Wrestling with America’s Racist Past
Over the course of six-decade life, I’ve watched the subject of reparations for U.S. chattel slavery and the Native American genocide move from a discussion topic in Black neighborhood barber shops to mainstream national discourse. Americans have gathered the courage to wrestle with our country’s complicated racial past. Unfortunately, this is happening when much of our national conversation has been reduced to a for/against, us/them binary. Even the most complex issues are framed as “two sides.” The current political climate makes it hard to express a nuanced opinion.
The issues are too complex and the timelines too long for a public discourse based in sound bites to be productive. For-or-against thinking will only dig us in deeper. What does it mean to be for or against reparations? There are many reasons why people of goodwill might struggle with the idea of reparations.
Because I have a personal connection to those events, I have focused here specifically on historic wrongs done to Native Americans and enslaved Africans in past centuries.
Some Americans want to deny the problematic aspects of American history altogether. To acknowledge historical mistakes, they believe, is to denigrate America and to place guilt where it does not belong. We see this sentiment in the many recent cases of school districts trying to regulate what can and cannot be taught about American history in K–12 classes. Some have specific language that forbids the urging of guilt onto students for historic wrongs. While these regulations don’t specifically address reparations, they certainly express strong convictions about how to view events of the past. People fear looking at past dirt lest it soil their children today.
Some say there can never be adequate compensation for historic wrongs done to Native Americans and enslaved Africans. What price tag could we put on cultural disruption and forced assimilation? There is no way to return the land to the original population of the American continent. How could we calculate the value of unpaid labor for the vast and varied enslaved population? Popular culture leads us to think of slavery as a system of unpaid agricultural work, but there were also midwives, carpenters, housekeepers, cobblers, cooks, smiths, childcare workers, and other occupations. Given that we struggle with paying people fairly in some of these jobs today, how can we say what the work was worth centuries ago, before emancipation?
Some say there can never be adequate compensation for historic wrongs done to Native Americans and enslaved Africans. What price tag could we put on cultural disruption and forced assimilation?
Even among those of us who feel personally, historically connected to American chattel slavery, there are people who argue that since everyone directly involved is now dead, reparations are not possible. Any actions taken today would be symbolic gestures rather than meaningful compensation.
These particular parts of our country’s history are my personal history as well. Being from a Southern family, the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow were significant in making me who I am today. Probably some see that and believe that I am dwelling in the past and should let that history go. I ask readers, at least provisionally, to consider this from a different point of view. I have formed strong bonds with people around that shared history: people who know their comfortable life today is on some level rooted in the bad behavior of their ancestors. I don’t hold them personally responsible, nor do I seek retribution from them. We walk together, somewhat burdened by what cannot be forgotten but feeling blessed to sojourn along a way our ancestors could not imagine.
Immigrants and descendants of immigrants may feel no connection at all to our nation’s historical problems and may resent the idea they should pay for them. They or their families were not here while various bad things were going on. In some cases, they came to the United States fleeing starvation and genocide. They have no sense of a shared past around these events.
A grandchild of immigrants once asked my husband why anyone whose family arrived in the United States long after slavery was over owes reparations. “Shouldn’t you be the ones paying for it? Your family was here.” My husband, a birthright Quaker and descendent of abolitionists, responded by telling the story of his mother’s mission work.
When you say “missionary,” people think of conversion, but there are other forms of mission. Distinctly aware of the harm done by Quaker Indian boarding schools of the nineteenth century, some Friends strove for reconciliation of communities in the twentieth. My late mother-in-law (a Quaker recorded minister’s daughter) went to live on the Navajo nation after completing teacher training. Her mission work was teaching reading in the Navajo language. The goal was to help preserve the language and honor the cultural heritage that earlier missionaries had tried to destroy. She also traveled around speaking to women’s clubs and civic groups about the value of this work. She lived on the Navajo nation for many years, teaching reading and working at a trading post, before returning to her native Iowa.
By removing statues or renaming streets and buildings, we acknowledge that our country is different now, and what once looked fine is problematic now. “When you know better, you do better” is a common saying in Southern Black families. With these acts, we demonstrate our will to do better.
Here in the twenty-first century, let us draw inspiration from her story of personal connection and community reconciliation. I see people today taking action in the same spirit, viewing memorials to the Civil War era with this century’s eyes. By removing statues or renaming streets and buildings, we acknowledge that our country is different now, and what once looked fine is problematic now. “When you know better, you do better” is a common saying in Southern Black families. With these acts, we demonstrate our will to do better.
There are movements advocating monetary compensation or programs to counteract the lingering effects of slavery and the Indigenous genocide. Whether or not we agree with these ideas, I believe that we should listen to them. Maybe there is an approach we haven’t heard of yet. I am in favor of acknowledging the bad past while realizing there is no “making up” for it. Let us recognize that what was stolen cannot now be returned.