White supremacy infects the social fabric of U.S. life in ways both broad and deep: a result of an enormous number of habitual modes of interaction and institutionalized practices.
We meet and engage with people of other races in school, work, church, families, sports teams, bars and friendship networks. White supremacy distorts all these social practices. Given this reality, the question of reparations becomes much broader than one of specific debts to specific people for past harms and requires more than government payments. The question of reparations becomes one of repair, of rebuilding a systematically damaged social fabric.
Although legal segregation has ended, a wide range of economic, housing, employment and legal factors still lead to de facto segregation and inequality in society. Our educational curricula are distorted in ways that privilege white people, disempower others, highlight European accomplishments and downplay the role of racial violence in that history. Think of the now-familiar exercise of asking a student when they first had a Black teacher — for me, the answer is never. In my graduate philosophy education at one of the top programs in the world, I had exactly one professor who assigned a Black author. The examples are legion. These same curricula systematically reinforce complacency and hide resistance to these patterns of structural violence.
Our churches are segregated and often subtly elevate whiteness, even when they do not directly and openly sacralize racism. We have white- and Black-identified sports, white and Black music, clothing and style. None of this contrast exists in the sense of mere cultural diversity, but it is always typed as mainstream versus alternative, classical versus urban and pop versus gangster — in short, privileged versus suspect.
Of course, our policing practices are systematically racist, from stop-and-frisk policies to the murders of unarmed Black men and women. Policing is the institution of mass violence charged with upholding the social order in all things, and it intersects with all the above signifiers. Dressing Black or playing Black music leaves people more likely to be harassed or killed by the state. Protests, businesses and casual interactions on the street all are treated differentially based on race. The white supremacy in action is both structural and individual. Structures like housing segregation and school inequality lead white people to be afraid of Black people on the street and less likely to hire them in the workplace. Entrenched linguistic patterns contribute to the tendency of juries and judges to believe white people over Black people.
To be sure, there is massive income, wealth and ownership inequality by race in the United States. The median net worth of white families in the United States is around $188,000. Meanwhile, the median net worth of Black families is around $24,000. And this statistic understates the overall economic inequality. We absolutely have a duty as a society to overcome this particular legacy of slavery. But even if we do — and no federal-level proposal comes close to bridging this gap — we leave in place all the other structural dimensions of white supremacy. Economic reparations may pay a debt, but they will not repair a systematically oppressive institution.
In light of this reality, a broad coalition of pro-reparations groups, including The Fellowship of Reconciliation, National Coalition Of Blacks for Reparations in America and the Truth Telling Project, have asked every church, club, business, activist organization and professional organization to do three things:
First, conduct a personal audit of white supremacy. What unearned privileges do the group and its members have as a result of the history of racism in this country, and what features of their current activity serve to maintain inequality?
Second, assess what the group can contribute toward reparations. Perhaps a church could open itself once a week to use by Black organizations, a business could offer free services, an activist group could devote two days a month to supporting actions requested by a local Black Lives Matter chapter and a university could devote resources to providing research requested by organizations in the Black community. Georgetown University has taken important initial steps in this direction — by establishing support for descendants of slaves, establishing an African American Studies Department and committing to an institute for racial justice — but far more action is needed.
Third, accept the leadership of those the group aims to support. If a group can offer a meeting space, but local Black organizations say child care is more important, the organization should provide child care. The goal is transformation, not charity, and that begins with transforming our habits of leadership.
I invite everyone in the Georgetown community, along with whatever organizations they are a part of, to take up this call. These actions are easy to begin and honestly the least we can do to address this ongoing and systemic injustice.
Mark Lance is the Co-Director of the Justice and Peace Studies Program. Navigating Justice and Peace appears online every other Friday.