The Need For Reparations

I am writing in response to a letter published in the August issue of Friends Journal ("Reparations are racist," by Dorothy Tinkham Delo).

First, I think a bit of personal background may be helpful in understanding my response. I am not a Quaker. I was raised in an offshoot of the Conservative Southern Baptist tradition. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to my religious background as Southern Baptist.

I must also confess to a conflict of interest in regards to the letter to which I am responding. I am a white man who was married to a black woman. My only child was raised as an African American. Much of my dismay concerning the August letter is based on a purely selfish interest of making the world a better place for my child.

I was quite shocked by the author’s strident opposition to reparations for African Americans. I must first make an argument in her defense. I hope she is not offended, as that is not my intent. The author has a common misunderstanding—shared by most white people—concerning this nation’s history of slavery. In her first paragraph she asserts, "It has been over 140 years since there was slavery in the United States." She is correct in stating that legal slavery ended 140 years ago. What she is unaware of is the de facto slavery that continued to the 1940s.

After the end of the Civil War, under Reconstruction, the great plantations of the south were to be broken up and the former slaves were to be given "40 acres and a mule." After Lincoln’s assassination, this part of Reconstruction was stopped by President Andrew Johnson. The plantations were kept intact. Also, after Reconstruction, the southern states began passing "black code laws." Although these laws were struck down by the Supreme Court, the south persisted in passing them until the Supreme Court allowed such laws to exist in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The "black code" laws eventually evolved into what we know as "Jim Crow" laws.

The purpose of the Jim Crow laws was to end or restrict the freedoms that African Americans gained after the Civil War. These laws were also meant to dehumanize blacks so that poor whites would think themselves privileged. This discrimination preserved the South’s economic and class system.

The Jim Crow laws did not simply require separate water fountains or schools. These laws were also often intended to restrict employment opportunities, usually to domestic servitude or agricultural labor. Where there were no laws restricting employment, there was social convention, applying the same restrictions.

These laws restricting the employment opportunities of African Americans were for the benefit of the plantation owners. Since they no longer had slaves, they needed new ways of obtaining cheap or free labor. One solution was to change a former plantation into a prison labor farm. African Americans, under Jim Crow, would be arrested for any reason (or none at all) and sent to work on such farms for no pay of any sort. This was one form of de facto slavery.

Another form was share-cropping, which worked thusly: the former slave, instead of getting his promised "40 acres and a mule," worked as a tenant farmer on a plantation. The farmer paid his rent with the crops he raised. The plantation owner alone determined the price to be paid for the crop. The price was never enough to pay the rent. Thus the farmer was bound to the land by debt.

Objections can be made that poor whites were also share-croppers, and questions may be raised as to why blacks didn’t simply leave the land. The answers are simple. The white share-croppers were paid enough for their crops to pay the rent, and, if it suited the plantation owner’s purposes, perhaps a small profit as well. The discrepancy between the white and black share- croppers was there to preserve racially defined social customs. By paying whites more than blacks, however small the difference may have been, whites felt they were better than their black economic peers.

What kept blacks from not leaving the land was the United States’ own terrorists, the Ku Klux Klan. The purpose of the Klan was not just an exercise in hatred as it is today. The Klan provided an extralegal means of enforcing Jim Crow and the social conventions of the day. For blacks, attempting to leave the plantation owner’s land could result in anything from cross-burnings by night-riders to beatings to lynching. Of course, white sharecroppers had nothing to fear if they left the land. The only thing that ended this immoral system was the introduction of cotton harvesting machinery. The "slaves" were no longer needed.

Now, knowing all of the above, let us determine when U.S. slavery, both legal and de-facto, ended. About 60 years ago.

The author of the letter also seems to misunderstand the concept of "reparations" sought by the African American community. African American community leaders know that reparation payments made to individuals, although just, would result in a violent reaction from whites. African Americans instead are asking for reparations in the form of investment in their communities, providing the financial wherewithal to improve those communities. Remember, whites still control the financial resources of this nation. And whites have chosen to disinvest in African American communities.

The author also ignores that the failings of our political and economic system are disproportionately placed on the backs of African Americans. Any unjust social and economic system always requires some group in a society to be the "whipping boys," to provide distraction from society’s inequities. In Europe it was the Jews. In the United States it is the blacks.

There is also the author’s argument concerning the need for "personal responsibility" in the black community. The author is using her position in society to define "personal responsibility" as it suits people of her class. Persons of a lower class have a different definition of "personal responsibility," based on more limited resources. The behavior of individuals in any class is affected by the limitation of resources placed upon them by persons of a higher class. This is true whether the comparison is between upper class and middle class, middle class and working class, or working class and underclass. In addition, "personal responsibility" rhetoric is just a disingenuous way to evade our moral duty to be responsible for each other. Such nonsense only confirms our failings. We are our brother’s keeper.

The argument that whites have done this or that in the past to change our nation’s racial problems is meaningless. Such actions by white people in the past were noble and good. But these past actions do not change the continuing racial problems in this nation.

In closing, I would like to tell your readers why I left the Southern Baptists. I was a teenager in Sunday school. A student asked the teacher if segregation was immoral. He responded that segregation was moral because God had placed white people and black people on different continents and therefore we should live in separate communities.

My unstated thought at the time was that white people brought Africans here against their will, and that by doing this white people had committed a terrible sin against Africans. I left the Southern Baptists because of the Baptists’ hypocrisy and knowing disregard of Jesus’ teachings.

Jesus said that we should forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors. Because the white people of this nation still willfully disregard "that of God in everyone," we are in debt to African Americans. It is well past time to repay this debt and ask forgiveness.

Milton Erhardt
Dolton, Ill