Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking during a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on reparations for slavery on Capitol Hill on June 19.
Forty acres and a mule. That’s what was promised former slaves after the civil war. It didn’t happen. Promises made and broken. Now the House of Representatives has held hearings on the idea of reparations, an idea that even President Barack Obama rejected as “impractical.”
Randall W. BachmanAdvocates made it clear they don’t want 40 acres or a mule. But they do want something of value to compensate for broken promises, slavery, Jim Crow, and what they continue to see as the effects of systematic racism. If not a government check, how about vouchers for college, zero interest loans for housing, job training or the like?
All this would be a start, but would it really make up for 300 years of discrimination? It is doubtful that any mix of measures would completely satisfy those who are bringing forth what they consider to be legitimate grievances. Besides, the point is moot given the current political situation, which means even if the House passed something it wouldn’t get through the Senate or the White House. So we’re stuck, I guess. Stuck in looking for something on the federal level, except maybe hearings to raise awareness. Maybe we should focus our attention on what could be done at the state or local level. Or maybe what could be done at the individual level without the support of government. What would that be? Not sure.
As a descendant of white European non-slave owners, some of whom were Quakers, I am tempted to say I have no personal responsibility for past sins. I’m sure many others feel the same way. Still, I’m left with a nagging feeling that we should collectively do something regardless of our ancestors’ history. And while we are at it, let’s address the injustices imposed on other populations, such as Native Americans, Chinese laborers who built the railroads in the 1800s, and laborers such as miners from different ethnic groups who were murdered for union organizing. Where to draw the line? What would reparations look like for them as well? Not sure.
I am left with an unsatisfactory ambivalence, which I’m sure many others feel. However, it is not about my comfort or me. It’s about having uncomfortable conversations. How about we start with a collective apology, followed by an invitation to talk?
Randall Bachman is a retired Health and Human Services administrator from Afton.
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