Evanston recently opened the door to reparations. Other municipalities, notably Oak Park, may soon follow. What might reparations look like? 

According to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations” in Atlantic Magazine, “Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely … that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. … What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt. … What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. … Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness.”

Not everyone is eager to see this happen. Many ask why white Americans should be held accountable for slavery, which ended over 150 years ago

A lot of white Americans don’t recognize that they benefitted economically from 250 years of free labor. That the North benefitted too. And when their turn came, white northerners treated the descendants of slaves almost as badly as southern whites treated slaves. 

Reparation, as a general principle, can take many forms, which is why the word usually appears in its plural form, but it is not just about slavery. It’s also about Jim Crow, and the New Jim Crow — mass incarceration and restrictive housing policies. It’s about the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a repressed memory for 100 years. And so much more.

Many white Americans think reparation consists of cutting Black Americans a check, as if that could settle everything. Or Japanese Americans. Or Latin Americans. Or Native Americans. What about Irish Americans? What about Italian Americans? Where does it all end, they ask?

I’m not thinking about where reparation ends. 

I’m thinking about where it begins.

It begins with each of us.

Reparation means thinking about the things I have actually done or not done, and still continue to do or not do. It’s about changing attitudes. Looking at that without flinching, without changing the subject when it comes up in conversation. Instead of saying, “But look how much progress has been made,” letting our history make us uncomfortable. Letting it humble us.

Reparation is not just changing my view of the raid that assassinated Black Panther Fred Hampton (of neighboring Maywood) in 1969, after seeing the film Judas and the Black Messiah, but thinking long and hard about how, for years afterward, I passively accepted the media interpretation of that incident. And by extension, the many other attitudes I absorbed about African Americans, still firmly imbedded in my consciousness, that require honest examining and determined exorcising, and facing up to how challenging but necessary that process is.

Reparation is not about grimly “accepting our medicine.” It’s about actually wanting to be part of the movement that will at last atone for our national original sin.

Reparation means a change of heart, which too many white Americans resist. It means accepting that racism is built into our society — or rather, that society is built on top of a foundation of racism — and as such, still impacts all of us today. That is our biggest and most difficult step forward. 

It’s not about feeling guilty. It’s about willingly accepting responsibility for a social structure that benefits some, based on deeply ingrained inequity. Facing that truth will set all of us free. White Americans especially.

That’s where reparation begins.

Where it ends is “repair,” which is implied in the word “reparation.” I don’t know what that will look like, but a good first step would be reading Coates’ remarkable essay, laying out the economic underpinning of racism, which is ultimately about wealth — white America creating it at the expense of Black America. He presents that history in detail. The first step toward reparation, Coates and other scholars say, is learning our history — our whole history, not just the parts we like.

“Black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it,” Coates writes. “White supremacy is … a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it. And so we must imagine a new country.”

Imagine a new country. 

According to Jason Reynolds, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature with the Library of Congress and co-author, with Ibram X. Kendi, of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, which was written specifically for young people, history (and changing it) is all about imagination. 

Racism, Reynolds says, is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on human beings: the notion that white people are superior to people of color. The Big Lie of inequity has plagued the world since Gomes Eanes de Zurara, of Portugal, created it in the 1400s to justify enslaving Africans. It was really about civilizing the uncivilized, he wrote, a noble undertaking. His act of imagination endured. Slavery eventually ended, but the lie did not.

“It is in the writing down of the thing,” Reynolds said recently in an On Being interview, “that it crystallized and then proliferated around the world. He twisted it and manipulated it into something it was not — and was able to create justified abuse.”

Strangely, Reynolds finds hope in this. 

“History is birthed out of the imagination,” he said. “It literally was conjured up. Imagination is so powerful that it could set forth 400-500 years of something wrong, which means that [imagination] very well could set forth 400-500 years of something right.”

We need a new narrative of equity to replace the old narrative of inequity. That’s reparation — when white Americans take steps to make equity a reality. What steps? It’s up to us to figure that out.

Reynolds says, “Anti-racism is simply the muscle that says that humans are human. That’s it. That’s all. I love you, because you remind me more of myself than not.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates says we need “a revolution of the American consciousness.”

A second American Revolution. Imagine that. 

Or finishing the first. 

A revolution of consciousness. How good that sounds. 

We could become America.

For the first time.

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