As Ta-Nehisi Coates documented recently in his long and compelling cover story for The Atlantic, The Case for Reparations, the government of the United States has perpetuated systemic injustice against African-Americans for centuries. These formal legal practices explain many of the broad demographic differences between white and black citizens of our nation, and they raise the question of whether the government ought to recognize the injustices of the past and work to repair them.
Of course the injustice against African-Americans begins with slavery, but Coates frames most of his argument around policies of the 20th century. And of course slavery and then Jim Crow remained firmly in place in the states south of the Mason-Dixon line, but Coates demonstrates the pervasive racism and discrimination that prevented African-Americans in the north from educational and professional advancement as well. For example, the Federal Housing Administration, created in 1934, “adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability… Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated ‘D’ and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing.” Similarly, the GI Bill was supposed to ensure low home loans for servicemen returning after WWII. And yet “so many blacks were disqualified from receiving [these] benefits ‘that it is more accurate simply to say that blacks could not use this particular title.'” Coates links this legal discrimination to ongoing poverty within African-American communities, which then links to lack of educational opportunities, lack of employment opportunities, high rates of imprisonment, and the dissolution of the family.
Coates’ article goes on for 15,000 words, and it is well worth reading for the history of abuse, disrespect, and degregation perpetrated by white Americans first upon African slaves and later upon African-Americans. Ultimately, Coates offers a convincing argument that the Congress of the United States of America should study the issue of reparations. He isn’t arguing what the outcome of that study should be. He isn’t arguing about the practicalities. He simply outlines the reason why our nation would benefit by addressing the grievous wrongs perpetrated even in recent history against a specific group of people—of citizens—in our country.
Plenty of other writers have responded. Kevin Williamson, writing for the National Review, offered The Case Against Reparations (to which Coates responded with The Case for American History). The Twittersphere erupted with reasons why Coates was wrong (many of those tweeting also betrayed themselves by not reading the article, as Gene Demby reported in How to Tell Who Hasn’t Read the New ‘Atlantic’ Cover Story). And Urban History has posted a two part response: The Case for Repair in which N.D.B. Connolly essentially argues that Coates’ only problem is that he hasn’t gone far enough.
In other words, plenty of other writers and thinkers are engaging the important questions about whether the government should respond to our sordid history of racism and segregation. No one needs my less-well-informed opinion on this matter. But it is worth asking how Christians should respond to Coates’ article. Coates argues that the persistent problem of racial hatred and animosity in this country is a spiritual problem. As he writes, “I’m talking about a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” Every instance of injustice poses a spiritual problem. This particular history of injustice implicates many white Christians (and some black Christians too). All humanity is debased when injustice is practiced on any fellow human being. Reparations imply repair. Reparations imply healing. And healing is something Christians ought to know about and care about.
For white Christians, Coates’ article should provoke serious reflection and action. First of all, we come from a tradition that recognizes not only individual sin but also corporate sin. Isaiah admits before the Lord that he comes “from a people of unclean lips.” Paul almost always writes to the church as a whole, not to individual believers. Scripture underlines the collective guilt we share, just as it calls us to our collective responsibility to do justice and love mercy.
And so we begin with confession, certainly for particular sins of racism but even for the sin we were unwittingly born into, the sin we did not advocate for or promote but that benefitted us nonetheless, the passive and active attitudes and actions of our ancestors who failed to advocate for full equality and justice for their fellow citizens. We confess that our privilege—educationally, financially, and even the lack of stigma that comes with white skin in this country—has come at the cost of justice for all.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Amy Julia Becker