This coming Sunday I am preaching at the First Parish in Lexington. The fact that I am preaching in that particular historic pulpit has prompted me to reflect on Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” My sermon, “The River May Not Be Turned Aside,” responds to Douglass and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent piece in the Atlantic Monthly calling for reparations. In doing so, I take up the call for reparations and challenge Unitarian Universalists, and European Americans, to commit to them. In preparing for preaching I dug up a sermon I preached in 2006 “The Case for Reparations.” Reading, I can really see how far I have come as preacher. My sermon on Sunday will have quite a different structure and sensibility. The message, however, will be more-or-less the same.
The Case for Reparations
preached at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long, January 15, 2006
I was born eight years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Despite this he has been a powerful presence in my life. My parents are both veterans of the sixties civil rights movement and I grew up hearing stories about King, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks and numerous others. Dr. King and his philosophy of non-violence were held as an example of the best that the human race could achieve by not only my mother and father but by my schoolteachers and church community.
I have an early memory of hearing Rosa Parks speak at my church. I was probably about ten or twelve and the details are a bit fuzzy. What I remember of her speech is this: She was very small. She emphasized her ordinariness. And everyone in the church thought she was very important.
Rosa Parks died last year. Her passing received the sort of national attention normally reserved for presidents. Her casket was placed in the capital rotunda, a first for a woman, and the nation’s flags were ordered at half-mast. Her death was an opportunity for many, especially those in the establishment, to celebrate how far the country has come since the days when Parks and King fought Jim Crow and led the Montgomery bus boycott.
Today is King’s birthday and tomorrow people will celebrate a federal holiday in his honor. Right now churches around the country are remembering King and Parks. In the twenty years since King’s birthday became an official holiday I have been to many services that have lionized him. Most of these have focused on his non-violent philosophy and position as the leader of the civil rights movement. In much of popular culture he has become such a symbol of the civil rights movement that he has acquired an almost god-like status. As a result the broader civil rights movement and the work of many of his predecessors and contemporaries has been obscured.
King’s birthday is one of the few times of the year that people in America are willing to talk openly about racism as a problem. Usually, though not always, racism is described in the past tense and King’s work is presented as either mostly done or complete. I am afraid that many people have replaced celebrating King with his continuing his work. In fact for some, the fact that King can be the subject of a national holiday is in of itself enough to demonstrate that racism no longer exists. In this way the celebration of King’s birthday risks becoming a type of tokenism.
There’s a cartoon from an eighties labor journal that captures this problem. In the first panel two people ask President Ronald Reagan: “What do you say to charges that your policies encourage racism?” He replies in the next two panels: “Happy Birthday to You! Happy Birthday to You! Happy Birthday Dear Martin! Happy Birthday to You!” The final panel has Reagan scratching his head and thinking to himself: “How could I ever have opposed this holiday?”
King’s birthday has become both an opportunity to celebrate the heroes and veterans of the Civil Rights movement and, for some, a chance to pretend the oppressive systems that Dr. King fought to change no longer exist. After all today both the Republican and Democratic parties have prominent members who are African American. Condoleeza Rice claims that if was not for Rosa Parks she never would have been able to become Secretary of State. The implication is that the appointment of an extreme right-wing African American woman to the third highest position in the executive branch is the culmination of the civil rights movement. The accomplishments of a few African Americans like Rice leads to the claim that racism is largely defeated and obscures the continual oppression of the majority.
As the recent events in New Orleans demonstrate racism is alive and well. The fact that a majority of those left behind in Katrina’s path were African Americans was no accident. Forty years after the high water mark of the civil rights movement—the passage of the 1964 civil rights and the 1965 voting rights acts—the majority of African Americans still live in poverty. During Katrina they were primarily the ones who lacked the resources to flee the hurricane. The federal, state and city governments did little to compensate for this and offer them help. Neither adequate shelter from the storm nor buses to leave the city were provided.
The majority of European Americans have chosen to ignore or forgotten the conditions that many African American poor live. Katrina uncovered the desperate multigenerational poverty that many African Americans continue to live in and forced them into the public eye again. This type of poverty is not limited to New Orleans and can be seen many places if one chooses to look for it. A trip to parts of Long Beach or nearby South Central Los Angles will reveal the poverty that is an ever-present reality for many African Americans.
This poverty is often the result of the structural changes in the economy that have made high paying blue-collar jobs harder and harder to find. The nation’s inner cities have been intentionally starved of the material resources necessary to provide good education and opportunities for economic development. It is not a coincidence that the most resource starved urban areas are populated largely by people of color. Without access to higher education many African Americans are unable to obtain more than low-wage jobs in the service sector and provide adequate resources for their children to escape the cycle of poverty.
African Americans continue to suffer from structural racism in other ways. They make up a disproportionate number of the prison population and are often targeted by police for crimes they did not commit. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that African Americans are more likely to receive harsher sentences than European Americans who commit similar crimes. The phrase driving while black is not just a colloquialism. It is an adequate description of the racial profiling and discrimination that many African Americans face from police.
The civil rights era won an end to the legal discrimination of individuals based on the color of their skin. It is now illegal to refuse to hire someone or admit them to a university because they are African American. What the civil rights movement did not eliminate was the structural, economic and civic, forms of oppression that are directed at whole populations but that individuals can escape. It is still legal to discriminate against whole populations by not providing adequate resources for education, housing and economic development. A comparison of the conditions many of the nation’s inner cities and suburbs demonstrates this. And, as the 2000 election in Florida and the 2004 election in Ohio prove, legal or not it is still acceptable to create obstacles for large groups of African Americans to vote. Today the forces of racism are subtler than those King and Parks fought but they are just as damaging and pervasive.
It is my contention that the best way to erase this structural racism is through a re-configuration of society’s institutions. The United States was founded by slaveholders and much of its economic wealth was generated by enslaved Africans. While the institution of slavery was abolished in 1865 much of the country’s economic and social structure continues to reflect its legacy. Today the majority of African Americans live at or near the poverty level and continue to work undesirable and low-paying jobs. Working people without unions, whether African, European or Mexican American, are paid subsistence wages while an extremely small number of people control the majority of the country’s resources. The vast majority of those who are lucky enough to find themselves in the 1% of the populace that control 90% of the nation’s resources are European Americans.
Reparations for slavery are a necessary step to transform this system. After the Civil War few, if any, freedmen and freedwomen received redress for their enslavement. While there was talk of giving every liberated man forty acres and a mule little redistribution of wealth actually occurred. The European Americans who built their fortunes exploiting others were able to keep them and many African Americans, lacking material resources, were forced to go back and work for their former masters as sharecroppers. This system remained in place until the 1960s. Until that time many African American families were unable to accumulate the material resources necessary to escape the cycle of poverty.
Congressman John Conyers has repeatedly introduced a bill into the House of Representatives calling for the creation of a commission to study reparations. The passage of his bill would do four things:
1. It would acknowledge the fundamental injustice and inhumanity of slavery,
2. It would establish a commission to study slavery, its subsequent racial and economic discrimination against freed slaves;
3. It would study the impact of those forces on today’s living African Americans; and
4. The commission would then make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies for the study of issue of reparations. We might all engage in a similar study.
We should encourage the Unitarian Universalist Association, our churches and elected officials to engage in a similar course of study. The city councils of Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Atlanta have passed resolutions calling for the study of reparations. I believe the city of Long Beach and the state of California should take a similar course.
My call for reparations may sound radical but a precedent for them already exists. During World War II Japanese Americans were viewed as a threat to national security and forced to relocate to internment camps. Many suffered and lost their property as a result. After the war there were a series of bills passed to compensate former detainees and in 1988 the United States Congress passed a bill giving each living survivor of the camps $20,000 in redress. In addition Presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush senior have all issued formal government apologies for the camps.
There is also a precedent on the international level. In the last few decades Germany and German firms has had to pay various forms of reparations to both Israel and individual survivors of the Nazi concentration camps.
The movement for reparations is international in scope. Slavery was part of a larger pattern of colonialism that has created the world we live in today. The sad state of countries in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere in the world is a direct result the colonial period. As the anti-colonialist and psychotherapist Frantz Fanon wrote in his masterpiece The Wretched of the Earth:
“Europe is literarily the creation of the Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the under-developed peoples. The ports of Holland, the docks of Bordeaux and Liverpool were specialized in the Negro slave-trade, and owe their renown to millions of deported slaves.”
Today many of these countries are demanding some form of reparations from their former colonial masters.
It is wrong to think colonialism is entirely in the past. Colonialism is essentially the transfer of wealth from the colonial country to the colonizers country. Today many former colonies are saddled with huge debts to the developed world that they must pay before they provide services for their own people. The outsourcing of manufacturing jobs from communities in the developed world with strong unions to countries in the developing world where unions are illegal or impossible to form is another example of how colonialism continues. The conditions under which people have to work coupled with the few economic and political freedoms they enjoy is a continuation of the pattern exploitation of the local populace by the colonists. The people who make many of the goods we enjoy lack the resources to use them themselves. They spend their energies creating goods for the developed world to consume. Instead they would be better off manufacturing goods that would better their countries. And so the overall pattern of the transfer of resources from the developing world to the developed one continues unabated.
Colonialism continues in another, more violent, form as well. During the Cold War former colonies served as places where the proxy wars of the two superpowers were fought out. The countries where these proxy wars have taken place have been devastated and left politically and socially unstable.
One example of a country where a proxy war was fought is Afghanistan. In this country the United States helped organize an insurgency, primarily composed of Islamic fundamentalists, against a secular Soviet backed state. Our government gave these insurgents military training and resources. In exchange the insurgents fought what was purported to be a common enemy, a communist government. After of the Soviet backed government was toppled the United States abandoned Afghanistan to feuding warlords. Eventually the Taliban took power and began to support a movement against what its members viewed as imperialism. The name of this movement was, of course, al-Qaida and many of its members, including its infamous leader Osama bin Laden, received training from the Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. governmental agencies.
In 2001, days before September 11th, the United Nations sponsored the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa. As the name suggests the focus of this conference was how to end the global and local systems of oppression and racism that continue to ruin the lives of some many people across the planet. At this conference almost all of those present, including many European countries, agreed that the developed world owed the former colonies reparations. The delegation from the United States walked out in response.
While I believe that reparations are necessary to correct past wrongs I also believe that they will, indirectly, benefit those who gain from structural racism. In order for colonialism and racism to continue those of us who benefit from them must dehumanize the people that we exploit. By treating other human beings as less than human we too fall short of realizing our own full human potential. A part of ourselves becomes numb and dies by ignoring the suffering that we have caused. Enacting reparations will allow us remove the emotional blinders that we wear to ignore the suffering around us and the suffering that we cause.
Parks, King and the civil rights movement managed to end legal discrimination and segregation. It is now time for us to continue their work and struggle to end structural racism by demanding reparations for African Americans. In doing so we will be building the sort of world that they dreamed of. One in which all women and men can meet together as sisters and brothers.