Racism, injustice and reparations

By Deirdre J. Good
March 16, 2009

Recently, as Reuben the dog and I walked up 10th Avenue here in New York, we saw a young woman of colour trying in vain to hail a taxi. Several passed right by her with their vacant signs alight. She waved her arm again. One of them rushed past her only to swerve to the opposite side of the street in the next block to pick up a parent and child outside a school.

I witnessed this racist behavior and tried in vain to wave the next one down. I don't know if she got to where she was going that morning. I do know that this kind of thing happens all the time.

Isn't seeing injustice the first thing we need to do?

Marco William's 2007 movie Banished is an unforgettable exploration of three (out of 13 so far) known incidences where black people have been violently and aggressively run off their land or out of town between 1890-1915 in Forsyth County, Georgia, Pierce City, Missouri and Harrison, Arkansas.

In each case, current residents probably know this shameful history but the present community deals with it in varying degrees of avoidance and denial, much of which was captured on film in conversations between Williams and a member of the KKK or a person who deliberately chose to retire to a community he knew had no black people.

Well-intentioned groups in local communities attempted to come to terms with this shocking history in baby steps by identifying the presence of the KKK as the problem. An outside discussion leader confronted them: "The KKK is comfortable here." White supremacist groups do not operate openly and above ground in communities where they know they are not welcome.

And after we witness these events, we are challenged with the question of reparations. Should black families whose ancestors suffered horribly be given land or money, grave markers and plaques or at least a public acknowledgment and apology at the cost of the descendants of the white families who abused them? What about removing statutes of limitations from legal cases filing claims to lost land?

This is particularly pertinent in the case of the Tulsa riots in 1921. On the evening of 31 May 1921, a mob gathered at the Tulsa, Oklahoma Courthouse threatening to lynch a young black shoeshine boy accused of attacking a young white girl who worked as an elevator operator. When blacks appeared to stop the lynching, a riot erupted. The Tulsa police chief deputized several hundred white men from the mob.

Beginning the next morning, white mobs invaded the black section of Tulsa, Greenwood, and left it in ruins. By noon, more than one thousand homes had been burned to the ground and thousands were left homeless. Eyewitness accounts (http://www.tulsareparations.org/Vignettes.htm) tell of the terror of traumatized children in the riots and desperate efforts of adults who died trying to protect their homes in Greenwood.

In 2001, the Tulsa Reparations Coalition recommended:

1. Direct payment of reparations to survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot.
2. Direct payment of reparations to descendants of the survivors of the Tulsa Race Riot.
3. A scholarship fund available to students affected by the Tulsa Race Riot.
4. Establishment of an economic development enterprise zone in the historic area of the Greenwood District.
5. A memorial inclusive of the reburial of any human remains found in the search for unmarked graves of riot victims.

But in 2005 the Supreme Court dismissed reparations to survivors and descendants of those affected by the riots.

Last month saw the publication of the Consultative Report on the Past dealing with the legacy of Northern Ireland co-chaired by Dennis Bradley and Lord Robin Eames, retired Primate of the Church of Ireland.

Lord Eames' opening statement recognizes that many people told the Commission that no one acknowledged their losses during the troubles of the past 40 (or even 400) years. Victims, victims' groups, widows and survivors wanted the assurance that their grief would be recognized. They want their deep hurts to be noted by people in power.

The Consultative Group makes 31 recommendations, amongst which is the creation of a Legacy Commission for five years as an alternative to the justice system or to a public inquiry. This Commission would continue the work of bringing cases to prosecution when there is a realistic possibility of this. It would provide answers about the death of loved ones. Perhaps the most controversial recommendation is the acknowledgment payment to the nearest relative of £12,000 for each victim.

The Consultative Group maintains that this does not represent the value of a life but rather the recognition of loss and pain. Also recommended is an annual Day of Reflection and Reconciliation supported by the government and the private and voluntary sectors, including the churches.

The work of reparations does not stop in Tulsa, Oklahoma or in Northern Ireland. When we bring our troops home out of Iraq and Afghanistan, what process of reparations will we put in place? How seriously will we take the loss of all lives in this war? Will we acknowledge the mistakes of our past so that they can never happen again? Will we recognize a moral imperative to create better relationships with those of different religions and societies? Will we for the first time see those we have never looked at and hear those we have never listened to, despite the hard work involved? Do we have that kind of moral courage?

Will people in power ever take steps to make reparation if the rest of us do not lead the way?


(c) Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, New York, USA, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages (http://www.gts.edu/facst_goodbio.asp). Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage (http://notbeingasausage.blogspot.com/).

You can buy her book Jesus' Family Values through the online Ekklesia book service. http://tinyurl.com/dy2e2a

A version of this article first appeared on Episcopal Cafe. It is reproduced here with grateful acknowledgements and an encouragement for you to visit the cafe: http://www.episcopalcafe.com/

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