Jerry Saltzman: Reparations: An Issue of Justice and Much More


The issue of reparations to African Americans for slavery and Jim Crowism has usually been discussed as an issue of justice, an issue of a debt owed for massive human rights violations which led to the unjust enrichment of our nation and many of its citizens.I believe that the theme of a debt deserves its place at the core of discussions of this issue.

In what follows, though, I would like to focus on another theme connected with this issue: the theme of repairing what has been broken, the theme of making whole, the theme of social healing.

To see more clearly how the issue of reparations can be characterized as an issue of social healing, consider an analogy with personal relationships. I believe that it is a feature of human nature that we function most creatively, lovingly and courageously in the context of open, close, dependable relationships with others. Things may not always go smoothly but there is a place in the best of relationships for ironing out difficulties. When a close relationship has been ruptured by hurtful behavior, all parties tend to feel sad, conflicted, somewhat lost, disappointed and possibly remorseful. What we could count on, what was precious is no more. It is almost as if a part of us is lacking.

Much is required of us to repair a broken relationship. It takes persistence, honesty, courage, a willingness to honestly face what went wrong and our own part in it. It requires a sincere willingness to make amends. It requires a recurring decision to change whatever it is in ourselves and in the relationship that led to the rupture so that we return not to the status quo but to a higher level of trust and commitment. It requires the parties to the ruptured relationship to see each other more human ways. In a sense, repairing a relationship with integrity requires the best in us. The process of repair empowers us; it can make us more hopeful as well a humble; it gives us the opportunity of being more of who and what we truly are.

I believe that it makes sense to say that a society which is organized so that the material well-being of the few is gained at the expense of the many, where this organization takes place to a large extent along racial lines, and where the organization is supported by institutions which keep that inequality in place, is a society of broken relationships. From a point of view that may be called spiritual, we might say that such a society violates the inherent connection among all humans and the construction of such a society is an affront to our inherent goodness. On the level of our political and social realities we can see this phenomenon exhibited in racial tensions, denial, defensiveness, insecurity, hate crimes, a need for nonproductive distractions, a discernable level of mistrust and resentment, mean spiritedness, and so on. Unfortunately we can also see the effects of this 'brokenness' in our children. Their sense of innocence and hopefulness turns into cynicism at too early an age, they tend to develop a harder shell, and, with increasing frequency, frustrations are expressed in shockingly violent ways.

Justice, paying the debt, is necessary to mending the rupture in our society which was forged by centuries of exploitation, the remnants of which are very much alive today. But I do not think that this is sufficient. The handing over sums of money for unpaid labor, stolen property and stolen lives may, in some way set the stage for true social healing, but we must go farther. We must take a good look at how some of us have prospered because of a skewed division of the benefits of living in this society. We must take a look at the human cost for those who were and continue to be subjected to exploitation. We must also take a look at the human cost for the exploiters and for those who benefit from exploitation. Conceiving of reparations to African Americans as a process of social healing in addition to a process of social justice gives us the incentive to take such a look. This, as well as justice is necessary to develop more life enhancing relationships within and across racial lines. I want finally to suggest that advocating for reparations in the context of social healing can help bring out the best in us. We can make the choice to see ourselves as generous, thoughtful, courageous, visionary and deeply connected to others. We can make the choice to see each human being, whatever his or her present circumstances, as having the potential to make a profound impact on our society. We can make the choice to evolve from our individualistic modes of thinking to a mode of thinking of ourselves as keepers of our sisters and brothers. Finally, we do not have to see reparations as a divisive issue, as one where there are new winners and new losers, as an issue of social comeuppance. We have the choice to see reparations as contributing to the replacement of our present win-lose society with one where we all gain.