“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.”Luke 3:8
The below picture was taken during the Memphis Sanitation Strike in 1968. I have included it because it shows the position I hope to take as a white person making a case for black reparations. Dr. King described this position in his last book Where Do We Go From Here. He wrote:
“The white liberal must see that the Negro needs not only love but also justice. It is not enough to say, ‘We love Negroes, we have many Negro friends.’ They must demand justice for Negroes. Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all…A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”
Dr. King also wrote:
“White liberals must be prepared to accept a transformation of their role. Whereas it was once a primary and spokesman role, it must now become a secondary and supportive role.”
This is the position I hope to take as a white person making a case for black reparations.
We will first discuss reparations as understood by Kwon and Thompson in their new book Reparations[i]. We will discuss the essence of racism, the essence and effect of white supremacy, the role and ethic of the church, and the essence and effect of reparations. We will then discuss The Witness Foundation Fellowship as an opportunity to practice reparations in Northwest Arkansas (NWA).
Reparations As Understood By Kwon And Thompson
The Essence of Racism
We must correctly understand the problem of racism before we try to solve it. If we misunderstand the problem then we may not make it better and we may make it worse. Kwon and Thompson write that the essence of racism in America is best understood as cultural brokenness and that cultural brokenness is best understood as white supremacy. In America racism is an individual problem that requires repentance, and an interpersonal problem that requires reconciliation, and an institutional problem that requires reform, and a cultural problem – white supremacy – that requires reparations.
I want to pause here to note that white Christians need to change our perspective: we need to understand that reconciliation is important but insufficient to get us from here to equality. In The Color of Compromise Jemar Tisby writes that most white Christians misunderstand the problem of racism: we understand racism as an individual or interpersonal problem but not as an institutional or cultural problem. Tisby writes that white Christians need to reconsider racial reconciliation, claiming friendships and conversations are important but insufficient to change the racial status quo. White Christians must widen our view of racism.
The above statements are supported by exhaustive analysis of white Christians in Divided by Faith by Emerson and Smith. When asked to explain the black / white socioeconomic gap, most white Christians cited the motivation of black people. Emerson and Smith write that the explanations of white Christians for racial inequality have changed little in the last 100 years:
“Now, as then, the racial gap is not explained by unequal opportunity or discrimination or shortcomings of the society as a whole, but rather by the shortcomings of blacks. Now, as then, the types of explanations given have important implications for how the inequality is addressed.”
When asked about solutions to racism, both white and black Christians agreed that getting to know people of another race is important; however, white Christians were less likely to agree that more structural solutions – like racially integrating churches or neighborhoods – are also important. Emerson and Smith comment:
“Like their forebears during Jim Crow segregation, who prescribed kindness toward people of other races and getting to know people across races, but did not challenge the Jim Crow system, present day white evangelicals attempt to solve the race problem without shaking the foundations on which racialization is built. As long as they do not acknowledge the structures of racialization, they inadvertently contribute to them.”
Emerson and Smith conclude that “white evangelicalism likely does more to perpetuate the racialized society than to reduce it.” Emerson and Smith’s analysis should alarm us: white Christians – while trying to solve the problem of racism – have misunderstood it. We have not made it better and we have made it worse[ii]. We must widen our view of racism.
The Essence and Effect of White Supremacy
Kwon and Thompson write that the essence of white supremacy is best understood as a belief – that white people and culture are normal and superior – used to justify a behavior – the exploitation of black people. The effect of white supremacy is best understood as the threefold theft of truth, wealth, and power.
Theft of truth is achieved by two forces: romanticization and erasure. By romanticization we mean that American history is told from white perspectives and that episodes that honor white people are emphasized. By erasure we mean that American history is not told from black perspectives and that episodes that dishonor white people are de-emphasized. An effect of theft of truth is the black / white monument gap. The Equal Justice Initiative reports that there are almost 2,000 confederate monuments in America and almost 50 in Arkansas today. While there are many monuments that honor the confederacy – a society founded on white supremacy and the exploitation of black people – there are relatively few monuments that honor the black people who were exploited[iii].
The Equal Justice Initiative also reports that there were over 4,000 racial terror lynchings in America and 492 in Arkansas between 1877 and 1950. On average that is approximately one lynching every week in America and one lynching every other month in Arkansas every year for 73 years.
Theft of wealth is achieved by two forces: extraction and obstruction. By extraction we mean that when black people have built wealth it has been taken from them by white supremacist systems. Slavery is the most obvious example. Enslaved black people not only created wealth that was taken from them by white people – they were wealth of white people. In The Case for Reparations Ta-Nehisi Coates reports that in 1860 enslaved black people represented the single greatest asset in the American economy – worth more than all other assets combined. By obstruction we mean that assistance given to white people to build wealth – the Homestead Act and FHA backed mortgages for example – has not been given to black people and that when black people have built wealth it has been met with white violence. The massacres of black people in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919 and Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 are examples. An effect of theft of wealth is the black / white socioeconomic gap. As 2014 data shows, the average black household has 61% of the income and only 8% of the wealth of the average white household and black households are 29% less likely than white households to own a home. Coates thus comments: “When we think of white supremacy, we picture COLORED ONLY signs, but we should picture pirate flags.”
Theft of power is achieved on two fronts: personal and political. By personal we mean that the personal power of black people – their agency over their bodies – has been suppressed by white supremacist systems – such as slavery, lynchings, mass incarceration, and unaccountable police shootings. By political we mean that the political power of black people – their agency over the body politic – has also been suppressed by white supremacist systems – such as the suppression of the black vote. An effect of theft of power is the black / white leadership gap. As 2019 data shows, while black people represent 13% of the US population they are under-represented in government. Black people represent 12% of the house of representatives, 3% of the senate, and 0% of governors.
The Role and Ethic of the Church
Kwon and Thompson write that the role of the American church has been complicity in white supremacy. By complicit we mean that – while there have been exceptions – as a rule the white American church has both actively and passively supported an American culture characterized by white supremacy. Tisby alludes to this fact in the title of his book The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. The first ethic of the church is restitution. The American church is culpable for the threefold theft of white supremacy. Like Zacchaeus in Luke 19 we are called to return what we have stolen. The second ethic of the church is restoration. Like the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 we are called to restore to wholeness those who have been stolen from.
The Essence and Effect of Reparations
Kwon and Thompson write that the essence of reparations is simply the ethical Christian response to the theft of white supremacy. Said differently, reparations is the fruit that the American church must bear in keeping with repentance for the theft of white supremacy. The effect of reparations is best understood as the threefold repair of truth, wealth, and power.
Kwon and Thompson write that reparations must be rooted in repentance – a new way of being (people of repair) – that results in a new way of living (practices of repair). To begin practices of repair we must commit to name lies and tell truth (repair truth), enable black wealth and share white wealth (repair wealth), and enable and submit to black leadership (repair power).
I want to pause here to note that white Christians need to change our perspective: we need to understand that reparations is not a ministry of mercy but of justice. This means that we must renounce control. Our primary orientation toward black people is not to test them – to evaluate the return on our investment – but to trust them – to return what we have stolen. I am not suggesting that we stand on the corner of College and Dickson and hand out $100 bills. I am suggesting that, humbled by the truth, we share white wealth and submit to black leadership. It is in this spirit that we ought to support black Christian leadership in NWA – to sponsor a fellow from NWA with The Witness Foundation.
The Witness Foundation Fellowship As An Opportunity To Practice Reparations In NWA
The mission of The Witness Foundation is to identify, train, and fund the next generation of black Christian leaders. Jemar Tisby – who lives in Helena, Arkansas – is the President of The Witness Inc and The Witness Foundation. He is a Christian historian, podcast host, and author of the New York Times bestselling The Color of Compromise. Tisby describes the birth of The Witness Foundation as based on “personal experience where as black Christians we have these visions, we have these passions, but what we don’t have are the resources to make them a reality and specifically financial resources. What that translates into is a lack of resources to put our God-given visions into motion.” The Witness Foundation Fellowship is a two year program – fellows receive $100,000 to further their work plus training and mentorship. Fellows must be black Christians who are working in one of three areas: spirituality, justice, or awareness. The Witness Foundation has given our community the opportunity to sponsor a fellow – if we can raise $100,000 and recruit a fellow from NWA then he or she may participate in the program. Additionally, the church partnership program is an opportunity for churches to partner with The Witness Foundation. When a church contributes $25,000 or more to help fund a fellow, The Witness Foundation provides training in the ARC of racial justice – awareness of racial injustice, multi-racial relationships, and commitment to racial justice – and an invitation to an annual church partner forum.
To make a case for reparations in NWA we have discussed reparations as understood by Kwon and Thompson in Reparations – the essence of racism, the essence and effect of white supremacy, the role and ethic of the church, and the essence and effect of reparations – and The Witness Foundation Fellowship as an opportunity to practice reparations in NWA. We have also noted two changes that white Christians must make. First, we must understand that reconciliation is important but insufficient to get us from here to equality – we must widen our view of racism. Second, we must understand that reparations is not a ministry of mercy but of justice – this means that we must renounce control. Finally, my family is giving to support black Christian leadership in NWA as an expression of repentance and reparations for the sin of white supremacy and I am asking you – reader and friend – to help us raise $50,000 by February 15, 2021 and $50,000 by February 15, 2022 – please give and ask your church to give – and recruit a fellow by January 5, 2021.[iv]
[iv] as of Mar 2021 we have raised $100,000