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Race and Repentance In America

Our current racial dramas have their roots hundreds of years ago, and nothing less than pulling out those roots will heal the situation today. America needs to reconcile with our racial history — seeking genuine atonement and making meaningful amends. Until such time, tortured race relations will continue to plague us with more and more tragic results.

It’s interesting that we even use the phrase “race relations,” given how little we register that this is even about a relationship. The relationship between blacks and whites as groups in America is psychologically and emotionally dysfunctional, to say the least, and until this is dealt with on the level of the cause and not just effects, we will continue to play out over and over again the cycle of violence at its core.

It’s difficult to deal emotionally with the history of slavery in America, which is why many whites have chosen not to. Yet it’s imperative that we do, because until we see clearly the line of development leading from slavery to the Civil War to the Ku Klux Klan to the civil rights movement to “benign neglect” to the “prison-industrial complex,” America will continue to misunderstand the real problem. This is not just about how many bullets were shot into Michael Brown. The shots that matter most here are way, way too many to count.

Slavery existed in slave owning states in America beginning in the 1600s, increased significantly with the expansion of the cotton industry in the early 1800s, and did not end until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. When finally freed, the slave population in America at that time was somewhere around 4 million.

But the legacy of the Civil War did not end at Appomattox. The stroke of a presidential signature on the Emancipation Proclamation, even an amendment to the Constitution, could end the evil of an external institution but not the pathology that produced it. External remedies do not of themselves address internal causes. Slavery ended but the racism that gave rise to it did not, only burrowing more deeply into the fabric of Southern society after the Civil War.

During the Reconstruction Era from 1865 to 1877, with federal troops stationed throughout their states, a vanquished South had to come to terms with the fact that they had lost the war. With Lincoln’s assassination, gone was the voice proclaiming “malice towards none, and charity for all.” Bitterness over having had to go through what they went through to win the war was the main emotional tone of the North, and the humiliation of defeat was the main emotional tone of the South.

With their painful defeat came the eradication of the South’s primary economic engine, all social and political privilege, and an entire way of life. In addition, carpetbaggers descended from the North to loot, manipulate, and take whatever advantage possible of an already devastated population. Had Lincoln lived, things might have gone very differently. But he did not.

Many in the South, not surprisingly, then turned their rage at having lost the war against the people whom they saw as its cause. The last thing certain Southerners were ready to do was concede true equality of

social status to blacks. And thus began an era of white supremacy in the American South, which was almost as ugly as slavery itself.

If slavery marked Phase 1 of America’s black-white relationship, then the reign of white supremacy after the Civil War marked Phase 2.

Former slave owners had not necessarily awakened to the deep humanity of African-Americans; they simply could no longer own them. Their sense of entitlement and the violence it spawned simply morphed into new forms. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, founded in the 1860s, began a wave of terror in which lynching — hangings carried out by angry mobs — of black Americans as well as of whites seeking to help them became common. Once federal troops were withdrawn from the Southern states in 1877 and White Supremacists regained control of Southern State legislatures, blacks were routinely intimidated and attacked to prevent their voting in state and federal elections. Violence around elections became normal, with lynching reaching a peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the period between 1890 and1908, southern legislatures passed new constitutions and electoral rules to disfranchise most blacks and many poor whites. They enacted a series of segregation and Jim Crow laws to enforce second-class status against blacks.

The horrors of institutionalized white supremacy were ultimately met and repudiated by the rise of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement during the 1960s. Their struggle, of course, was not easy, and Dr. King received both professionally and personally the full force of supremacist rage. From the lynching of integration rights workers, to police brutality, to church bombings, and ultimately the murder of Dr. King, the white supremacist movement did not go down quietly. Love is the only force that is powerful enough to overcome hate, and Dr. King displayed that love with the full force of his being. His non-violent message struck the heart of a nation, ultimately awakening America to the need for federal civil rights legislation. And it came to pass.

A cursory reading of history might lead one to think, “So then it was all handled, right?” But unfortunately the answer is no. The monster of racism clearly has many heads, and every time one has been bitten off, another one has arisen. The hot violence of slavery was replaced by the burrowing violence of white supremacy, which was then replaced by the cold violence of benign neglect.

Thus began Phase 3 of our tortured race relationship. “Benign neglect” is a phrase first articulated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he was Urban Affairs Advisor to President Richard Nixon, arguing that the drama of the Civil Rights movement should be followed by a period of more or less quiet in the relationship between blacks and whites. It was not necessarily a proactively racist sentiment on Moynihan’s part, or even on Nixon’s. But it was an abandonment of a healing process nevertheless, and in that sense at least a passive betrayal of the relationship. To say to a formerly enslaved population, “Be glad! You’re not slaves anymore, and you’re not going to be routinely lynched or kept from voting!” — while good, indeed very good — was still not restitution. And nothing short of restitution will constitute a real amends and redeem the soul of America. It wasn’t enough that slaves in America were freed. The question remains: What were they freed to?

Civil rights legislation, with its signature Voting Rights Act, was extremely important in integrating African-Americans into the voting pool. But of itself it did little to integrate African-Americans into America’s economy. And people who are left out economically are left out, period. The era of race relations post-civil rights movement has paralleled the advancement of American society in general, in which a relatively small part of our population — blacks, as well as whites — has done very well, while the majority has hardly moved forward at all. “Blacks go to Harvard; blacks get rich; see, a black man became president!” is now the mantra used to justify a continuation of a policy of benign neglect. The fact that geniuses can make it in America doesn’t of itself mean that social justice exists in America. Not everyone is a genius, but everyone should matter.

Yes, it is true — and very much to be celebrated — that blacks have opportunities in America today unheard of 50 years ago, but that of itself does not constitute full economic justice. The poor in America are all benignly neglected now. As long as 1 percent of our people control 40 percent of our wealth and 60 percent of our people live on 2.3 percent of our wealth, economic justice for the majority of Americans of any color isn’t even on the short list of our national priorities.

One in five American children live in poverty today, making us the second highest child poverty rate in the advanced world. Among black children, however, the poverty rate hovers at 40 percent. A black male has a one in three lifetime probability of incarceration in the United States, lending credence to Michelle Alexander’s description of America’s “cradle to prison pipeline.” These problems are not discreet and newly formed; they are the continuation, the legacies, of a situation that began in the 1600s and still plagues us today. It’s not as though the situation finally erupted into violence on the streets of Ferguson. The situation erupts into violence in the hearts of black mothers and fathers all over America every day, as they teach their children — particularly their sons — how to behave in order to avoid the unequal application of criminal justice in America. For America has fallen into a terrible pattern in the area of race, as in so many others: don’t heal the disease, just suppress or seek to eradicate the systems. The message communicated by most governmental action is this: “Don’t keep blacks down, necessarily — just don’t lift them up. The geniuses among them will make their way. If and when they complain or act out, we have police and prisons to show ’em who’s boss.”

Yet heal the disease we must. And the most significant healing of any societal woe emerges from justice done. Blacks in America have been trained to ask for so little, as though God knows, we’ve done enough. We’ve done enough, white America..? What, in the name of God, have we done? We spend millions on anti-poverty programs and billions on prisons. In fact, we haven’t even apologized. It’s much easier for someone to forgive you when you’ve had the courtesy to apologize, and much easier for them to get over it if you’ve had the decency to fix the problem.

We need to apologize, and we need to make genuine amends. America needs to pay long overdue war reparations, and until we do, we will not move forward in any meaningful way. America needs more than forgiveness; we need genuine repentance, and restitution for our national sins.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton suggested we have a “national conversation about race,” suggesting perhaps that if we talk about it enough then maybe the problem will go away. But it’s difficult to have an authentic conversation when half of the people involved in the dialogue have over two hundred years of understandable rage to express. There are situations in life — and race in America is one of them — where talk without action does not heal a wound, but only exacerbates it. Whites and blacks have a relationship in America, but it is an unequal one. One side owes something to the other, and until the debt is paid, the relationship will remain unhealed. The very mention of actually paying something back to people we enslaved for two hundred fifty years is still not on the table, not really. And until it is, then America will not be free.

America spends over $600 billion a year on defense. Over $1 trillion has been spent on the Iraq War, seen now to have been the biggest foreign policy blunder in America’s history. Yet no one ever asked if we “could afford it.” So it should not be considered unreasonable to suggest that America put $200 billion toward a Reparations Plan For African Americans: an educational, economic and cultural fund to be disbursed over a ten year period by a council of esteemed African American leaders. Not piecemeal things, like Affirmative Action. But the real deal — in a big way — with the emotional, economic and social magnitude it deserves. Incremental changes often add up to no fundamental change at all.

Reparations are not a radical idea; they’re considered a basic tenet of social and political policy throughout the world. Why should America not pay reparations to the descendants of slaves who were brought to America against their will, used as slaves to build the Southern economy into a huge economic force, and then freed into a culture of further violence perpetrated against them? It’s not as though all that’s over now; if anything, the problem has grown within the cells and psyches of every generation since. America will continue to waste money on relatively limited fixes, until we buck up and pay this debt in a real way once and for all. Millions are indeed wasted if the billions we owe here are not paid. A Reparations Plan would provide a massive investment in educational and economic opportunities for African Americans — rendered as payment for a long overdue debt. Until that debt is paid, the cycle of violence that began in the 1600s and continues to this day will continue to haunt our psyche and disrupt our social good. It is time for America to atone for our past in both word and deed, and to heal our weary soul.