Jeff Hitchcock: Quakers and Reparations for Slavery and Jim Crow

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Quakers and Reparations for Slavery and Jim Crow

Out of the silence a woman asked, "Why don't Friends take reparations more seriously? It's the kind of issue Quakers take on." Her voice, plaintive and clear, touched me. In that moment I knew she had spoken truth.

I believe people are complex and multifaceted. We may experience many thoughts and feelings about a given concern. They are not always consistent and sometimes they are outright contradictory. For several months prior I had been involved with a small group of Friends studying reparations, and I am a reparations supporter. Yet as I listened to the Friend of color speaking out of the silence, part of me was unready to hear it in the moment. "Reparations? Isn't that a give-away program? Why should my house be up for grabs? Black people getting personal payouts? Some are better off than I am. It's a lost cause, anyway. They should get over it. Slavery was wrong, but it wasn't that bad. We've all suffered. Besides, reparations were paid, weren't they? It was so long ago. She's just trying to make me feel guilty." Another deeper part of myself hidden far from the Light remained quiet, though profoundly disturbed.

The term "reparations" refers to atonement, repairing a wrong or injury, making amends, and repaying debts, often including compensation in money, land, and materials. Reparations are not new or novel in national and international affairs. Since 1950 reparations have been paid to Jews by Germany and Austria, to people of Japanese ancestry by the United States and Canada, and to several Native American peoples by the United States and Canada.

The claim for reparations for people of African descent in the United States comes from a history of officially sanctioned slavery and oppression. The primary beneficiaries of these practices were European Americans, whose culture became the dominant culture in the United States, and remains so today.

Lest We Forget

Slavery has sometimes been romanticized, but it was a brutal system that stole the labor of millions without compensation. The system benefited Southern plantation owners and Northern shipbuilders and capitalists (including Quakers). Law and custom prevented individuals of tender conscience in both North and South, including some number of slave owners and capitalists, from treating slaves as humans equally endowed by God with rights of freedom and self-determination. Slave owners, for instance, often could not free their own slaves without permission from their state legislature.

Those enslaved who sought to free themselves encountered brutal, barbaric practices including mutilation, forced and irreversible family separation, and death. Slavery in the United States promised nothing but misery, not only in one's own lifetime, but in the lives of one's children, forever. Only God's justice gave hope.

The Civil War ended slavery, except in the still-present case of people judged guilty of crimes and thereby incarcerated. In place of slavery, Jim Crow segregation controlled blacks in the South. Through brutal and widely publicized terrorist acts of lynching, white Southerners suppressed early efforts by Southern blacks to migrate. None were spared as examples to other blacks, including pregnant women. When mechanization came to Southern agriculture, black laborers could move to the North.

Those left in the Southern homeland labored as sharecroppers. Perpetually "in debt" to white landowners who owned the capital and the land, kept the books, and controlled the legal system, African Americans labored for survival while the accumulated wealth flowed into the hands of European Americans. In the North, segregated housing and labor practices assured that African Americans would remain the lowest caste in the United States.

Jim Crow practices continued into the 1960s, covered by a veneer of civility that emerged earlier in the 20th century. The Civil Rights movement disrupted this complacency and led to real economic gains by African Americans, accompanied by a significant decrease in segregation, to the benefit of the nation as a whole. These gains lasted into the early 1980s, only to be slowed down, and now in some cases reversed.

Past Wrongs Brew Present Harms

Many schools today remain as segregated as when the historic Brown v. Board of Education case set in motion decisions that ended legal discrimination by race. Friends surely know that our prisons have consumed enormous sums of capital to incarcerate and, in accord with the 13th Amendment, legally enslave millions of people, including a substantial number of people of color, and specifically African Americans. Although the letter that killeth has been removed, it seems the Spirit giving life remains frail in the face of human corruption.

We underestimate the impact of this history and present reality on our national well-being. And failure of vision places us at great risk. The historic oppression of African Americans took place over 250 years leading up to the Civil War. Few people realize the oppression of African Americans was, at first, moderate. The earliest Africans in America were understood by European Americans to be humans, with souls. Black people in 17th-century America owned property, held public office, voted, and otherwise mixed socially with European Americans. By the 18th century this had changed, although white people still understood black people were humans endowed with souls. By the 19th century and the Civil War, the U.S. legal system discounted any humanity on the part of African Americans, reducing their status to only that of property.

We are still emerging from those times. Two hundred fifty years of increasing dehumanization still leaves much to be done today, 140 years after the legal system of slavery was abolished. European Americans uphold a legal system that supports the intergenerational transfer of wealth as an essential concern. Witness the fervor behind the recent arguments calling for the removal of the inheritance tax. Yet European Americans act as if taking the wealth from every generation of African Americans, except the current one, has had no impact on the economic position of the black community. In effect, our nation imposed an inheritance tax of 100 percent on African Americans for more than 300 years.

Where once European Americans understood African Americans as our human equals, today we still have to deal with a painful cultural legacy of racism that tells us, against our better nature, that we are more deserving and superior. It is fact, not fable, that in late-17th-century Virginia European Americans made a deal: it was agreed that the elite of society could install slavery, provided that only Africans were enslaved. Prior to this time, both African and European Americans labored under equally harsh and oppressive conditions. They often rebelled together, and even burned the capital of the Virginia colony to the ground. Society's elite promised not to enslave European Americans if poor European Americans controlled the enslaved African labor pool. It became the basic right of any "white" person, as we came to be called at that time and place, to be better off than black people.

Even today this entitlement lingers. It was the perverse spirit of this cultural endowment that was profoundly disturbed within me when my fellow worshiper, a woman of color, spoke out of the silence.

After many centuries of being locked into roles of oppressor and oppressed, we have become black and white, separate communities on a long and rocky path toward reconciliation. The white community still holds the preponderance of political, economic, and legal control of our nation.

White people in the United States generally do not look upon reparations as a viable social concern, much less one that might have a positive impact upon our own lives. We value individualism more highly than most cultures in the world. Reparations, on the other hand, are a means of restoring a community—in other words, a collective concern. Through individualism, white culture encourages a self-centered, human-over-nature point of view in which conquest and the accumulation of wealth are central preoccupations, consumption drives the economy, and "us" versus "them" thinking is the one form of community consciousness given support.

Quakers and Reparations

Today Quakers in the United States are a predominantly white group, yet Friends of color, including African American Friends, form part of our corporate body. Simply equating Friends today with whiteness is problematic. Yet our history and our current condition, particularly in the tradition of Friends in the United States, largely reflect a surround of white culture, and our membership, historically and at present, is composed predominantly of people who, racially speaking, are white. I acknowledge both our Eurocentric history and our future aspirations for a racially inclusive society.

No single person is a culture. Even for white people, white cultural values do not apply to everyone. In the case of Quakers, we share white cultural practices in some ways. Our faith can be highly individualistic. Unlike faiths in many other cultures, we do not impart spirituality to objects, places, and ancestors. We tend to be rational, and non-expressive.

In other ways we are out of step with white culture. We value our elders; we make collective decisions according to a process of consensus; we favor nonhierarchical and non-patriarchal social arrangements, and we do not believe that wealth proves one's godliness. We value simplicity.

There is reason, then, to believe Quakers might see both sides of reparations as a concern. Many, like me, may find the influence of white culture has prepared us with a litany of counterarguments when the topic of reparations is raised. But others, or even the same person such as me, may feel reparations have a place as a prominent concern within the body of Quaker belief, thought, and witness.

What are Reparations?

The history of the reparations movement, though not so long as that of the slavery and oppression whose effects it seeks to remedy, nonetheless goes back well over a century. To a progressive reformer in 1851, the need for reparations was clear. "Does not every American Christian owe to the African race some effort at reparation for the wrongs that the American nation has brought upon them?" wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe in her conclusion to Uncle Tom's Cabin.

During the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman seized land from slave owners and distributed it to 40,000 newly freed African Americans, giving rise to the phrase "40 acres and a mule." President Andrew Johnson countermanded Sherman's actions because he deemed it unfair to the slave owners. The land was returned, and the people freed from slavery were left with no resources.

Beginning in 1890 ex-slaves organized a sustained effort to petition the U.S. government for pensions as payment for their labor and their contribution to the na­tion's wealth. Largely led by Callie D. House, an African American woman, over 600,000 African Americans joined the movement, which lasted 30 years. Finally, the government prosecuted the leaders for fraud, claiming it was obvious the government would never pay and so the leadership was deluding its members.

Additional efforts have taken place since then, so that a more or less continuous call for reparations has been issued from the Af­rican American community on a historical scale. Often some white allies supported this call. Invariably the government has responded that reparations are unfair to white people.

The current reparations movement is composed of activists, scholars, attorneys, and legislators. There is scarcely room in this article to cover the vast array of thought, research, and policy proposals that have emerged from this movement. The prevailing paradigms tend to emphasize the U.S. government as payer, with the black community as recipient, and the manner of distribution of payment being mediated through community development programs and educational support. Reparations, in other words, are much more sophisticated than most people would believe. Reparations are not a simplistic set of programs in which individual white people give money to individual black people. In fact, with the U.S. government as payer, black taxpayers will bear some of the burden of payment. However, since the U.S. government is the institution that legally maintained the conditions that reparations seek to repair, it is only fair that the government pay. Other potential payers include corporations that can be shown to have participated directly in economic trade based on slavery.

As to the receipt and use of the money, reparations are not unlike the Marshall Plan, the massive delivery of capital from the United States government to war-ravaged Europe between 1947 and 1951. The United States gave Europe over 200 billion dollars (in today's terms) to rebuild itself. Grants were guided by the principle that the recipients should determine where the funds would best be spent. Post-war Europe at that time was devastated and the threat of massive civil disorder was imminent. The Marshall Plan is credited with rebuilding Europe and stabilizing the Western world economy.

How much greater might such an effort be if made among our own people? The U.S. government has created entitlement programs in the past, such as Social Security and the GI Bill. But through barely hidden subterfuge, these benefits have disproportionately gone to white people. Social Security, when first enacted, was denied to domestic and agricultural workers. These occupations comprised the majority of the African American labor pool, for whom few other opportunities existed. Black GIs found themselves denied honorable discharges by Southern white officers. Those discharged honorably had to compete for a minuscule number of slots at black colleges as white colleges refused them admittance. In the housing sector, official FHA policy -- written into the very manuals -- relegated black GIs to segregated neighborhoods, virtually none of which included the new middle class suburbs springing up across the nation. The 1960s war on poverty channeled some funds into inner city neighborhoods, but these funds applied to people of all backgrounds, and they disappeared entirely by the 1980s. None of these monies were tied in any way to any sort of apology and acknowledgement of historic wrongdoing by the government to the African American community. In all cases, including the antipoverty programs of the 1960s and 1970s, the argument can be made that whites were the major beneficiaries.

Why are Reparations a Quaker Issue?

If we hold ourselves to the Light and look at reparations from the standpoint of Friends testimonies, there is reason to hold up reparations as a Quaker concern.

Taking first our Testimony of Simplicity, we warn ourselves not to be overcome by the attractions and distractions of the material world. At least some portion of the opposition white people experience toward reparations is based in a fear that reparations will diminish our own material standing. Whereas Friends appreciate the need for a right sharing of resources, we seek to overcome the notion that wealth is its own justification. Indeed, we recognize that excessive attention to material accumulation distorts our humanity and distances us from God.

Our Testimony of Equality has long led us to be advocates for the oppressed. In the United States, Quakers have a long-standing and widely recognized history of working for racial justice on behalf of African Americans. This history can use some scrutiny, as it has often been presented in a one-sided way that has obscured Quakers' complicity with racial oppression. Still, there is a basis for claiming a heritage in which Friends have provided significant public support to movements for racial justice. Many Friends value this heritage and are moved to further it in our own time.

Along with our Testimony of Equality, we have a Testimony of Community. Each is rooted in our belief that there is that of God in every person. This belief runs counter to the more common "us" versus "them" thinking that pervades the dominant society. Our Testimony of Community grants us vision that other groups may not so readily share. Human vision may see a Mt. Everest, and call it great to climb it. Much greater, though, is God's vision, as when George Fox climbed a hill and saw "a great people to be gathered." In the United States, white people have been taught that we are separate from black people, such that what happens in the black "community" does not bear upon the fate of the white "community." Friends should reject this as a false division, and undoubtedly most do. But if we are one community, we need to look further and ask: How are we seeing that each member of our community is being treated justly?

Friends have always held a sense of integrity and valued the Truth. In everyday affairs this literally means being truthful in all we say and do. We take some pride in speaking truth to power. In that spirit, when we look at slavery and Jim Crow, we must witness that it was wrong, very wrong, and we, as a nation and a community, need to make amends. It's that simple. The truth often is.

Our Testimony of Integrity leads us first to decide what's right, based on our other beliefs and testimonies. In our everyday conduct, we value above all else that there be a consistency between our inner selves and the world. Because we do not weigh the practicalities of a concern before we decide where we stand upon it, we often champion "lost causes." Of course, one person's lost cause may be another's promising campaign. I don't mean to slight those involvements that other Friends hold dear; reparations are no more or less a lost cause than many Quaker concerns. It can be argued in this case, as in the others, that reparations hold substantial promise, and that considerable practical advancements have taken place in the reparations movement. At the very least, the movement for reparations gives witness to what we, as a nation, should be holding before us if we are to become one great community gathered. The same might be said of other Quaker concerns, which is also to say reparations fit quite well among them.

Finally, reparations speak to our Testimony of Peace. In the name of peace, Quakers have stood against violence, sought to ease suffering, encouraged conflict resolution, and advocated for justice. The historic wrongs done to the African American community have often included explicit violence. Just as often the wrongdoing consisted of economic deprivation, supported and encouraged by government complicity and the practices of the dominant culture. The end result has been to withhold essential resources for the growth and continued health of the African American community, while the white community has had the benefit of the surplus over many generations. This is, of itself, a sustained form of violence. While reparations might be characterized as an appropriate involvement in the pursuit of any number of peace concerns, it might best be considered a matter of restorative justice, on a grand scale. Reparations focus on harms to, and the needs of, the African American community brought about by a pattern of multigenerational economic exploitation. They also address the obligation of the offenders, and seek to put things right.

How Does Reparations Work Benefit Quakers?

Restorative justice gives attention to the welfare of the offenders as well as victims, and it takes into consideration the needs of the community in which the wrongdoing has taken place. The history of Friends in the United States as a predominantly white faith group places us overwhelmingly on the side of the offenders—a placement that individual Friends may well find discomforting—yet despite the misfortune of occupying the social role of moral wrongdoer, there are nonetheless direct benefits of reparations to Friends. First, finding ourselves in the wrong moral position, it might be presumed that we would want to rectify that as soon as possible. Reparations offer a real means of doing so. Second, using a restorative justice model, the needs of the overall community, in this case the community that comprises both the African American and white communities, become a concern. The obvious purpose of reparations is to help remedy needs of the African American community, yet the application of the remedy can lead to the social transformation that allows our now separate communities to begin to function together in the way Friends would truly like to see. White U.S. culture, on its own, tends to be self-centered, valuing human control over nature, seeking wealth and conquest, demanding consumption, and promoting "us" vs. "them." Reparations in­ter­vene in this thinking, unmasking and disrupting it. These are the very values Friends work to undo. Surely this is something Friends should encourage.

In regard to the material transfer involved in reparations, Friends have always understood that when we mismanage material affairs, we suffer spiritual harm. In other words, so long as the dominant culture of our nation continues to reap the material benefit of policies based on the historic theft and diversion of resources from the African American community, our lives will be distorted and we will not be able to attain the spiritual fullness of God's community here on Earth. Friends need to ask ourselves: What is our present spiritual condition? One cannot be passively nonracist in a society whose very economy has been structured on a racist past. Positive action is required to change that.

In past times Friends' disregard for the material has had the ironic effect of leading many Friends to experience economic well being. Honesty and integrity, and the placement of human values and relationships above short-term profits have proven to be an avenue to wealth over the longer term. This is not a suggestion that Friends should pursue our values for the purpose of economic gain. But it is none­theless a reminder that the process of build­ing true community is one in which all parties can gain. Just as the Marshall Plan helped rebuild a sound European economy that lifted the U.S. economy along with it, a well-managed and sincere plan of reparations promises to lift us all from an unfortunate history that drags us all down.

What Quakers Can Do

Friends can begin to educate ourselves and others on the work being done on reparations. This covers topics ranging from historical studies of the impact of slavery and Jim Crow, to the development of proposals for the use of resources transferred in part of an ultimate settlement. We can ask our government to make an apology for past practices. Such an apology has never been given. We can place our support behind the bill for a commission to study reparations that Representative John Conyers has perennially submitted to Congress since 1989.

We can devote time and financial re­sources to consider within our own body what we have done historically as slaveholders, economic beneficiaries of slavery, and supporters of Jim Crow. We can review what we have done in the way of reparations and consider how we might reconcile what we find with our present actions and aspirations, including an upwelling of the Spirit that seeks to make our Society more racially just and inclusive. As we find the need, and are guided by the Spirit, we can consider an apology and reparations within our own Religious Society.

Quakers have often proven skillful when working with complex, multifaceted concerns that need careful study and implementation through consideration of many parties, lots of dialogue, and the use of conflict resolution. We have also proven ourselves capable of amplifying the voice of oppressed people seeking self-determination. As allies we are able to give issues legitimacy in the dominant culture. Reparations call for all these skills.

Why haven't Quakers taken up reparations as an issue? I don't truly know, and so I can't answer the Friend of color who first drew me to the Light on this matter. For the present moment I can only amplify her question, and see that it gets the attention it deserves.

But if I draw from my own being to hazard a guess, I believe the answer would be found in that part of me that first reacted to her query. It's the part that says my community is a white community. Long ago I learned I'm not supposed to talk about this part of myself. It's a source of shame, and so it only finds expression when I can interpret its views in another way. Yet being raised in a nation that has long supported a structure of two communities, I absorbed the lesson. Now I try to pretend that part of me does not exist. But it takes time, it takes energy, and ultimately it's wrong to do so. I need to love that part of myself, to patiently calm and soothe it, and then gently guide it to the work at hand.