Pauline Eichten, with input from the Beloved Community Staff Team
It’s timely to have this article in December, when our worship theme is wonder. How might we wonder together, with curiosity instead of judgment, about the challenge of reparations? Are we making any progress toward racial justice, as an interviewer wondered in March of 1964, when he asked Malcolm X if progress was being made.
“No, no,” Malcolm replied. “I will never say that progress is being made. If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even begun to pull the knife out, much less heal the wound.” And when the interviewer attempted to ask another question, Malcolm interjected, “They won’t even admit the knife is there.”
“Pulling the knife out” is an essential step, but it is only an act of suspending the harm. It does not “heal the wound” because it is not an act of remediation or reparation. Repairing the wound requires those culpable to make amends and restitution for the harm inflicted. The claim for restitution anchors historically on our government’s failure to deliver on the promised 40-acre land grants to the newly emancipated, a failure that lay the foundation for the enormous wealth gap that exists today between Black and white people.
The case for reparations does not center exclusively on “slavery reparation” but seeks accountability for the atrocities of legal segregation we know as the Jim Crow era and the ongoing atrocities, including mass incarceration, credit/housing/employment discrimination, a criminal justice system and policing that continue to kill unarmed Black people. It includes the immense wealth disparity borne by Black American descendants, the cumulative legacy of our nation’s trajectory of racial injustice. Reparations is about repairing the wound, both acknowledging the moral failing and making restitution for lives robbed. Reparations ultimately aspires to the righting of a wronged relationship and the deep spiritual yearning for reconciliation.
When asked “Why reparations?” several members of the BCST responded with these statements.
Unity Church has been on a 20-year journey to becoming an actively antiracist multicultural community. We continue to learn about the history of this country and its development and economic power built on the exploitation of African Americans and the appropriation of land from Native Americans. And we are aware of the current disparities in education, wealth, health and safety experienced by Black, Indigenous and People of Color that are an outgrowth of those foundational practices of exploitation.
The more we learn about the history of mistreatment of Black and Native Americans, and the continuing effect of that mistreatment into the present, the more it seems clear that some form of restitution must be made. Kevin Shird, in a recent column in the Pioneer Press, says compensation today for historic injustices would be a major step forward. However, beyond any monetary compensation, he stated that just the acknowledgement of the injustices committed against Black and Indigenous people matters.
The need for reparations or restitution is clear. What gets complicated is how to do it and who is responsible.
House Resolution H.R.- 40, named after the 40 acres and a mule promised to enslaved people after emancipation, but never given, is a bill seeking to establish a federal commission to examine the impacts of the legacy of slavery and recommend proposals to provide reparations. The bill does not authorize payments; it creates a commission to study the problem and recommend solutions. Representative John Conyers, Jr., of Michigan introduced the bill every year starting in 1989. After he retired in 2017 at age 88, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, assumed the role of first sponsor of the bill. 2021 was the first year the bill made it out of committee.
Locally, the St. Paul City Council established the Reparations Legislative Advisory Committee in June 2021 to lay the groundwork for the Saint Paul Recovery Act Community Reparations Commission. The Commission will develop recommendations to “specifically address the creation of generational wealth for the American Descendants of Chattel Slavery and to boost economic mobility and opportunity in the Black community.” The ordinance to create the reparations commission will be coming before the council yet this year, after which it will be Mayor Carter who appoints the commission members. It is hoped that he will do that after the first of the year.
And the issue of broken treaties and restoring Native lands is a particular form of reparations that needs to be addressed. As members of the BCST seek to expand and deepen conversations about Unity’s role in reparations, watch for future articles that dig into these and other efforts addressing reparations and how this congregation might contribute.
Available in Unity's Library
The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide
Barbara Robles, Betsy Leondar-Wright, Rose Brewer, 2006
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
Richard Rothstein, 2017
"The Case for Reparations," The Atlantic magazine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2014
Truth Telling and Healing: Indigenous and Environmental Justice Series
Beloved Community Resources
Unity Justice Database
Team Dynamics House of Intersectionality
Anti-Racism Resources in the Unity Libraries Collection
Creative Writers of Color in Unity Libraries
The History of Race Relations and Unity Church, 1850-2005
Beloved Community Staff Team
The Beloved Community Staff Team (BCST) strengthens and coordinates Unity’s antiracism and multicultural work, and provides opportunities for congregants and the church to grow into greater intercultural competency. We help the congregation ground itself in the understanding of antiracism and multiculturalism as a core part of faith formation. We support Unity’s efforts to expand our collective capacity to imagine and build the Beloved Community. Here, we share the stories of this journey — the struggles, the questions, and the collaborations — both at Unity and in the wider world.
The current members of the Beloved Community Staff Team include Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, Rev. KP Hong, Rev. Lara Cowtan, Barbara Hubbard, Drew Danielson, Laura Park, Lia Rivamonte and Angela Wilcox.