent of white females who had never been to college.
“A man with the Bible in one hand and a whip in the other will use the Bible to justify the whip.”
No one with a cursory awareness of American history could pull the lever for Donald J. Trump. Very few non-white voters, regardless of educational status, were attracted to Trump because they live cheek-to-jowl with the legacy of racial injustice. White racial resentment is a byproduct of historical ignorance. Plenty of politicians, past and present, have exploited ignorance and racism; Trump is the embodiment of these maladies. This helps explain why, no matter how badly he behaves or how deeply implicated in scandal he becomes, the faithful refuse to abandon him.
For the past few decades, Coates tells us, John Conyers (D-Michigan) has sponsored what he calls The Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act (H.R. 40). And every year this proposal is referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary where it quietly dies. Conyers and his co-sponsors aren’t calling for an up-or-down vote on reparations; they just want Congress to consider the undisputed facts of history and determine a fitting legislative response.
Knowing that H.R. 40 would be wildly unpopular in white America, the Democratic Party has never thrown its weight behind the proposal. So we remain in bondage to our own ignorance.
How can Christians and other people of goodwill talk about reparations without driving white folks crazy? It’s a daunting challenge, but it’s also pretty uncomplicated. White Americans need to move outside our social comfort zone. We need to ground our self-esteem in the truth. We need to drop our whips so we can read our Bibles. We need a patriotism that flows from repentance. And we need a politics that replaces historical ignorance with historical inquiry.
It seems to me that we white Americans who claim to follow Jesus ought to lead the way.