In the first post of this four-part series, I explored some biblical themes surrounding the idea of reparations. In this second part, I take a more focused look at some of the broader moral and practical concerns raised by this increasingly popular notion.
Before we begin, let me emphasize that there are many other problems and issues deserving serious consideration and attention which will not be raised here. Instead, I will only address four interconnected issues, two in this post, one in the third, and one in the fourth.
Here we will address two questions: 1) Is it right to give reparations? and 2) Who should receive them and why? Let’s begin by asking the first question, namely, is it right?
Is it right to give reparations?
Of all our concerns, this is probably the one of greatest import. If it is morally right, then some way should be found to provide the necessary resources and enact the needed changes and means to bring about a more just society.
Virtually all agree that what was done to African slaves in America (to highlight one obvious example) was utterly wrong. Who, however, is ultimately responsible for past moral failures and today’s social systems? How has history shaped these realities and to what extent are people alive today guilty of ignoring, implicitly supporting, or even overtly promoting such immoralities?
We have already noted in the previous blog that our lack of direct responsibility for past wrongs does not fully absolve us from the responsibility to rectify the sins of our predecessors. However, contrary to the claims of most Critical Theorists, it is not at all obvious that there is a clear class of people who are wholly innocent and in need of reparations while there is another, definitively privileged class, that is guilty of creating and/or perpetuating unjust social systems, and who is simultaneously able and obligated to seek greater justice through reformative reparations.
Reparations should not be unidirectional handouts to those minorities in the lower class on the simple assumption of their state of moral innocence. If and when they are given, they should be given in such a way that empowers and affirms their humanity as well as their personal responsibility. Anything else is dehumanizing and dependency-producing—both things that are morally wrong and socially destructive.
Americans, with their strong sense of individualism, tend to bristle at the thought that we are somehow responsible for the actions of a whole class of people, especially when this class of people is only related to us historically. Do we really want to say that when my great, great, great grandfather murdered or beat or raped someone (and presumably got away with it because he was part of a privileged class), that I must now be punished or held accountable for what he did 150 years ago? But what if he did it 30 years ago? Or how about 3 years ago before his recent death? Does the smaller time-gap make me more culpable, even if I did nothing to directly aid and abet his evil?
In short, how blameworthy are we today for evils, both systemic and personal, that we had nothing to do with creating or committing in the first place? Certainly, we are responsible to try and make the social systems of our time more just, and we are personally responsible for our own wrongdoing, but beyond this, we are not directly responsible for the evil done by our ancestors any more than we can take personal credit and be rewarded for their praiseworthy deeds.
All of these concerns need to be wrestled with, but let’s just assume a case can be made for pursuing, at some level, some sort of reparations. After all, as was emphasized in the first part of this series, Christians recognize that we do have some level of responsibility for not merely changing unjust systems in our own time, but righting past wrongs done within and because of those systems along with the choices of those who took advantage of them. In that light, it would seem that some form (or forms) of reparation(s) should be pursued in order to try and make our society a more just and god-honoring one.
But having said that, we must raise another crucial question, namely, who receives them and why?
Who should receive reparations and why?
Who, exactly, has been wronged and to what extent? Is it only the descendants of black African slaves who should be eligible? What about the Japanese Americans interred during WW II, or the Irish Catholics who were deeply discriminated against when they first arrived in the US? What about the native Americans who lived here long before it became the USA? It is obvious that the US institution of slavery was utterly wrong, but there are numerous other racial and religious wrongs perpetrated upon our American ancestors that deserve some serious attention in these matters as well. And what about those who are no longer “pure” in their ancestry? History shows that determining your genealogical and legal connections to certain segments of the US population can be controversial in and of itself, especially when those connections may result in significant advantages and benefits.
For example, when the native Americans were given gaming rights in Southern California some decades ago, a big fight broke out over who exactly was a member of which tribe since the subsequent promise of major monthly revenues was directly linked to genealogy. Another example might be Rachel Anne Dolezal who claimed to have African American ancestry and used it to her advantage until 2015 when her claims were proven to be wholly fallacious. Inevitably, when money, power, and privilege are involved, there will always be a lot of people who make claims to their advantage when they have little or no evidence to support or commend them. Sorting out who actually deserves reparations and to what extent are extremely knotty issues and are made exceptionally more complex when a lot of self-interest is at stake.
Again, I am not pretending to offer any definite solutions here, but I am raising the questions in order to show that the simple affirmation that reparations should be provided is not easy to fulfill in a fair and straightforward manner. Not only that, reparations raise additional questions, two more of which I will briefly address in the next two posts.