“Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”
A long cover story by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the June issue of The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” is getting a lot of attention on the web, and deservedly so. Coates’s argument, as one commentator has noted, “shouldn’t be too controversial. But it will be—which is another sign of the sorry state of racial discourse in America.”
In a particularly powerful but sobering section of the article on the history of “redlining” or discriminatory housing policy in cities like Chicago, Coates interviews a Chicago man named Billy Brooks, while the two men gaze out the window at a group of young black men hanging out on the street corner:
“The message the young black boy receives from his country, Billy Brooks says, is “ ‘You ain’t shit. You not no good. The only thing you are worth is working for us. You will never own anything. You not going to get an education. We are sending your ass to the penitentiary.’ They’re telling you no matter how hard you struggle, no matter what you put down, you ain’t shit. ‘We’re going to take what you got. You will never own anything, nigger.’ ”
What strikes me this morning as I reflect on Coates’s painstakingly careful and moving piece — and the inevitable (and virulent) push-back it will elicit — is once again the age-old question of the reception of race discourse in the white community. As I make the case in Hope Sings, So Beautiful, I am more convinced than ever that the burden of consciousness-raising and transformation in society and church with respect to race discourse and the enduring legacy of white supremacy in America lies largely on the shoulders of whites.
In other words, it is too easy (and far too common) for whites to dismiss even a carefully argued historical analysis like Coates’s — who confesses in a helpful follow-up piece his own longtime resistance to the idea of reparations — as “just another screed” by an angry black man.
It seems to me the great sin of our times is not social or racial blindness as such; rather, it is the willful and conscious choice to be blind. What I mean is the unwillingness and failure of the (white) church, the whole people of God, from top to bottom, to adequately confront racial ignorance and injustice and work together for spiritual and societal transformation. Coates’s piece is impressive precisely because it links societal injustice to a deeply entrenched spiritual malaise, i.e., a moral evil, in the white community. “White flight was not an accident—it was a triumph of racist social engineering.” One could quite reasonably draw the same conclusion about mass incarceration and the “school to prison” pipeline in communities of color today.*
Gazing out on the blighted streets of his neighborhood, Billy Brooks eventually boils it down, as all Christians must, to love–our ability to love, and our breathtaking failures to do so. “If you’re gonna get out here and struggle, you gotta love people. You gotta care about people. If you don’t, it’s not gonna work.” Billy Brooks’ son, Billy Brooks, Jr., was murdered in 1991, just a few days before Father’s Day.
The article is here, and video tour of North Lawndale in Chicago with Billy Brooks below. I promise it is worth every moment of your time, your prayer, your love, and mine.
Please check it out, and share widely.
*For a view from Philadelphia of the criminal justice system and its impact at street level on communities of color, consider this interview with Alice Goffman, author of On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. She references as well the meticulous and groundbreaking work of Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.