I have been writing, speaking, and teaching about the manifestations and impact of white privilege since I finished my doctoral work on the subject in 2004, and one of the more difficult subjects to address with white audiences is the question of reparations. While white people tend to frame the subject as a discussion about how much money is going to be taken away from them, there is another way to think about it. Getting white people to give up wealth is a bit of a non-starter, no matter how persuasive the argument might be for its justification.
Another way to approach the subject (and let’s be honest, the subject of reparations cannot be avoided if we have any hope of realizing full racial equity) is to frame the discussion around what it is going to take repair the damage.
That’s a different conversation, and one that will likely require serious discussions — not just about fair and equal access to wealth, but the redistribution of wealth. As we begin to honestly name the damage created by centuries of legalized discrimination, it won’t be enough to say we will rewrite the rules and stop advantaging white people. It isn’t enough to say, “from this point forward we will have equal access to jobs, homes, education, power, wealth, etc.”
Malcolm X wrote: "If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn't even begun to pull out the knife.”
Creating a new level playing field would be the equivalent of pulling out the knife.
That does not heal the wound. That does not repair the damage.
Damage includes a black male prison population that is fast moving toward one in every three of them having been convicted of a felony — and that felony conviction both stripping them of a right to vote in most states, and compromising their lifetime earning potential in every state.
Damage includes decades now of real estate agents either refusing access to non-white families, or charging them higher fees while forcing them to pay subprime mortgages when they qualify for prime mortgages (and lest you think that was only something white people did before the civil rights movement, you should know that both Bank of America and Wells Fargo were recently sued for this very thing).
Damage includes first nations peoples herded onto reservations, deprived of language, culture, spirituality, and land while entire tribes were wiped from the face of the Earth.
Damage includes income inequity of close to $27,000 a year for white households over black households and a wealth imbalance of nearly 10 to 1.
Damage includes centuries of enslavement, rape, Jim Crow, lynching, separate but equal, forced incarceration, and segregation all leaving the black population in America so far behind the earning potential and wealth capacity of a white population that benefited from every one of those legally permissible arrangements.
Recently, the United Church of Christ wrote and circulated a curriculum on white privilege. It was designed to engage a largely white audience in conversation that prompted them to have higher levels of awareness of the manifestations and impact of their privilege.
This is a different discussion than one about racism. Even the best-intentioned, good-hearted white people in America who have no racist tendencies left to speak of are beneficiaries of white skin privilege. Very few, though, are aware of that.
This curriculum promised to engage those white audiences in substantive, meaningful, safe, and bold conversations about privilege. Ignorance of how privilege is made manifest and what it causes in terms of unfair access to and distribution of wealth is no longer an excuse.
This curriculum did not promise to solve the problem of race inequity. White people cannot and will not solve this. You cannot ask the one who thrust in the knife to tell the one whom they stabbed when the wound has healed.
At best, white awareness leads to white accompaniment, an alliance that commits to awareness, sacrifice, and justice as envisioned by those most damaged by white oppression through the time of the colonizing empires. The hope here is that white people who are hyper-aware of privilege will remove themselves as the last and most pernicious impediment to race equity.
Damage is real. It is pernicious. It is present today — not merely a remnant of past atrocities.
It is time to repair the damage. The election of President Donald Trump stands as white America’s last gasp at control — and a clear reminder that the work of justice is far from finished. I pray his election helps galvanize a movement in support race equity that not only removes the knife but heals the wound.
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