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The request arrived by email, but read as if it were from another age. Would I be open, an executive assistant asked, to having tea with the president of an Ivy League university? A longtime éminence grise, the president, still new to the job, was interested in discussing with a select group of young scholars how to guide this renowned educational institution into the twenty-first century.
At the time, such a cup of tea was not exactly my cup of tea, but I assumed — correctly — that I’d rarely have an opportunity like it again. So, I set aside my work on medical history, PTSD, and public health to consider that academic bastion, its roots stretching back to colonial times, and how it could best serve the world in the new century. I thought about how it had become so rich that it could afford to pay its president hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
It was almost certain that this man’s predecessors had once owned slaves and I imagined that slavery was probably intertwined with the university’s history in myriad ways. (It all turned out to be true.) In more recent times, the university had done work for the Department of Defense and been intimately involved in American war-making. I knew, too, that a building where I took classes had served as a site for illicit government experiments with hallucinogens. I began to make a mental inventory of other dark deeds associated with the school and the sordid history behind its grand, ivy-covered edifices. I knew vaguely of a concept then labeled “transhistorical moral justice” and a tiny bit about the nascent slavery-reparations movement and an idea started forming in my brain.
After I RSVP’d, the executive assistant asked for a brief sketch of the topics I might bring up at high tea. I realize now that I should have kept it vague and innocuous. I should have written, rather nebulously, about the ways in which the university’s past could help inform its future. Instead, I sent along something about the school’s many historical misdeeds and its ill-gotten “war chest”; about the need to explore its dark past, make it public, and make amends. I fear I even mentioned something about using its massive endowment to turn it into a “free university.”
I sent that email sometime in 2002 or 2003, I think. I’m still waiting for a reply. Maybe the response got lost in the digital ether? Maybe the president decided not to meet with anyone and scrapped the fact-finding campaign? Maybe he gave up drinking tea? Anything’s possible. Still, I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that he or his courtiers decided that acknowledging the school’s darker moments and making some form of restitution wasn’t — at least then — a subject he wanted to discuss over any beverage.
Many people have an aversion to digging too deeply into the past. They would rather ignore historical pain and pretend it has no bearing on the present. They don’t want to think about how modern wealth was built on the backs of long-deceased slaves and indigenous peoples. They don’t want to consider who built the U.S. Capitol, or where their college’s endowment comes from, or how the beach where they summered was stolen from a Black family, or on whose land they live.
Those with an aversion to warts-and-all history and an antipathy toward thinking too hard about how they’ve benefited from historical wrongs and structural biases baked into our present world certainly don’t want to consider compensation for such sins of the past. Luckily, TomDispatch regular Mattea Kramer does. Today, she offers a deeply personal piece about reparations, racism, and “rebranding” that raises the hard questions so many — who live on ill-gotten native lands in a nation founded on settler colonialism and slavery and are represented by government officials who work in a slave-constructed office building — would rather not confront. Nick Turse
Reparations May Be One Cure for What Ails Us
Robin Rue Simmons had been very curious about the truth of American life as a young person. But it was only after she finished high school, left her native Evanston, Illinois, and returned as an adult — ready to buy a house in the historically Black neighborhood in which she grew up — that she delved deep into her city’s history and fully understood the policies that had kept Black residents poor while enriching their white neighbors. Of course, this isn’t the kind of history that’s taught in school, even if today’s students do sometimes learn unsavory truths about the American empire. Local history is different, perhaps because it can be especially uncomfortable to examine how that empire’s economic plunder shaped our present-day communities. Yet experiencing such discomfort may be preferable to any alternative — and I write this as a white person.
In 2017, Simmons ran for Evanston City Council and won. She was interested in the idea of reparations and began studying a bill that has been sitting in Congress for decades. H.R. 40, as it’s called — the number refers to a broken promise of the post-Civil War era that formerly enslaved people should receive 40 acres and a mule — would establish a commission to examine the legacy of slavery and how restitution could be made. Federal reparations will be necessary to address this country’s vast racial wealth gap that’s the cumulative result of economically oppressive policies since the plantation era. Yet Simmons also knew that the federal government was hardly alone when it came to committing such injustices — and here she had a visionary idea.
“I thought, I’ll start with one in my community,” she told me by phone. Specifically, she would seek reparations for harms caused by her own city’s twentieth-century housing policies, which effectively restricted Black residents to a single neighborhood known as the 5th Ward. As Evanston’s Black population grew during the Great Migration — in which African Americans fled terror and oppression in the South — the 5th Ward became overcrowded, and the cost of housing ballooned. By 1940, when the Home Owners Loan Corporation of the Federal Loan Bank Board drew up a map denoting the “risk” of lending in certain places, it shaded the 5th Ward red. That nationwide practice, known as redlining, indicated that the area was ineligible for the sort of loans that would help white families build intergenerational wealth. Today, whites in Evanston on average enjoy property values twice that of their Black neighbors.
By 2019, Simmons had successfully put reparations on Evanston’s City Council agenda and soon won widespread support for the idea. She then led the painstaking work of gathering community input about how such redress should be made. As a result, in early December, just weeks from now, the first reparations by a municipal government will be awarded to Black residents in acknowledgement of a long history of structural racism: housing grants of $25,000 to 16 Evanston families — money that can be put toward a down payment or used as mortgage assistance or for repairs on an existing home. This is just the beginning of reparations in Evanston, a small yet mighty step. Indeed, the truth is that imperial America isn’t just a far-flung reality. It’s as local as wherever you’re reading this, which means the antidote to it can be local as well.
An Empire Rebranded
A year after Simmons unveiled the idea of reparations to her City Council colleagues, two residents of Amherst, Massachusetts (where I live), noticed that Black Lives Matter signs had proliferated around town following the murder of George Floyd, and guessed that the public might finally be in the mood to pursue reparations here, as well. In Evanston, the initiative was a response to a specific set of housing policies. Why, though, would reparations be warranted in mostly white Amherst?
The answer, to use a term favored by genealogist Nicka Smith, was in the way this town had been, in essence, rebranded. Today Amherst is known for “progressive” politics and prosperity, but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, white town leaders had systematically excluded African Americans from local housing and economic opportunities — even though, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the hard labor of enslaved people abducted from Africa had helped build the place. (Yes, there was slavery in Massachusetts.)
The town’s rebranding was no accident. In at least one case, local historians falsified a town tax chart to exclude the valuation of human chattel, attempting to expunge slavery from the record. More generally, the hard truths of Amherst’s history were whitewashed in favor of a pleasant story about virtuous European-Americans. In this way, its rebranding mirrored that of the nation. As of 2019, the median income for white families in Amherst was $108,500, more than twice that of Black families.
Nonetheless, over the past year, thanks to activists, the notion of redress for people of African descent found its way onto the local government agenda. (I participated in this effort as a researcher, examining town history and writing reports about what I found.) Last December, Amherst’s town council passed a proclamation “Affirming the Town of Amherst’s Commitment to End Structural Racism and Achieve Racial Equity for Black Residents,” and this spring, in a historic move whose implications have yet to be determined, the council voted in favor of establishing a reparations fund.
It’s worth noting that the people who initially brought the idea of reparations to Amherst’s nearly all-white council were themselves white. Meanwhile, a committee composed almost entirely of residents of color have been in ongoing negotiations with the same body in an effort to modify local policing practices to address concerns about basic physical safety.
“If You Have Come Here to Help Me, You Are Wasting Your Time”
For years, I didn’t understand this line: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Those words are from Lilla Watson, an Australian Aboriginal elder and activist, and I see now that they have everything to do with making reparations. But I always thought: I can’t come to help you? Why not?
In the early 1970s, Watson was a leader in protests against colonialism and the Australian version of apartheid, a time when some white Australians did indeed approach Aboriginal people to ask how they could help. Watson and others felt frustrated because those folks wanted to be given the answers rather than doing the hard work of coming up with answers themselves. For me, it took about 37 years (I recently turned 38), but eventually I saw that an inclination to “help” can be a way for would-be helpers to feel invulnerable — a way of saying, “I’m fine. It’s these other people who need help.” Well, let me say this now: I’m not fine.
The particular white culture in which I was born and raised is riddled with heart-splitting depression and, amid substantial affluence, a gripping fear of still not having enough. My father, who passed away suddenly when I was 20, used to only half-jokingly say, “Money is how you keep score.” Dad was also an avid community servant. But if a stubborn part of you believes money is the measure of life, even a great deal of community service won’t be enough to make you feel whole. On my maternal side, my mom grew up in a house with a wall-sized case displaying trophies she and her siblings won — part of an unspoken family understanding that a way to earn love was to be very, very good at tennis.
My dad hardly invented the idea that money is life’s scorecard, a belief at the heart of the European-American origin story and a powerful motivation for imperialist plunder, past and present. Today, in this age of billionaires, it’s quintessentially American to link your value as a human being to your job title, salary, or net worth. No surprise, then, that such insecurity lives and seethes in me.
My own European ancestors came to America in poverty, fleeing persecution because they were Jewish. Keep in mind that Jews were not considered whites by many in this country until after World War II. Then, they were allowed to merge into the morphing concept of American whiteness in part thanks to public programs like the G.I. Bill and federal home loans granted to white people in Evanston and elsewhere (from both of which African Americans were largely excluded). In my own family, material success in America was first about survival, only later becoming a matter of affluence. Think of our story, in other words, as moving from poverty to imperialist scorekeeping in three generations.
Lately, though, I’ve noticed that giving away even modest sums of money brings me a sense of relief. Yet I still feel so resistant to doing so! As a European-American, I’ve thoroughly absorbed the idea that security comes from hoarding resources. The truth seems to be the opposite: such hoarding makes me feel dead inside.
A Different Kind of Treasure
The city of Evanston is dedicating a new form of revenue, the sales tax on recreational marijuana, to funding its reparations program. And that’s just the beginning of a long process, as significantly more resources will be needed to make meaningful redress to eligible families.
Robin Rue Simmons is now in talks with several financial institutions about developing a new type of home loan (with low interest rates or other benefits) that could be part of reparative justice in Evanston and, ultimately, elsewhere. She points out that such institutions profited from anti-Black practices that contributed to today’s racial wealth gap and she says she’s optimistic that at least one bank “will take the bold first step and be the example to their colleagues in the financial industry.” She’s right that this would represent a striking new direction for American capitalism. Or put another way, I’m not the only one who has to learn how to give money away.
Some people cling to wealth far beyond what’s necessary for material security for the same reason that my mom, as a child, learned to slay her opponents on a tennis court and win trophies she could take home to her parents. It’s protection against the worst of all possible fates: being inadequate, worthless, unloved. In Brené Brown’s bestseller Dare to Lead, which she penned as a resource for building more courageous institutional cultures, she writes: “At the center of all our elaborate personal security measures and protection schemes lies the most precious treasure of the human experience: the heart.”
It makes sense that an investigation of local harms and local repair possibilities comes down to that. After all, you can’t get much more local than your own heart.
Redressing the harms of yesterday and today requires opening not just coffers but also hearts, while letting go of strategies for defense and deflection. It requires realizing that what’s imperial is also local. Little will happen, after all, until a great many of us actually begin to feel the pain of our collective history. Only in experiencing the fullness of what’s wrong can we possibly discern the fullness of what’s needed to make it right.
Simmons has now founded a nonprofit called First Repair, to help bring the lessons of Evanston to other cities and towns. So many municipalities (including Amherst) have contacted her about the possibility of local reparations that she’s lost count. And when it comes to H.R. 40, two years ago it had fewer than 70 cosponsors in the House of Representatives. Today, it has 194. This should be cause for optimism, however modest.
It was Martin Luther King, Jr., who famously said, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Yet the curvature of that arc is not a foregone conclusion. How slowly history moves (or doesn’t) in the direction of justice depends on the hearts of ordinary people.
Copyright 2021 Mattea Kramer