Why Reparations Matter

This month, The Atlantic staff writer Ta-Nehisi Coates critiqued Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for dismissing reparations as a response to the violent legacy of race in America. For Coates, the failure to take reparations seriously exposes a flaw in the “liberal imagination.” White liberals imagine that racism will go away as the economy improves, a remedy that requires no reckoning with the past, no wrestling with the moral and psychological wounds of race. But Coates, rightly in my view, understands that racism will only be vanquished when Americans are willing to expose the American soul to scrutiny, judgment, and repair. “[Treating] a racist injury solely with class-based remedies,” Coates writes, “is like treating a gun-shot wound solely with bandages. The bandages help, but they will not suffice.”

Coates has made multiple arguments for reparations in the pages of The Atlantic, anchored by his 2014 essay, “The Case of Reparations.” Coates’s critics have often argued that a reparations program, by tying the demands of justice to race, threatens to exacerbate the very problems it intends to solve (see here and here). But as I read his arguments for reparations, Coates consistently emphasizes the process of repair at least as much as the policy implications of such a program. Reparations, Coates writes in the 2014 essay, is “more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe.” Instead, reparations means “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences;” it is “about a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” Coates is more specific on process than on program. Thus, in the earlier Atlantic essay and in his most recent one, Coates endorses Rep. John J. Conyers’ proposal to establish a commission to study the persistent legacy of American slavery and to make “recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies,” in order to identify an appropriate reparations program. “The problem of reparations,” Coates writes elsewhere, “has never been practicality. It has always been the awesome ghosts of history.” Coates calls us to reckon with these ghosts. At the heart of the reparations project for Coates is getting America to take responsibility for race, the insidious legacy of which includes but goes much deeper than economic disparities.

Repair is one among many moral languages of response to racism. In the white mainline Protestant traditions with which I am most familiar, the dominant language of response to racism has been reconciliation. The problem with reconciliation, as Jennifer Harvey argues in her excellent book Dear White Christians, is that it imagines that the problem of race is simply one of disunity. Thus, the “reconciliation paradigm,” as Harvey calls it, merely asks for re-unification without addressing the structural conditions under which racialized identities are created in the first place. In the university settings in which I have worked, dominant languages of response to racial issues include diversity, inclusion, and cultural competence, as though the fundamental problem is that people aren’t adequately prepared to understand one another’s cultural norms and practices in order to create diverse and inclusive communities. These practices are certainly necessary, but not sufficient, for addressing problems related to race.

Racism is at bottom a form of structural evil. In theological discourses, the idea of structural evil is often invoked but not often very well defined. That’s a problem that won’t be remedied in this short post. However, for the sake of this argument, let us define evil as something like the absence, distortion, or disordering of the good, as theologians have often argued over the centuries. If this is the case, then structural evil is generated in legal regimes, public policies, and political programs that systematically distort or disorder the good, specifically by privileging some dominant group(s) at the expense of other marginalized group(s). As theologian Cynthia Moe-Lodeba rightly points out, structural evil transcends individual action, while, paradoxically, also depending on active and passive individual action for its continued existence.

In the traditional view, in which evil amounts to a disordering, distortion, or absence of the good, the capacity to recognize evil ultimately depends on a capacity to recognize the good. What’s compelling about the moral language of repair as a response to racism, at least as Coates, Harvey, and others understand it, is that it requires us to ask hard questions about what needs repair. We must also ask what created the need for repair in the first place. And then we must ask how we might go about naming what is the good for all of us and how and why that potential good has been disordered. Repair requires us, in other words, to think clearly about what is good for all, how we’ve distorted the good, and what we can do to properly order that which has been disordered. Repair requires taking responsibility for both good and evil.

Public conversations about reparations matter because a proper response to evil is not only reconciliation, competence, inclusion, nor toleration of difference, but, more fundamentally, repair, the active process of first taking responsibility for structural evil and then acting in ways to dismantle it. Harvey argues that repair requires repentance on the part of those who have perpetrated structural evil. In calling for reparations, Coates is in effect calling for a process that begins with repentance – with actively taking responsibility for harm done, and then working to repair the harm. It might be that an adequate process of repair will ultimately include some “race-neutral” policies, as one of Coates’s critics calls them. What it doesn’t include is a simple evasion of responsibility by reducing race-related issues to class-related issues, as Sanders’ rhetoric has often implied, as though racism will simply go away as “rising tides lift all boats.”

John E. Senior

About John E. Senior

John E. Senior is Director of the Art of Ministry Assistant Teaching Professor of Ethics and Society for the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University and an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). His book, A Theology of Political Vocation: Christian Life and Public Office, was published in 2015.

John E. Senior

John E. Senior

John E. Senior is Director of the Art of Ministry Assistant Teaching Professor of Ethics and Society for the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University and an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). His book, A Theology of Political Vocation: Christian Life and Public Office, was published in 2015.

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