Dialogues on Reparations, Part 1: Understanding Our History

The first in an ongoing series designed to build greater understanding of reparations and its possibilities

February 17, 2022

Timely discourse can lay the groundwork for meaningful change that has the potential to benefit everyone. The subject at hand: reparations.

In the first of a series of online public dialogues, Boston Foundation President and CEO M. Lee Pelton joined King Boston Executive Director Imari Paris Jeffries and UMass Boston Africana Studies Department Chair Dr. Jemadari Kamara to begin looking at the history and positioning of the concept of reparations.

From the start Kamara emphasized that reparations are nothing new. People may be most familiar with U.S. government apologies and reparations made during the Reagan administration to Japanese American families interned during World War II, or with German reparations to Jewish individuals and institutions following the same war. They’ve been enacted in other parts of the world at other times as well, and efforts to pursue the topic of reparations for the harms of slavery and Jim Crow have been raised across the generations here.

In fact, H.R. 40, a bill in the U.S. Congress has been introduced every year since 1989—based on a Massachusetts bill written by the late State Senator Bill Owens. To date H.R. 40 has not had a hearing. Paris Jeffries raised the question why, suggesting people have a misunderstanding about reparations. Kamara confirmed that, citing a typical objection: You’re going to take money from me to give it to you, and I had nothing to do with it—my people didn’t have slaves. 

That’s a very narrow view of the subject, however, said Kamara; slavery was a global system and the long tail of impacts from that system hurt all of us. The point came up often during the conversation: Reparations are not a zero-sum transaction. Pelton emphasized the point with a vivid analogy: “You don’t repair one person’s house by punching a hole in another person’s house.” But if we can repair the system, it can reduce the cost of things we all pay for now—whether that be systems of incarceration, public assistance, health care, homelessness, etc. Racism hurts everyone.

Pelton shared data that showed that if we closed the racial wealth gap, it would add $14.5 billion to the Massachusetts GDP of $63 billion, a pretty nice return. And an illustration of why this is not just a concern for descendants of enslaved Americans or for Black people alone. In approaching reparations, said Kamara, we need to move beyond the binary way of thinking that traditional history has instilled in us; we need collective repair that we think of in terms of social justice and education. “We need to repair our understanding,” he said. “It’s not only economic.” 

The trio explored the basic question: How do you define repair? Paris Jeffries cited the work of Duke University’s William Darity, who frames it as an arc, that is, a process of Acknowledgement, Redress and Closure (ARC). If you jump right to redress without the rest of the process, you don’t get to the root of the matter and only reinforce the problem. Kamara pointed to lessons from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation efforts: “There’s a crossroads between truth and reconciliation where you need repairs…. We will not have peace until we deal with repairing and transforming our policies.”

But as Paris Jeffries powerfully said, “It doesn’t mean taking personal responsibility for today’s wrongs, but repair is an empathy campaign. Righting past wrongs is the right thing to do as human beings.”

The second dialogue on reparations will be hosted by the Boston Foundation on April 12 at 2:00 p.m., and will examine reparation efforts from around the country. Click here to register for the event.

click to Watch the discussion

If American Black history were truly a month...

During the discussion, Lee Pelton read a post written by the Boston Foundation in honor of Black History Month, exploring what would happen if one took the 400 years of Black history in the U.S., and translated it into the 28 days of February.

It reads:

What would happen if you put the 400 years of Black American History and put it on the 28-day calendar of February for #BlackHistoryMonth?

Blacks would spend roughly the first seventeen days - more than half the month - enslaved.

Reconstruction would be on the 18th. It would be followed by a week of Jim Crow.

Martin Luther King Jr., born on the 22nd, would be dead before the end of the day on the 25th.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed on the 25th along with the Civil Rights Act, would be repealed late in the day on the 28th.

The Obama Administration would run for about 13 hours on the 28th.

The history of systemic racism and inequity in this country is a long history - and it will take far more than a month to undo. #blackhistorymonth