Monday, June 16, 2014

How could it make sense for US to pay reparations for slavery?

Just the idea of a current population receiving payment for some generations-ago wrong sets a lot of red flags waving. While it seems justice might be served if one-on-one individual wrongs could be compensated, to trace generations of inequity to a current reality seems logistically impossible. The concept seemed so ridiculously complex that just contemplating it has always seemed prohibitive.
TinCan for collecting Reparations
So I've been skeptical about the idea of reparations. Who would pay and who would be paid? How would it work? And most of all, how could it possibly be equitable?

Now, I've read Ta-Nehisi Coates's The Case for Reparations in The Atlantic, and he's convinced me to take a different perspective. He says,
wrestling publicly with these questions [about reparations] matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.

Looking back, I've lived a pretty whitewashed life.

In the Sixties, I believed, the US was successfully eliminating racism. Growing up in suburban NY, I didn't give much thought to the one black family who lived quietly across the street. I attended an integrated school system; blacks and Puerto Ricans bused in from the Projects sat next to me in class, but it never crossed my mind that their lives were different from mine.

I've always thought that the news media was fairly representative of reality, even if each slanted stories toward its owners' political agenda. I could see why racial tensions ran high in the Fifties. Clearly there were Civil Rights inequities, and the Great Society legislation was an essential corrective step toward equality under the law.

I admit to being shocked in high school when my mother took me along to "rent" an apartment as part of an equal housing investigation and we were offered the unit that the minority family had been told was rented. The discrimination just made no sense to me. I have never been able to fathom why anyone would prejudicially exclude or deprecate another or waste their potential. But after the Sixties' Civil  Rights victories in Congress, much of the racially divided reactivity seemed to be a result of overwrought hype. After all, the reforms made things better.

As I went through employment and housing and educating my child, it never occurred to me that there were still disparities in how people were treated. I lived in DC and on the poor side of Nashville; as a foster child advocate, I saw people in low income housing with more high end electronics than I could afford, so how bad off could they really be. After the bubble burst, my condo complex filled with foreclosures, but that seemed more a result of the economy, our flood damage, and HOA ineptitude than racial discrimination. I thought the disparities I saw were a matter of corporate greed and personal priorities rather than public policies.

Looking around, my view has been colored by White Privilege.

Before last year I was viscerally aware of Male Privilege and Class Privilege, but I was simply colorblind to White Privilege. When I first read about White Privilege, my lived reality of Male Privilege made my AHA moment more sad acknowledgement than shocked epiphany. I'd always thought it unfair to leave people locked in a cycle of poverty without providing any means to improve. I'd railed against educational misdirection and prisons as punishment rather than rehabilitation. But I'd never considered the institutionalized biases that lay the foundation for societal collusion.

For a long time, I had believed in America as a meritocracy. I thought being smart and being right created progress. I bought in to the American Dream and worked hard to earn my share. After decades of effort that wasn't enough to burst through the glass ceiling, the collar I wore was ostensibly white, but its pink stains ensured any ring I chased would turn out to be brass rather than gold. Still, it took years more to realize that the futility of my quest was an intended consequence of Privilege Culture.

When you realize the field is uneven, it's wise to stop playing the game that's stacked against you. The problem, of course, was that having internalized the rules so well, I still habitually continued the same ignorant patterns, benefitting without awareness of my part of Privilege, though fully aware of its constraints. I didn't realize until I took my Privileged lenses off, how multi-dimensional the rules of Privilege are.

As I paid more attention to the metaphors of living, it became easier to recognize other built-in rankings of the system. He rules all pronouns (and is therefore God). Kings trumps queens. Life is a battle with winners and losers. More is better. In this Black and White world, you're either wrong or right. And if you have power and might, you will always lord it over ALL.

History sets these rules in, if no longer stone, well documented texts. Certainly my history classes in school had whitewashed a world of historic information. Much of what I'd learned, not just about slavery but about the Jim Crow era and American Apartheid was muted into tolerable tones. But even beyond schoolbook history, my view of much of what has happened during my own lifetime of participation and witness has been skewed not just by Class Privilege but by White Privilege.

As I read more over the past year, I learned about the systemic ghetto-ization of the north during the migration out of southern oppression, and I began to comprehend better the culture that perpetuated what my Nashville friend Cassandra called Colored Time and her resentment of The Man. I could see where her attitude arose. Not only were neighborhoods redlined and education and opportunities limited, but there was no happenstance or choice to the racial divide; it was systemic and intentional.

Separate was never equal, and integration did little to mitigate the starting inadequacies of multigenerational poverty and the continuing institutionalization of inequity. Further, those in power knew the cause and effect of the systemic discrimination, tokenly addressed it, and intentionally ignored real resolution. As President Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1965,
These differences [between Negro and white poverty] are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice, and present prejudice.
In the Sixties, I thought LBJ was advantageously exploiting the momentum of an unstoppable Civil Rights movement. I thought he and sane national leaders recognized the impropriety of the status quo and that with the Great Society legislation as codification of America's true values, equality was finally not only on the books but truly launched.  I imagined that every person was poised to fulfill their potential. It took a while before I noticed that the ensuing years kept everyone frozen in place, gazing into a draining pool of possiblilities.

Looking ahead, I see how oppressively enmeshing Privilege Culture still is.

Safari parks put people in a caged vehicle to drive through the zoo. Privilege Culture is like that, displaying its rich and famous opulence for all to see while carefully constraining where the observers can actually go and what they can do.

We hear about the 1% and we see the devastating effects of their choices on programs and policies that support majorities of the American people. My vote and my power have been co-opted by the 1% elite. Greedy corporations advance their own short-term profits, summarily dismissing long term consequences not only for the climate and environment but also for the economy, the broader community, and all future potential.

This exclusionary Privilege myopia ignores the needs of real people as cavalierly as medieval kings did. And just as in feudal society's pyramidal hierarchy, Privilege Culture structures its spheres of influence as rigidly as any caste system. The impenetrable glass ceiling through which I might longingly gaze is only one dimension; today's cunningly crafted cells constricting multiply-unprivileged individuals are as straight-jacket tight as the noose of its mob enforcement terrorism was.

My vision of equalizing changes my granddaughter's future needs is so much broader than the simple leveling changes necessary to bring impoverished children and deprived minority families to today's starting point. And there lies the crux of reparations.

Correcting Privilege Culture takes more than rules.

Emancipation and Civil Rights: The rule changed but  not much else.
Juneteenth famously celebrates the nominal end of slavery, but in the century after June 19, 1865, little changed. As well-meaning as the Civil Rights legislation of the Sixties was, it wasn't enough to overcome Privilege-wrought history and its intentional, systemic oppression. A piece of paper cannot correct ancient brutality and past injustice, and laws have proven to be dauntingly ineffective for improving present prejudice.

Without "wrestling publicly" with the multidimensional abuses of Privilege Culture, we'll never recognize the formidible barriers today's unspoken rules erect around free choice. As African-American law professor KimberlĂ© Crenshaw said, "Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability and ethnicity.” This intersectionality, as she called it, permeates the rules of our society's Privilege Culture in a complex, constrictive, and toxic formula of oneupmanship.

Until we disentangle the well-integrated societal infrastucture, the plethora of petty Privilege Culture patterns will continue to intersect in lethal constrictions preventing progress. It isn't just each more-oppressed group that suffers from being held down and back; it's the entirety.

Without a dialogue about equity and fairness, nothing will change; those who exert domination will continue to believe it is the only way. Until they hear and see and recognize and understand that there is another way, their myopic Privilege Culture viewpoint will blind them to options.

As long as might is equated with power, it will claim its right to unilateral domination. It's not just bombs and automatic weapons that create the devastation: it's the people whose war-based worldview make them willing to crush others to usurp their share. Warmongers think nothing of wreaking devastation on whatever is in their way. From that war-culture mindset, the 1%'s NRA-directed minions arm the world with weapons of mass destruction -- of both the physical and metaphoric kind.

We live in a world riddled with gut-piercing poverty. We suffer the false promise of representation. We endure the abuse of systemic inequity.  Until we stop following the rules, we'll continue to accept the patterns of oppression as if they are the way of the world.

Effective reparations create change.

If we think today's world is unfair, the question can't be Should we pay reparations for slavery? Of course we must. But then we owe an awful debt to the Native American population, too. While those societal burdens can't be questioned, what we have to wonder is how can we ever repay the ongoing abuse of so much unearned Privilege. And yet, the question can't become a debate of how much which individuals should get because we all remain enslaved, downtrodden, and abused to some extent, beholden mentally and emotionally if not also financially to the systems established by the ruling 1%: earning wages, profitting from stocks, hedging against the future, scrambling desperately for More.

The system has shifted little in millennia, and we are all living as if this is the only way the world can operate. Fixing what is wrong, though, means we must question the pyramidal assumptions of Privilege Culture's multilayered intersectional infrastructure.

Unless we are able to settle the reparations issue in a way that enables every person to have equal opportunity to achieve their full potential, we haven't addressed the fundamental disparity. It isn't a matter of paying; it's a matter of playing fair. What's needed is not a token transaction; what's needed is a total regauging, a systemic shift, a paradigm realignment. Until we all realize that getting mine at the expense of yours is the essence of the problem, all the money in the world won't correct the matter.

The correction reparations seeks must be an ongoing rebalancing, not a temporary analgesic. Reparations must shift the balance not only of financial spoils but of power. To pay reparations must change the structure of our entire world.

Committing to reparations means we must ask not who gets how much but: How can we create the systemic underpinnings for equity and fairness? Considering our responsibility as a society for making reparations means we must enter the dialogue open to new ways not only of doing but of being. We must discuss how we can change the system to level the field, rewrite the rules, and change the governing metaphor of America.

When we view the success of reparations to be inclusivity and equity for all, seeking to redress old wrongs make perfect sense, not just for the descendants of slaves but for everyone.

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