By David J. Ragland
Recent headlines reinforce how little progress has been made in terms of economic justice for African Americans. An exhaustive report by the Center for Investigative Journalism examined current redlining practices that fuel gentrification. Combing through over 31 million mortgages, investigators found that bankers regularly sidestep the Fair Housing Act. They are more likely to provide loans to whites than to black and brown people. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ influential 2014 article in The Atlantic, “How to Steal Things, Exploit People, and Avoid all Responsibility,” immediately comes to mind. In it he recounted the redlining and predatory lending of banks and the scummy practices of landlords toward black tenants immediately after the end of the formal Jim Crow era. Little or nothing has changed.
Considering the countless stories of bias, I question what exactly is needed to reverse or at least halt the economic devastation of communities, a devastation that often stops temporarily in one locale and then morphs into something worse. We need more than tears over injustice that sees middle class majority communities permitted to succeed while poor communities are engineered to fail. We need white accountability. What costs are white people willing to bear to heal this moral injury?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, however problematic, was a hard reset for that nation to begin grappling with the effects of its apartheid system under white minority rule. The Nuremberg Tribunal after World War II addressed the Jewish Holocaust. At that time, the U.S. and its allies required nations like Germany and Japan to create new constitutions including provisions on peace and human dignity, as well as education in those principles to insure their implementation. The U.S. has done nothing similar for itself. Our continuing American state of denial has brought us to constant war both abroad and at home. War abroad is perpetuated by exorbitant military spending. War at home is maintained by excessive policing budgets, racist immigration policies, and neo-Jim Crow era policies that allow banks to skirt the law. All this undermines fairness and human decency. A hard reset is needed. What actions might generate accountability for the unearned privileges in immigration policy, bank policy, and policing that the (current) white majority of Americans receive?
Calls for reparations for the slavery of African Americans continue to grow. In 2016 a U.N. panel’s study, emerging from the United Nations Decade on People of African Descent, found that reparations are indeed owed to African Americans. The University of Pennsylvania Law School recently hosted a conference on reparations, and New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge has a series of ongoing conversations around the subject.
The traditional approach is legal. Nations like Jamaica and Namibia have demanded reparations for Britain’s and Germany’s role in slavery and colonialism, and black lawmakers in the United States (John Conyers, John Muhammad, and Marlon Kimpson) have introduced calls for studies and legislation. A different, grassroots, approach is exemplified by groups who are taking reparations into their own hands. Soul Fire Farm works to challenge racism in the food supply chain, while Southern Reparations Loan Fund supports startups that provide services to black communities in the South. Similarly, through a continuous struggle, a group of activists in Chicago was able to get financial reparations for victims of torture by the Chicago Police.
Most of us think of reparations as a direct transfer of money from the government. The most recent calculations of what is owed to black people for slavery, colonialism, and their effects, according to Newsweek, is in the trillions. However, many of the groups working against white resistance to monetary reparations have found that there are other options, moral options that require us to look deeply at our shared history. Let’s consider what the effects of this legacy are.
A brief history of an enormous moral injury
Slavery and colonialism, which provided the capital in capitalism, framed and created the economic structure of the early U.S. economy and the industry of Western Europe that made these places the economic powerhouses they are today. Meanwhile, according to acclaimed legal scholar Derrick Bell, the depraved state of slaves in the U.S. shaped the idea of white identity, making even very poor whites believe themselves superior to blacks. As a result, black people have historically been used to bring poor whites to the side of wealthy white elites.
The notorious 1917 race riots in East St. Louis were started by white workers, returning from World War I, who blamed blacks for the low wages and loss of jobs they discovered when they got home. In a recent Yes! Magazine article, my colleagues and I described how:
…over 7,000 Black people fled for their lives and between 200 and 500 were murdered by angry White gangs unhindered by authorities. The roots of this travesty are familiar; the elite used working-class White frustration to deflect their unwillingness to provide fair-labor environments, and Blacks and other people of color become targets.
The elite factory owners of course never spoke up to say, “No, it was us, we hired those Blacks because we wanted to drive down wages!”
Similarly today, Black folks (and other people of color) have repeatedly been used to stoke the fire of public fear and keep poor working whites voting for candidates and choosing public policies that are not in their interests. Ian Haney Lopez’s book Dog Whistle Politics describes how it works in detail. From this point of view, slavery, and all other forms of genocide, has all along been part of the pacification of white immigrants to North America.
The list of these moves is so long. They include farm subsidies (which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as having their roots in the westward expansion, the Trail of Tears making way for white settlers despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision to the contrary); convict leasing (which provided free labor to white businesses after slavery); the rising prison population housed in rural facilities (employing entire white towns); and current waves of gentrification in cities like Detroit, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and New York that still face redlining and unchecked predatory loan practices.
To speak about reparations today, then, requires us to think about a deep and continuing moral harm. This harm began with the theft of people from their homelands in Africa followed by forced labor, rape, abuse, forced reproduction, experiments on black bodies, theft of ideas and inventions. Even after slavery was officially abolished, it essentially continued in the form of forced work, convict leasing, continued rape, race-based assaults and lynchings under the Jim Crow system. Likewise, after the formal end of Jim Crow, we see the continuation of segregation practices and policies in police killings of black people with no accountability; unequal education; murder and imprisonment of black activists and leaders; placing drugs in black communities followed by a “war on drugs” that translated into war on black people and their communities.
The worst thing about the list of injustices I’ve just shared is that I can’t name them all, because we continue to learn the extent of the legacy of violence against African Americans. And Black people in the U.S. aren’t the only ones affected by this legacy. There are so many other groups who have experienced the same kind of violence – for example, Latinos and Native Americans: basically, anyone non-white.
As if this weren’t bad enough, each generation of those experiencing violence learns from the previous one and inherits intergenerational trauma. This trauma is more than just a succession of horrifying stories. According to Dr. Joyce Degruw, the embodied stress of being black in this country affects us at the cellular level. In addition, the perpetration of unrelenting violence on a group of people had to be justified with racial pseudo-science championed by religion, by the social sciences, by the humanities, and by academic institutions that still exist and profit from their foundations in racism to this day. What makes this history so sad is that many still believe much of this pack of lies that was peddled to white and non-white folk alike.
And this is the very definition of moral injury: after each wrong, the injustice of silencing. Over generations, such silence deeply impacts people’s perception of themselves and their life possibilities. The trauma is systematic and ongoing. That there are still movements, people speaking out and successfully navigating systems of oppression, is a testament to resilience and agency. Yet it is not enough. And a president who uses racist insults, threats, and the encouragement of violence to get elected is only a logical result of the “unbegun” business of racial reconciliation.
Can we ever truly heal the racial divide between Black (non-White) and White people? Yes we can.
Present material conditions, redlining, and gentrification
The solutions required must emerge from and be shaped by a grassroots approach. They must be informed by an awareness of the legacy of violent colonization, an understanding of the lived reality of what most Black folk experience, and a willingness of White folks and institutions to follow Black leadership in our struggles.
The Center for Investigative Journalism’s recent report on mortgages denied to Blacks and Latinos, cited above, examined over 31 million mortgage records in 61 metro areas. It points out how banks under Obama, and now under Trump, have used the Fair Housing Act to drive gentrification. What should have been a federally mandated program to help black people buy homes is now being used by most banks – Chase, Santander, Wells Fargo and the list goes on – to provide loans to Whites who in many cases have worse credit and very little cash to put down.
The Pro Publica report entitled “The Color of Debt” describes the likelihood of bill collectors to go after black people as opposed to similarly situated whites, and the focus of law enforcement on black communities instead of white communities that have more drug traffic and crime. And while the public is deeply engaged with addressing mass school shootings, we have to remember how the response to Columbine was “zero tolerance” policies that disproportionately impact urban schools that Black and Latino Students are likely to attend – even though these demographics are far less likely to experience the kind of violence toward which “zero tolerance” policies are supposedly directed. Instead, such policies contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, since the higher proportion of Black students suspended and expelled increases those students’ chances of incarceration. In addition, Black students often face harsher discipline than their white counterparts. Much of that has to do with teacher bias toward Black and Latino students.
Studies that report how little progress African Americans have made in terms of home ownership and employment, and that document the increase of Black incarceration, do little to change the mind of many. Rather than attributing this lack of progress to racial discrimination, a disturbing percentage of White people believe Blacks are less intelligent and more criminal, sadly reinforcing a sense of moral superiority that justifies awarding mortgages and employment opportunities to less qualified Whites. Grasping this vicious circle should make White people question their sense that where they are and what they have is purely the result of their own hard work. It should make them question the very notion of fairness.
To summarize: Black and many non-white people are subjected to many injustices. These injustices have a direct correlation to the privileges or justices white people benefit from. Let me repeat: Your privilege directly connects to a loss of possibility for safety or peace of mind or wealth building for a non-white person.
The question that White people and majority institutions must answer is not whether or not they believe the evidence. It is what they are willing to do. Will you hire Black people to positions of authority, or offer them opportunities, contracts, internships in your own field of work? Studies show that Black people are still less likely to be hired, despite a few prominent Blacks in the public spotlight. If you believe in fairness, what kind of reparative justice are you willing to enact?
Understand that learning and knowing about these injustices is the very tip of the beginning. When the Truth Telling Project of Ferguson shared the testimony of many activists and families who were victimized by police violence, many white people listened and were affected. Yet their emotion does not change our material conditions.
The current material conditions of African Americans are extensions of slavery. Corresponding racial attitudes, and biases surrounding the maintenance of those attitudes, reach into every dimension of American life. Even if your parents immigrated to the U.S. and you are only a second generation citizen, if you are White you are more likely to receive a mortgage, a second mortgage, or a home improvement loan than I am – and my family has been here for centuries. Your kids are less likely to be suspended or encounter the criminal justice system than mine. You are safer from police than my family and I.
The injustice you experience exists, in part, because we live in an unjust nation. At times, that impacts us all. Yet all White people, even poor ones, share in the accountability due for the moral injury against Black folk (and other non-white folk) in the U.S. Did you get a mortgage in a gentrifying neighborhood? If so, what do you owe? To find out if banks are discriminating in your community, text LOAN to 202-873-8325. Then make up your mind about what you are going to do.
Dr. David J. Ragland is co-founder and co-executive director of The Truth Telling Project and director of the Grassroots Reparations Campaign. He is a visiting professor at the Pacifica Graduate Institute and served as Sr. Bayard Rustin Fellow at the Fellowship of Reconciliation from 2016-2019.