Race

White Churches Start Talking About Reparations for Slavery

Image via Jennifer Harvey / RNS

A white scholar touring churches across the nation is trying to convince Christians that racial reconciliation is not enough — it’s time to start talking about reparations for descendants of slaves.

And among mostly white, mainline Protestants this controversial — some would say unrealistic — notion is getting a hearing.

What divides the races in America, says Drake University ethicist Jennifer Harvey, is not the failure to embrace differences but the failure of white Americans to repent and repair the sins of the past.

The Myth of Reconciliation?

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Getty Images

#BLACKLIVESMATTER is being touted as our uniquely contemporary civil rights movement. Yet it bears striking resemblance to the black power movement of decades past.

Who can represent #BlackLivesMatter, be involved, or be its leaders? It’s clear that black people can. Can others? And what sorts of black folks? Ben Carson? Cornel West? Two of the three co-founders are queer black women. And what about the role of the faith community, of clergy? The movement’s incredible racial justice work notwithstanding, it puts on display the identity politics that continue to complicate the body politic in contemporary American life.

Jennifer Harvey’s Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Eerdmans) is one of the most significant recent books addressing identity and politics, focusing on the intersections of race, anti-racism, and religion. In its pages, Harvey, an American Baptist minister and associate professor of religion at Drake University, deconstructs reconciliation as a paradigm and offers a constructive practical vision of reparations. Harvey’s work in trying to make sense of her own embodied white identity—through her studies at Union Theological Seminary and service in a host of ministry settings addressing racial justice—provides background that allows her to explore multiple racial justice issues, making her book relevant for an intercultural audience.

Harvey’s thesis is clear: Reconciliation as a paradigm has failed to address racial injustice in the U.S., and the church needs to shift to a reparations paradigm to better address our racial situation. In a reconciliation paradigm, racial separation denotes racism, making diversity and togetherness the primary criteria for determining racial righteousness in the church. Issues related to structural justice are significant within visions of reconciliation, but they take a back seat to the ultimate concern of inclusion.

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Say Her Name: Ain't We Women?!

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In 1851, attendees of a feminist convention gathered in a packed hall in Akron, Ohio. It was a time when — even in the midst of a fight for women’s rights — mostly men spoke. They talked of dainty women — delicate and deserving of special protection.

Sojourner Truth sat in their midst. Miss Truth sat quiet, listening to men fill space with empty arguments about why women should or should not have the vote. Finally, she rose to speak and a visceral wall of hostility rose from the masses to greet her. The voice of this "n___ger woman" could muddy the message, they hissed. It could conflate the movement for women’s equality with the abolitionist movement — and that would be the death of suffrage, they feared.

But, as Dr. King liked to quote, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
 

Weekly Wrap 9.4.15: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Can the Evangelical Left Rise Again?

“The Evangelical left, once a substantial contingent of American life, is now seemingly small and powerless compared to its rightwing counterpart.”

2. Why Every Church Needs a Drag Queen

Nadia Bolz-Weber, everyone’s favorite tattoo-sporting, grace-spouting priest, is back with a new book, Accidental Saints.

3. One Novel Way to Bring Healthcare to Poor Neighborhoods

A local neighborhood health center believes it has developed an approach that works for their clients in poverty — partnering with a local grocery story to combine the shopping and medical experience into one outing.

Between My Son and Me: A Father Reads Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Even in its bitter moments, Between the World and Me remains a parental love letter. As such, we are drawn to words that at once familiar and intimate, revealing the hopes and vulnerability of a father who, like me, feels such pressing need to save his child from and through his own history.

"The truth is that I owe you everything I have," Coates tells his son tenderly.

"I was grounded and domesticated by the plain fact that should I go down, I would not go down alone."

To read Coates is to consider just how dramatically different my own parenting imperative is from fathers who teach their sons resistance but who must contend with the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that such instruction will lead to bodily loss.

For those of us who grew up believing we are white, and perhaps especially for those of us raising sons all too likely to believe the same, there is at least one urgent message we should share alongside Coates: Our children need to know that they live in a nation, branded by violence, that values some bodies more than others. 

One Year Later: The Evolution of a Movement

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou and Dr. Cornel West climb over barriers at the ‪St. Louis Department of Justice as part of the ‪#‎UnitedWeFight‬ ‪#‎FergusonUprising‬. Photo © Heather Wilson / dustandlightphoto.com

The latest killing happened two days before the 1-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death when Christian Taylor, 19, crashed his SUV through the window of a car dealership in Arlington, Texas. Officers shot him in the course of a struggle. In fact, as I write this, there have been 601 lethal police shootings in 2015, 24 of them unarmed black men, according to an ongoing independent analysis by Washington Post: That’s an average of two unarmed black men shot dead by cops per month since January. This number does not include police shootings of black women, police killings that did not involve gunfire, or deaths while in police custody. Freddie Gray’s and Sandra Bland’s deaths are not included in the Washington Post tally.

Over the course of the year since Michael Brown died, we have learned critical lessons that have fueled the movement, bringing together young activists, clergy, and evangelicals in unlikely, yet cohesive alliance.

An Inheritance of Scars

“WHAT YOU do to children matters. And they may never forget.”

This thread runs aggressively through Toni Morrison’s most recent novel, God Help the Child. The speaker is Sweetness, a woman who shares her family’s wounds from trying to pass for white, or “high-yellow,” for generations. Of trying to blend in well enough to drink at fountains, to try on hats in stores, to use the same Bible as whites during ceremonies. When her child and the novel’s focus, Bride, is born black, “midnight black, Sudanese black ... blue-black,” all the advancement Sweetness and her ancestors strove for dies. She loses her husband (who assumes she has been unfaithful), her social standing as a light-skinned woman, and any love for her child. “Her color is a cross she will always carry,” Sweetness says. “But it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not.”

Bride grows up without the love of a mother’s touch and scorned for being so oddly dark, until she learns to use her color to make herself exotic and marketable. What may seem to be a character living into her identity as a black woman is really a façade in order to regain what was lost because of her skin. Of course, what Bride sees as progress is actually proof that she too has fallen into Sweetness’ obsession with what Morrison described in a recent NPR interview as “skin privilege—the ranking of color in terms of its closeness to white people or white-skinned people and its devaluation according to how dark one is and the impact that has on people who are dedicated to the privileges of certain levels of skin color.” But while race and color as social constructs are themes in the book, they are not explored as deeply or given as much emphasis as childhood trauma.

As in some of Morrison’s other novels, magical realism conveys the battle between the past and the present, the spiritual and the physical, playing a poignant, visceral part in Bride’s journey. Bride goes through a literal metamorphosis, assuming it is penance for gruesome choices she made as a child to feel alive and as an adult to feel powerful. She is numbed to what true progress and success are, constantly trying to put a fragmented identity together until she can no longer get up and must face her trauma and changing body.

The only people in the novel who allow themselves to truly heal are a child named Rain and an ex-convict named Sofia. They speak to the power of self-forgiveness. Too often we carry the shame and hate handed to us by other people’s evil, whether from childhood trauma and abuse or complacency and apathy as adults. While we can and must be held accountable for our own mistakes, we must also be willing to take off the shroud of self-loathing and guilt, and move forward past trauma into self-acceptance and healing. Both Rain and Sofia, young and old, can see the power of blame and regret and refuse to walk that path, while Bride, her lover Booker, and her mother Sweetness will arguably always drag the sins of their forebears behind them.

“What you do to children matters. And they may never forget.”

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WATCH: 1 Year Later, We Asked Protesters What #BlackLivesMatter Means to Them

Sunday marked the 1-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Both in Ferguson, and across the country, the memorials and marches were held to remember those lost to police violence. Here in Washington, D.C., we attended one such demonstration and asked protesters what the #BlackLivesMatter movement has meant to them over the past year.

Mike Brown Means ...

Rally after the decision not to indict Darren Wilson
Solidarity rally in Minneapolis for Michael Brown in response to the Ferguson grand jury decision, Nov. 25, 2014 by Fibonacci Blue / Flickr.com.

It's a call and response chant started on the streets of Ferguson that has spread across the nation.

"Mike Brown means ..."

"... we got to fight back!"

It rolls off my tongue in a sing-chant cadence, and my hips begin to sway, because I have yelled it as I've marched and rehearsed it in my dreams. It is bitter and sweet. We evoke Mike's name and sway and pledge to fight. I've listened to voices I know and those I don't call and answer in hours of live stream and together in front of court houses and I know, I know in my soul what Mike Brown means.

Mike Brown means ... something more. Something larger than one more young black man shot in his neighborhood.

One year later, Mike Brown means ... something more.

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