Reparations

© Lena Zajchikova

The Road from Saving to Giving

Even though I am sequestered at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, I am not excused from pursuing racial justice. I have to modify my antiracism work, just like I’ve had to adapt my grocery routine.

I’ve been learning more about my White family’s accumulated wealth as my parents have aged into their 80s and 90s. The stories have shifted from putting ancestors on pedestals to seeing them as fully human, with their class and racial biases alongside their goodwill and altruism. Now in my late 50s, I’m paying more attention to concepts like reparations and wealth redistribution, especially when there are anniversaries like those of the Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre of 1921; the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and the mass hanging of Indigenous Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota, in 1862.

Mending and Repairing

This summer my spouse, Jeanne, taught a friend of ours how to knit. Brandi was a quick study, and just weeks later, she was asking for tips on how to mend a hole in a machine-knit sweater.

Mending the sweater involved an intentional process of weaving surrogate yarn back and forth to close a tear and reintegrate the damaged area into the original fabric. Jeanne explained that some repairs can be a form of “visible mending,” while other repairs are camouflaged and aren’t meant to be seen.

Antiracism work and reparations can be visible or invisible, too. Many of us start with simple actions, then increase our level of skill and build our confidence; if we are White, these acts may deepen our racial stamina. The skills are strands that each of us can use, wending back and forth to repair and strengthen the fabric of humanity that has been torn apart by White supremacy and classism.

The shift into meaningful action is significant for me. I’ve stopped equating self-education and private reflection with solidarity; I’ve been learning what it means to center the lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Last fall I was part of a group of 30 White Friends who used the epistle from the 2020 Virtual Pre-Gathering Retreat of Friends of Color and Their Families, which took place before the Friends General Conference Gathering, as a guide to see how we might demonstrate that we are actively working on a social “vaccine” to address “the human-made pandemic of racism,” to quote the epistle.

Invisible mending in part means recognizing that saying, “I’m not racist,” isn’t a demonstration of solidarity; being actively antiracist is. Just like White people cannot decide what being an ally is, White Friends cannot name what constitutes mending and repair, lest we inflict or perpetuate unintended harm that slides in on the underbelly of our good intentions. The practice of learning to become followers and staying humble requires us to center the voices and guidance of BIPOC people in our worship communities and in our lives. I have identified five strands of actions for myself and for our Quaker communities to consider that make up a partial response to addressing racial and economic injustice.


We must live into providing reparations, not because we White Friends think we believe we know the right way to go about it but precisely because we are discovering that we don’t know how to go about it.


Strand: Redirecting My Wealth Guilt

The Jewish tradition in which I was raised teaches “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21). Getting involved in racial justice work has been a needed antidote to White guilt and implicit bias. Similarly, reparations work has been a first-aid treatment for what I now think of as “wealth guilt.”

Over the generations, my White-passing Jewish family likely defined “justice work” differently from how I define it today: justice work was about Jews helping fellow Jews. I’m now talking with my brothers, my mother, and one cousin about our responsibility to leverage for racial justice not only our White privilege but also our access to wealth.

Repairing the multi-layered financial tear in the United States requires collective, regenerative, and restorative practices. It requires more of us who have accumulated wealth and are doing antiracism work to redirect the wealth we have. These measures may be an invisible mending, a mending that is directed by BIPOC communities: uplifting them; returning their stolen land; and restoring their wealth, dignity, right to exist, and right to thrive.

Strand: Saving or Hoarding?

Before Jeanne and I met, I was entrenched in my parents’, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’ practice of hoarding wealth. Of course, none of my relatives called it hoarding; they called it saving. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, I see more clearly that hoarding wealth reflects an excess of self-concern. When I lift my head out of my financial statements, I can see the wider expanse of humanity around me and how the individualistic spare-no-means to preserve wealth cuts me off from the Kin(g)dom I wish to be a part of.

So when does “saving” in a family that has tremendous wealth cross the line and become hoarding? When does it do that in our wealthiest worship communities as Quakers?

The 13 years of Quaker education at Friends School of Baltimore didn’t stop my great-uncle from later displaying a “Negroes Need Not Apply” sign in the successful family business. This information about my immediate family doesn’t fit the Quaker testimony of equality that my great-uncle and my grandmother surely had been exposed to, and it certainly doesn’t fit into the antiracism and wealth redistribution work I’m currently leaning into.

It does fit the concept of how good intentions by well-off White people can lead to a lasting negative impact for BIPOC people. My great-uncle’s bigoted decision had the harmful impact of keeping money and maybe wealth out of the hands of African Americans. How many of them would have applied for a job at the M.S. Levy & Sons hat company? How many could have learned new skills, saved up for a college education, or bought a house?

Strand: A Reparations Project

Privilege begets privilege; my family’s wealth begets wealth—until I become intentional about redirecting it. Since early 2017, I’ve been participating in Stolen Wealth Returns, a Black-led reparations project. The project provides the opportunity for White people with accumulated or unjustly earned wealth to redirect it to pay off student loans held by a group of 13 African Americans. This project’s Black organizers have helped me see the lie of White supremacy that says if they had expensive college and advanced degrees, they would have access to better-paying careers. The lie of White supremacy willfully ignores the existence of racist hiring practices that limit BIPOC people’s presence in higher-earning workforces, and makes no mention of interest capitalization on student loan balances. Loan payments are hard to stay on top of when people are underemployed or when a pandemic strikes.

Financial rending in this country began, though, with the theft of lands inhabited by Indigenous peoples and the theft of lives through the institution of slavery. Many of us now know that additional financial wounding continued with the undermining of Reconstruction; the 1921 bombing of Black Wall Street in Tulsa; the racist policies of the GI Bill and Social Security; and the discriminatory practices of redlining and mass incarceration.

Reading Zona Douthit’s article “Okay, Boomer, It’s Time to Fund Reparations” in the September 2020 issue of Friends Journal was like turning up a dimmer on a lamp for me. Douthit provided a way to intensify the piercing Light of God’s Truth for reparations that was already exercising my spirit:

[F]or most of us, our heirs would not miss 10 percent if we left it to a Quaker cause. But the radical, antiracist question to ask yourself is what difference would 50 percent, 75 percent, or 90 percent of my estate make in the lives of those who have been denied equal opportunity for 400 years?

The wounds from stolen labor, stolen lives, and stolen land all need reparations and mending.


Strand: Moving Quaker Wealth

My family’s hoarding over generations parallels what our Quaker meetings and institutions have done and are still doing. How many of us were conditioned without our consent to believe that for People of Color, underemployment, lack of job skills, or a poor education was either their own problem or someone else’s? How long has it taken for a critical mass of White antiracist Friends to understand the interlocking systems that lead to financial disadvantage, let alone interrupt or dismantle one or more of those systems?

I have a picture in my mind that illustrates the relationship between the wealth that our predominantly White Quaker meetings have been hoarding in endowments, savings accounts, CDs, and property, and what our Quaker worship communities have been contributing to BIPOC-led organizations.

For those of us without children to send to college or who have aging parents living off of long-held appreciated assets, why not look into redistributing Quaker wealth? A few well-placed stitches between Quaker communities and under-supported BIPOC communities might mend more than just the financial disparities we read about.


Strand: Liberation from Hoarding

Visible mending has a way of indicating where a breach or weak spot has been. Plain speech, too, has a way of acknowledging hidden agendas and ill-considered decisions shielded by what were thought to be right actions for the time. When I’m grounded enough to listen without being defensive, I can peel away the layers of social conditioning—especially White, middle-class Quaker conditioning—about what I was supposed to believe or do, and instead center down into what God’s love and the ministry of BIPOC community members requires of me. I am finding that breaking my family’s pattern of hoarding is spiritually liberating. One small bit of mending inspires me to continue pursuing reparative justice.

Once I actively began redirecting money in significant ways from my bank account, the wealth guilt I had embodied since my young childhood began transforming into new energy. Previously unseen opportunities now pop up in my field of awareness: prioritizing and increasing donations to local BIPOC-led organizations; giving financial gifts directly to BIPOC individuals; and donating to state, regional, and national organizations that intentionally work at changing systems, in addition to doing direct service to individuals.

We in our predominantly White worship communities and Quaker institutions have an opportunity to discontinue Quaker hoarding. We can begin to redirect Quaker wealth intentionally as part of a growing testimony of reparations.

On its frequently asked questions webpage, Stolen Wealth Returns (stolenwealthreturns.org) lifts up this point:

A number of white supporters . . . point out that many white people with wealth don’t know the details of how their family came to accumulate such wealth and are slow to engage in reparations without having details of how or where donations will be distributed.

Without participating in reparations to mend the wealth disparities so tightly knit with racism, we White Friends may as well throw away the opportunity to build a just world. But that would be like discarding a favorite wool sweater that has a hole without looking into how to repair it. We must live into providing reparations, not because we White Friends think we believe we know the right way to go about it but precisely because we are discovering that we don’t know how to go about it.

Like a good knitting group, we need teachers, designers, collaborators, suppliers, and students. Friends of Color and the BIPOC community are those teachers and designers of the way forward. After so many generations of good intentions, moral injuries, and systemic injustices from White Quakers, visible and invisible mending can quicken the arrival of our mutual liberation.

Elizabeth Oppenheimer

Elizabeth (Liz) Oppenheimer worships with Laughing Waters Friends Preparative Meeting in metropolitan Minneapolis–St. Paul, Minn., and is a member of Bear Creek Meeting in Earlham, Iowa. She is “knit worthy,” according to her spouse.

3 thoughts on “Reparations

    1. Lisa, I know you are thanking me explicitly here, so I want to lift up the much less visible Black organizers involved, many of whom are withholding their identity out of privacy concerns. Those of us who are white and function as the more visible outward-facing folks work in close partnership with a few of the organizers, sharing ideas and possible next steps. Then we wait for guidance from the organizers. A lot more information is on the website, stolenwealthreturns.org

      Thanks for writing!

  1. You make good points, but I think you are living in a Quaker world that no longer exists. My Yearly Meeting is continually struggling for funds. Contributions go into a “Sharing Fund” for witness activities, not “nuts and bolts” expenses, which come from a percentage donation from the monthly meetings — never enough, but that’s not my point. You talk about the wealthy Quakers – very few in my experience. Since before 1900 when our YM Friends have died they left bequests — and these are always for helping educate and give some services, like food and housing, to minority groups — both in our YM area and worldwide. The bequest interest is distributed twice each year and wonderful work results. Whatever donations we receive, never enough but we spend it all, goes for peace work, AVP, education, supporting legal challenges (such as in Standing Rock SD), etc. You write this – “We in our predominantly White worship communities and Quaker institutions have an opportunity to discontinue Quaker hoarding. We can begin to redirect Quaker wealth intentionally as part of a growing testimony of reparations.” Quaker hoarding? Our YM Meetinghouses need repair, our YM expenses are cut to the bone, we argue over every penny annually. I am not on the YM staff but I am part of committees that reach out to improve the lives of people who are disadvantaged regarding opportunities for education, basic needs and peace. The impact is like a snowball going down hill — people who are helped then help others, and the peace work is huge! What YMs are hoarding? That word leaps out at me. Do you know this for a fact? I belong to one in the NE and one in the South. For years I was also part of Britain YM. I only see desperate need for funds to keep our Quaker communities afloat and do the outreach work for social justice. Every cent is spent in agony. Just because someone is in a meeting with white Quakers doesn’t mean they are hoarding funds – the roof will need repair and the electric company needs to be paid. . . But what you envision is lovely, and I do not mean to criticize your intentions — just your reality. . .

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