A White Man Makes the Case for Reparations, Part 1

Column by Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer on 13 August 2020 3 Comments


Of all the things white allies were willing to activate for through decades of civil rights movements, reparations were the one thing that even the most committed white leaders have avoided talking about, much less fully committing to.
In 1969, Jim Forman interrupted Sunday morning worship at the iconic Riverside Church in uptown Manhattan. He had already warned the Rev. Dr. Ernest T. Campbell (then pastor at Riverside)  that he would be there to present the Black Manifesto. Dr. Campbell agreed to receive it but asked that there be no oral presentation. In defiance of those orders, Jim Forman marched down the center aisle and began reciting the Manifesto. It begins with these words: “We the black people, assembled in Detroit, Michigan for the National Black Economic Development Conference, are fully aware that we have been forced to come together because racist white America has exploited our resources, our minds, our bodies and our labor….”
Dr. Ernest tried to drown out his voice by having the organ play. It didn’t work.
That it didn’t work didn’t matter.
There was certainly sympathy among white church leaders for what the movement was saying and asking for – but none of that sympathy translated into money. I can’t think of anything that more thoroughly indicts white America’s ongoing commitment to racial equity than this. You can have our words, our actions, our toil, our sweat, our pain, our righteous anger. You cannot have our money.
Every time I hear reparations talked about in largely white audiences two themes quickly surface.
The first is: I didn’t own slaves. Why take my money when it wasn’t me who created the injustice?
The second is:  I worked hard for what I have. I pulled myself up by my bootstraps (I literally hear that phrase repeated over and over again – although it really is devoid of any meaning). Let them (the most often used reference whites use for blacks – ‘them’) do the same thing.
The level of either naiveté, utter and damnable ignorance, or flat out denial of all that is there to be known in order to perpetuate these mythologies is deep and consistent.
This is a case for reparations. As my doctoral instructor often reminded me, think of this work as repairing the damage.
America lives with a deep and festering wound. There is a passage in the book of Jeremiah where the prophet indicts the leaders of his time, religious and political leaders, with these words: “You have healed the wound of my people lightly, crying ‘Peace! Peace!’ when there is no peace.” I can’t think of a more fitting way to describe white America’s commitments to racial equity. We have healed the wounds of our people lightly. We cry ‘Peace! Peace!’ when nothing like it yet exists.
That whites have made sacrifices to move the arc of history towards racial equity is undeniable. That we have made lasting and significant contributions to this cause is evident. But there is scant little, if much of anything, that demonstrates a willingness on the part of whites to battle long and hard for a crucial and, some might argue, essential missing piece to this movement: reparations.
And the lingering and long denied truth of this matter is that the damage we are being asked to repair is far deeper than just the economic damage done to entire races of people. Oh, to be sure, there is that. And we will not come anywhere close to equity or to a more thorough healing without significant commitments to both the redistribution of wealth and the ongoing means of continuously accessing wealth. But the healing sought isn’t only through economic solvency and greater access to wealth for black populations.
Also to be healed are the deeply damaged souls and psyches, spirits and imaginations of white and black, red and brown, yellow and tan peoples of America. All races are deeply damaged by the white race’s lingering love affair with white skin privilege – including the white race. Reparations is the balm that facilitates a transition from light healing into deep healing.
Whites have consistently shown they are happy engaging in civil rights movements just long enough to assuage our guilt (and feel relatively righteous) and just deeply enough to brag about important steps forward: “Hey, look. We elected a black president!”
We have yet to invest enough spiritual and psychic and emotional energy to risk losing our unfair access to and possession of wealth. Without that investment, there will be no real healing.
I want to note three important works, and more importantly, three key concepts that will help me make my argument about reparations.
The first comes from George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness. In it he argues “Whiteness has a cash value.”
The second book is by Randall Robinson and is called The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. He connects the dots between enslavement, Reconstruction, disenfranchisement, lynching, Jim Crow, and many other white schema to argue, quite cogently and very persuasively, that the distribution of wealth in America today unfairly favored in the past and favors now in the present those with white skin.
The third work is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the age of Colorblindness. She takes us into the smoke-filled rooms in which leaders of neo-conservative politics had to imagine pathways to maintaining white control of wealth after the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Their scheming was built on the myth of the black savage, an untamed beast for whom education could never really eliminate rage and passion. It echoed the sentiments that fueled mass lynchings across the South in the early half of the 20th century. It was a myth played out over and over again on film and TV by roles in which black men were always portrayed as unintelligent and quick to violence. Conservative politicians would win favor with largely white constituencies with a more subtle form of racism branded not in the overt racist language of George Wallace and Bull Connor, but of Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater: Get Tough on Crime.
The rewriting of drug laws and the consistently unfair enforcement of those laws to incarcerate more and more black men rebuilt the political landscape of the next generation of voters. Among the things felony convictions do is deprive you of income while incarcerated, limit earning potential after incarceration, and deprive most felons of their right to vote.
Meanwhile, by the turn of the 20th century it was being reported that within a generation it would be likely that one in three black males will have been convicted of a felony. Get Tough on Crime initiatives got many white politicians elected. It got many more black men arrested and convicted. Statistical data showing the growing racial disparity between arrests rates, convictions rates, plea deals, and sentencing terms showed that this stratagem worked brilliantly. Whites and blacks entered two very different judicial systems. Whites consistently entered and left the judicial system with far fewer long-term effects on their wealth and lifetime earning potential. Blacks entered and left, in fact still live, with lives often irreparably shattered and with little hope of ever financially recovering from discriminatory sentences that permanently branded them as social outcast and unfit for employment.
We are only now waking up to and paying close attention to how utterly damaging and sinisterly calculating this whole thing was from the start.
Damage has been done.
As for the ongoing, now centuries long, commitment to the economic disenfranchisement of black bodies and communities, whites still want to perpetuate the myths that a) it doesn’t exist; b) if it did exist it isn’t our fault because most of what caused it no longer exists; c) whatever wealth we have we earned honestly; and d) none of what we earned belongs to anybody other than us.
Damage has been done.
In a remarkable work of theological creativity and critique called The Wounded Heart of God, Andrew Sung Park tries to describe to western audiences the Korean concept of ‘han.’ Han, he points out, is untranslatable into English. Likely, it is un-understandable to white western culture. It is the condition of the soul one lives with under sustained and oppressive injustice. It describes the spiritual wounding one cannot escape when: a body’s labor is conscripted for/to/by an oppressor and does not feed you or your family; you know no leisure because your entire existence is subject to the will and whim of another; even your imagination succumbs to the certain knowledge that hope for a way out does not exist.
That whites cannot understand han is evident in the bewilderment many whites have about why so many buildings were set on fire after the murder of George Floyd. Without the experience of han, such acts make no sense. Worse, without another framework like han to engage deeper understandings into the despair that fuels such movements, the active burning of property is seen only as a confirmation of the myth created two millennia ago in Greece and perpetuated through western culture ever since: the myth of the savage beast.
Whites who know no han will always fall back on that default narrative of the savage beast who must be tamed.
Overcoming not just racial bias, but also the economic disparities that racial bias will always pursue, will mean rewriting our shared mythos about what it means to be black and what it means to be white. No real healing will ever take place without that. Whites want no part of the kind of oppressive suffering that damages heart, mind, soul, and spirit with han. Fearing the rage of those who do live with han, whites are forced to cling ever more desperately to the wealth they falsely believe inoculates them from pain and suffering.
To be perfectly honest, whites are willing to exchange healing for themselves and healing for those whom we have systematically oppressed for centuries now because of these things: we love our money; we appreciate living in a system that gives us access to it because of our white skin; we have no concept of han and therefore lack the empathy to see it or the desire to ameliorate it in another; we fear even more than the loss of our wealth the emergence of our guilt.
The combination of enjoying wealth and fearing guilt creates a massive disincentive for whites to speak at all about reparations. The irony of course is that our unprocessed guilt and shame both fuels our consumptive fetish and deprives us of the true healing we want, need, and will never be whole without. Soon, and very soon, whites must realize that what we have always wanted – our money and wealth to provide – isn’t coming, not until we take the work of reparations seriously.
Damage has been done.
There are wounds to be healed.
Whites are the primary impediment to that healing, including the long overdue healing that can only come from our active and willing participation in a shared and comprehensive commitment to reparations – to repairing the damage.
In the essays that follow, I will try my best to lay out a white man’s argument for white investments in racial equity and justice, in healing and in repairing the damage. I invite you into the conversation and anticipate whatever and all commitments you are willing and able to make in order to change the shape and future of a lingering and persistent America in which whiteness has a cash value.

~ Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer



What can we as a nation learn from the aftermath of George Floyd's death?


Dear Reader,

Change is a shared responsibility. No one person or group of people can do it alone. Our elders of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement have given us wise counsel on how to proceed. For example, John Lewis's final essay titled "Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation", which he requested to be published on the occasion of his funeral, stated: "Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself."

To improve our Democracy, we need to listen to one another. However, with the cacophony of voices and continued violence in the streets of America, we miss the vital importance of listening. George Floyd's death was an inflection point for many Americans, and more people are now listening. Nevertheless, listening to one another is difficult because it requires being non-defensive, hearing without judgment, taking notice and responsibility for one's action, and acting toward the request for change with good intentions.

In my opinion, there are five levels of listening. However, the one that would bring about the Beloved Community, for which both Martin Luther King and John Lewis spent their lives advocating, requires compassionate listening.

Ignored listening makes no effort to listen. Pretend listening gives a feigned appearance to being listening. Selective listening hears what interests or serves one's agenda. Empathic listening hears with both one's heart and mind to understand the speaker's feelings and struggles. However, what Martin Luther King preached about the Beloved Community, and John Lewis wrote about in his final request to us as Americans, requires compassionate listening.

Compassionate listening and empathic listening are related. They differ in that compassionate listening not only hears with one's heart and mind, but it's listening with an impetus to help and to improve the lives of the suffering. Compassion means "to suffer together." From a theological perspective, I understand compassion to be both rooted in a praxis of action and an ethic of social justice. In other words, it is a type of consciousness and an "awokeness" to others distress - emotionally, personally, and systemically - with a desire to alleviate the suffering. Also, compassionate listening is an understanding of the interconnectedness between ourselves and others. It allows you to see the "other" as yourself, which is sacred. Compassion listening opens us up to the world and provides an opportunity for radical inclusion.

Moving forward as a nation in the aftermath of Floyd’s death and in honoring the legacy of John Lewis, who said, "we can redeem the soul of our nation" if we embrace intersectional concerns and goals to best address systemic racism and police violence. James Baldwin said, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

It starts with listening!

~ Rev. Irene Monroe




3 thoughts on “A White Man Makes the Case for Reparations, Part 1

  1. Dear John: I believe Jeremiah would have said to Donald Trump,“You have treated the Coronavirus wound lightly,out of the 160,000 who already died,more than 115,000 of them were Afro-Americans, or 2.5 times of the white Americans.”
    And when D.Trump asked the Four-Star General to walk with him out of the White house while the police forces pushed all the peaceful demonstrating crowd aside in order for D.Trump to get a book of the bible from the Episcopal church for just a photograph of him, it showed his total ignorance of what former President Abe Lincoln was all about. In Contrast, (500 of the Chinese Doctors and Nurses have died to save 800,000 from the confirmed Coronavirus people in China with a total of 4,500 deaths and now zero new cases in the 14000,000 here.)
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

  2. Dear John: China is a peace-loving country with no one to own a gun in the civilian homes. In Suzhou where I live, there are little children playing in the community at 10 PM without fear. My grandson Howard will enter Kindergarten at three years old. Out of the 14,000,000 people there is zero cases of Coronavirus positive tests any where.And there are no “black and white”or any sexual discrimination any where. Although China has a strong Army, strong Navy, and a very strong Air force to protect against other invaders, this country has been at peace for the past 30 years. The dirty water that was poured on China by the American political leaders only indicates their total ignorance of China. China pays her dues to the UN and to the WHO. She does not send her Navy ships to threaten any other country either.
    Eugene, from Suzhou

  3. Reading the article on reparations by Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer, I recalled some of my own difficulties that I faced in this country especially from Whites and a few Blacks also. Once opportunities were denied and hurdles placed legally or subtly or both, I realized how my life was negatively impacted both on a professional and personal level. With a desire to do well and a hope that things will improve, I kept on laboring trusting God till I realized that I was chasing a “wind”.

    I can well imagine the plight of the Black community and their anger towards the Whites and those who denied them opportunities and forced them to live a life filled with indignities from one generation to the next. The riots and the mayhem that followed George Floyd’s death point to a deep malaise that continues to be a part of this “Christian” society and “Christian” people. Added to this are the politicians who successfully modified the legal system to criminalize whole communities especially Blacks.

    Many years ago, I read Randall Robinson’s book, “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks”. US along with other nations owe a lot to the Blacks (who were sold into slavery and then into generational slavery) and other communities that have been severely marginalized. Jews and Japanese have been compensated for the wrongs that they suffered. I sincerely hope an apology and adequate reparations by relevant authorities towards the Blacks will be done.

    While composing my comment, I recall an Episcopalian (white gentleman whom I respected) say to me a few times that to have a harmonious society we as individuals and as a community should forgive our “enemies.”

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