Responsibility for correcting racism's effects

Opinion: Columns

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Following Juneteenth and Father's Day in June and just before Independence Day in July, I got to thinking about the black men I know.

Some are fans of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the black author and journalist who argued before the House Judiciary Committee recently that African Americans should be given reparations.

Coates declared that the effects of slavery are still felt de facto 150 years after the slaves were freed de jure. 

"The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family," he said. "Black women die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women."

Many contend that black people in general, and black men in particular, are victims of the system, of institutional racism.

Bishop Reginald Saffo started his speech at a conference titled, "Man Up," held at the Best Western in Hillside two Saturdays ago, sounding a lot like Coates. He cited statistics: 

80% of crimes against black people are committed by black people (Southern Poverty Law Center);

65% of black males graduated from high school, compared to 82% of white males;

380 black males have been victims of homicide this year, compared to 37 white males (Chicago Tribune);

African-American women experience intimate partner violence at a rate 35% higher than white women;

70% of black households are led by single women.

Saffo agreed with Coates when he concluded, "We have a problem."

But he exhorted the 100 attendees — 50 of whom were African-American men — not to let being victims of circumstances make them think of themselves as victims. "Man up!" he told them.

"Black men are abdicating their role as leaders in their families and their communities," Saffo declared. "One thing about us is that we look for others to always rescue us. Why are you always blaming another man for your condition? Don't let another man keep you from getting what God has decreed for you to have. Set your house in order."

Now here's what's interesting. On the same day — and at the same time — Interfaith Action Group on Peace and Justice in Israel and Palestine participated in an interfaith service at Euclid Methodist Church in Oak Park, which was led by Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Humanist faith leaders and followed by a solidarity walk to Unity Temple for a Middle Eastern and Mexican lunch.

The interfaith group describes itself as "a community-based group in Oak Park and River Forest working toward peaceful and constructive ways to express our faith and humanist beliefs in confronting the forces of international conflict and social injustice in Israel and Palestine … as we challenge the walls and barriers that separate us."

Man up?  

Three examples of how to address widely recognized evils and inequities in society — reparations, individual responsibility and an interfaith service followed by a solidarity walk for justice.

Do you think any of the three did, or would do, any good? Change anything?

Coates seems to be basing his argument on the premise that black people are victims of a long history of oppression and it's mainly up to white people — who after 150 years still have most of the wealth — to make amends. Bishop Saffo, as I heard him, was declaring that as much as it may be true that the descendants of slaves in this country have been victims, it is that very self-image which is preventing black people from moving forward more than they already have.   

And the interfaith service and march? A little of both? On the one hand, they did seem to be "manning up." Imagine finding enough common ground for Christians, Jews, Muslims and Humanists to have a service together!  

On the one hand, the marchers agreed with Saffo that people have to "man" up and not be paralyzed by the enormity of the problem. On the other hand, they agreed with Coates that the problem is systemic and that individuals acting responsibly is not enough to dismantle systemic inequity.

I think most of us, at least in this village, have the same goal articulated in Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. From my perspective, gained from 71 years of living, there are usually several ways to get from where we are to where we want to go.  

I hope Mr. Coates doesn't automatically demonize white or black folks who don't think reparations will do much good. Most of us around here are heading toward the same goal. Because we choose different ways and different paces, doesn't automatically mean we're getting in the way.

Tom Holmes is a columnist with our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.

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