A conversation in Oak Park has begun about reparations. That makes this a good time to listen.

Chris Thomas spoke for the Walk the Walk social justice group last week when the issue made the agenda at the Oak Park Village Board table. He asked that all of us take part in this early discussion with an “open heart.” Worthy advice as the mere mention of reparations can create palpitations in the hearts of many white people who react viscerally and defensively to a topic that really needs definition and discernment.

The concept of a wide and sincere apology from our Oak Park governing bodies for past transgressions toward Black residents (or potential residents) gets stuck in the craw of too many. The harm done is real. And the injustices are not all limited to the last century. Though the systems supporting the injury were thoroughly baked into the dominant white culture, that doesn’t excuse us. And it shouldn’t discourage the current powers that be, which still tilt hard toward whiteness, from soul-searching and profound apologies.

The steps that must follow will need a wide and affirming discussion. How does a small town, albeit a small town with pretenses of leadership on race and equity, offer a genuine response to what is the nation’s original sin. 

We don’t know the answer. That’s all right. There isn’t a simple or a single answer. We need a process, it needs to be led by people of color, and it needs to have practical outcomes that reflect aspirational goals. Like all these conversations, it needs to make white people uncomfortable.  

The presentation last week by Walk the Walk rightly looked at various moments in Oak Park’s history. Notable failures included the choice a century back to build Oak Park’s downtown on the only portion of the village with Black residents, with the Mount Carmel Baptist Church being lost in that development.

In the weeks to come, Wednesday Journal will go into our archives to offer readers the stories we’ve done over decades that focused on Black history in Oak Park. Much of that coverage was done by Doug Deuchler and Ken Trainor and it is well worth reading.

With April’s election, it seems certain that the village board and the post of village president will become more progressive on issues that include equity. It will be the important job of the next board — and of other elected bodies in Oak Park — to be intentional in leading on the issue of reparations.

We welcome that discussion and the actions to follow.

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