My great-grandmother was born a slave, so I am pleased by the recent, long-overdue national conversation about reparations. On a recent reread of Ta-Nahesi Coates’s seminal 2014 piece “The Case for Reparations,” I was newly struck by the fact that, after the Holocaust, Germany paid Israel 3.45 billion deutsche marks, about $7 billion today, as reparations for Jewish people affected by the Holocaust; they were able to file claims “for psychological trauma, for offense to Jewish honor, for halting law careers, for life insurance, for time spent in concentration camps.”
This notion of individual reparations began to paint my conversations and interactions. Most public discourse about reparations centers on restitution given to descendents of slaves as a reaction to macroaggressions like property loss or the abysmally wide wealth gap between black and white Americans. I wondered: How could reparations manifest at an individual and collective level, and what might this say about unrelenting systemic racial inequality?
“I think there is a tendency to think more about the horrors of slavery without thinking about the horrors that we’ve experienced since slavery ended,” William Darity, a professor of economics, public policy, and African-American Studies at Duke University, told me. Darity — along with his wife, the folklorist Kirsten Mullen, with whom he co-authored their forthcoming book From Here to Equality — has spent years researching and proselytizing the need for reparations. “It’s not just because they [black people] had ancestors who were slaves,” he continued. “It’s because of that ancestry coupled with an array of atrocities that followed the end of slavery. And those atrocities are still going on.” Roy Finkenbine, a professor of history and the director of the Black Abolitionist Archive at the University of Detroit-Mercy, echoed that sentiment. “The fact that we don’t talk about the reasons for reparations as being based on contemporary and recent phenomenon is something we should be doing but don’t do much,” he told me.
Not only do we fail to recognize that reparations aren’t just about slavery, we tend to talk about reparations exclusively in terms of policy and payment. I wanted to know what black people think reparations might actually look like in their own lives. From du-rags to doulas, their answers were thoughtful and varied.
“Season tickets to some sports team or theater,” Nikki Conley, a black civil engineer, told me. “White people always know somebody with some season tickets, and black people just do the entertaining.” This idea struck me as poetic. I thought of the thousands of black football players who typically hold the most dangerous positions on the field, whose minds and bodies are exhausted for our entertainment. Season tickets for events could be a symbolic individual reparation to signal that black bodies aren’t only to be consumed for entertainment.
Black bodies, specifically pregnant ones, were top of mind for Ann-Arthur Andrews, a black physician and writer. Black women are four times more likely to die during childbirth than white and Hispanic women; in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control reported that non-Hispanic black infants had the highest mortality rate.
“There’s something inherently wrong with the system that’s not valuing the lives of black women equally to white women,” Raegan McDonald-Mosley, the chief medical director for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told ProPublica in 2017. So it makes sense that for Andrews, reparations might consist of “subsidized doula programs to assist with supporting black mothers and lowering the maternal-infant mortality rate.”
A black tech analyst, whom I’ll call Kenneth, knew exactly what he would want for an individual reparation. “An unlimited supply of du-rags, with or without the visor,” he told me. “Camo du-rags, two-toned du-rags, du-rags with long straps that are optimal for multiple straps around your head.” My skin tingled as I imagined a black person liberated to wear whatever head covering they chose, wherever and whenever. As Brian Josephs wrote in a 2017 GQ article “Who Criminalized The Du-rag?”, du-rags have long been a policed fashion in white America. It makes sense that Kenneth would long for the ability to wear this hair-maintenance item that doubles as a form of self-expression without consequence.
Josephs wrote that black people “abandon the headwraps and du-rags in the private space in hopes of succeeding in the white, corporate world.” The same headwrap black women are banned from wearing when dropping their kids off at school has been appropriated by a white designer who is not only selling them as high fashion, but also claims she invented them. Carlotta Outley Brown, the principal of Madison High School in Houston, banned parents from wearing what she deemed inappropriate, saying in a letter, “We are preparing your child for a prosperous future. We want them to know what is appropriate and what is not appropriate for any setting they may be in.” Eric Miller, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University, said reclaiming these very prosecuted fashions has a powerful value. “Empowerment is distinctive from affirmative action or integrationist models,” he said. “The idea is not that one is integrating into a diverse group, but is claiming the right to be seen as distinctively valuable.”
Being empowered is not easy in a world that is hostile to black people. “Two of the most important ways in which microaggressions have their manifestations is in terms of our health: the racialized stress that’s created as consequences of people putting these kinds of stressors on you,” Darity said. “And employment discrimination to the extent that people are compelled to not wear certain kinds of clothing to have a job. If they refuse to do that, then they don’t get the job.” That is, black Americans who dare participate in their own cultures risk being left behind in society. And for those of us who fold ourselves into something more palatable for these typically white spaces, we experience a psychologically exhausting sense of isolation.
Conley, who lives in the Midwest, knows this isolation all too well. “Blacks make up at least 30 percent of the population [in her town], but I’ve never been to any professional event and seen 30 percent blacks in the room,” she said.
“Empowerment is distinctive from affirmative action or integrationist models.”
I experience a version of this isolation, too. I’ve been a product designer in tech for almost a decade and I can count the number of black designers I’ve worked with on one hand. This racial isolation is the byproduct of black people being systematically shut out of high quality education since slavery. As a black tech professional, I must sustain daily racial inequalities by myself, and with a smile.
So reparations for black Americans might look like something that is galling to even ask for: high-quality mental health care. I can imagine a world with free therapy, universal access to mental health medications, and educational initiatives to increase the number of black mental health professionals. According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, black people are 20 percent more likely to have serious mental health issues than white people. These statistics are sobering, especially when we consider that black people are less likely to be insured than white people and have more difficulty finding mental health professionals who racially and culturally identify with them. According to the Discovery Mood And Anxiety Program, “3.7 percent of members in the American Psychiatric Association and 1.5 percent of members in the American Psychological Association are black.”
“Racialized stress is no trivial matter,” Darity went on. Kenneth suspects that racialized stress could explain his family’s generational health issues. “My grandfather and grandmother were literally denied jobs and had to move to find work. At that time, there was redlining and all sorts of other issues where access was not given to them,” he said. Like a lot of black American families, Kenneth’s family has turned to comfort food to process the generational indignities of being black in this country. “There was an inability to process those emotions of feeling inferior,” he said. As Abiola Abrams wrote in a 2014 Huffington Post article “Black Women Don’t Have Eating Disorders,” “Food is used to celebrate but also as a drug to numb, comfort, and soothe. Food is often a stand-in for love.”
It’s all too common to dismiss obesity, heart disease, hypertension, and all the other chronic illnesses that plague the black community until we remember that these chronic conditions are exacerbated by stress. “People are hurting,” said Kenneth. “People aren’t always able to articulate their feelings very well. While you may be feeling depressed or isolated, until you really understand it, you may be coping with food or whatever frivolous behavior.”
I can imagine a world with free therapy, universal access to mental health medications, and educational initiatives to increase the number of black mental health professionals.
But I think a major part of reparations should concern education. Consider this all-too-common scenario. Not too long ago, my sister and I went to a fancy magazine launch party in a repurposed warehouse in New York. I noticed a white man with Warby Parker-esque frames watching us from afar. Finally, he approached us. We started chatting, and it took an astonishingly short amount of time for him to ask: “So, tell me. How do we fix racism in this country?”
Uncharacteristically quick on my feet, I said, “You can start by having this conversation with your white friends and family.” An abundance of information about racism exists — not to mention Google — so I felt no obligation to help solve the riddle of racism for him. The burden of answering those questions should not fall upon black Americans. “Black folks have been fixing America since the beginning,” Andrews said. “I expect that reparations will fuel racial resentment unless white allies and the government are earnest about doing the hard educational and intellectual work around slavery and white supremacy.”
How a country atones for its past can be a complement to how it compensates victims. Germany paid financial reparations for the many sins committed against Jewish people, but it also did the arguably harder work of weaving everlasting atonement into its culture. By the time a German child is 16 years old, they have most likely been taught about the Holocaust. Cities contain numerous large- and small-scale memorials to the Holocaust; death camps have been preserved for sightseers to bear witness.
Take this in contrast to the increasingly popular movements in the U.S. to erase our racist past out of classrooms. The 2018 Southern Poverty Law Center report “Teaching Tolerance” showed that half of surveyed high school students thought the South succeed from the nation over taxes on imported goods, suggesting a gross negligence in teaching accurate American history.
“Kids go to visit plantation in the United States,” Darity said. “But the way in which the plantation itself is represented is not the way contemporary Germany represents concentration camps.” It can seem like what is left of slavery education in this country has been reappropriated into plantation weddings, plantation tourism, and plantation re-enactments from the antebellum period.
At the very least, individual reparations might mean government-led efforts of atonement to truthfully educate white Americans about the horrors of their past and present, so that the burden of proof justification does not fall squarely on the shoulders of black people.
All of the professors I interviewed singled out education as a significant pathway to meaningful atonement, but Roy Finkenbine expanded upon that notion. “It’s not just textbooks, museums, monuments,” he said. “Historians like myself need to learn how to write for the public.” Darity echoed that. “A sound reparations program should definitely focus on eliminating the racial wealth gap, and it must be a project that addresses questions of historical memory,” he said. The more we all learn about and accept our past, the better our chances of moving forward, collectively and individually.