Larry Yates: Reparations and Whiteness


(talk presented by Larry Yates to his Unitarian congregation)

First, I need one of you to tell a joke. Not just any joke, a specific joke. Does someone know the one about the kangaroo that goes into a bar?


A white guy goes into a bar. He sits down and orders a Scotch and soda. It’s a slow afternoon, not many people in the bar, and after a few minutes, the bartender comes over to him and says “You know, in this bar, we don’t get many people personally benefiting from the four centuries of institutional racism.”

The white guy looks at the bartender, and says “Yeah, and if you keep making comments like that, you won’t get many more.”


Well, funny or not, that joke brings out how clunky, awkward, even hostile, it sounds to talk about white people and race. We just don’t have comfortable language for talking about these things. But we’re Unitarians, right? We can talk about uncomfortable topics.

This talk was inspired by an article I wrote in this upcoming book. The book is The Debtors ... It is published by CURE, a small national organization of white folks who support reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans - African Americans. My article is an answer to a widely circulated attack on reparations, written by a very intelligent rightwinger by the name of David Horowitz. His arguments against reparations push a lot of emotional buttons common to a lot of white people.

The more I worked on this as a talk to you, my spiritual community and my friends, the less I found myself answering Horowitz, and the more I found myself examining how I have navigated the process of dealing with those emotional buttons.

Racism, slavery, reparations -- I can’t begin to do these topics full justice today.

So I just want to focus on the experience of being conscious and aware, as a white person, of being in some way connected to a 400+ year history of atrocious treatment of non-whites.

It’s an uncomfortable awareness to confront. So sometimes the first thing we white folks try to do is deflect the issue away from ourselves.

Am I saying that all white people respond exactly the same way? No. But I am saying that people of any kind often react the same way to the same experiences. A random group of people waiting too long for a bus will be happy when it finally comes. Some members of a random group of people who feel uncomfortable about possible collective responsibility will try what I call the individualism escape.

What do I mean by the individualism escape? See if these statements ring a bell -- I did not own any slaves; my family wasn’t even here until after 1865; no-one I know ever burned a cross on anyone’s lawn.

The interesting thing is that these are all true statements. Yet something rings false. To understand what it might be, listen to these statements, statements that are also true, but that no-one ever seems to say.

I had nothing to do with writing the Constitution; my family did nothing to help get Social Security passed; no-one I know wrote any of the great works of Western literature.

The fact is that we are at the same time unique individuals and inextricably part of the collective process of history. You and I did not create the United States of America, but we are part of what it is today. The same goes for the system of racism that was once expressed in slavery, later in segregation, and today in massive disparities of wealth, health care, and access to legal justice. Every one of us has some role in that system, whether we are aware of it or not.

Forty years ago or more, Ebony Magazine in a cover story named racism the white problem. That made sense to me, and started me trying to figure out whiteness -- a process much like a fish trying to conceptualize water.

So let me ask you -- what is whiteness? What makes a person white? This is not a trick question, and there are several answers that work, depending on the situation. In the next few minutes, I’d like to hear a few of yours, and then talk about the answer that works for me.

OK, here’s my answer -- Being white is not, in my opinion, a biological, cultural, or historical status, not a matter of skin color or association with Europe. Whiteness is an arbitrarily assigned social and political status that provides some level of privilege and power.

Let me compare whiteness to European aristocracy, as it was in the 1600s or 1700s. Many Europeans genuinely believed in those days that the privileges granted to aristocrats were their due because of inborn differences -- so-called “blue blood.” Aristocrats were different -- you could see that just by looking at them. Of course, we would ascribe this to better nutrition, education, and tailoring and a palpable sense of entitlement. (And just plain selective attention to details.)

Today we see the aristocracy as an arbitrarily defined social group that was awarded special privileges. These privileges were justified by irrational ideas about human differences, and the result was great injustice and social dysfunction.

A lot of people are coming to see whiteness in pretty much the same terms. That includes me. Seen like this, whiteness is like a lottery number -- you happen to share it with millions of other lucky winners, but you don’t necessarily have much else in common with those others.

Whatever random factor you may share with one of your fellow lottery winners - blue eyes, a love for Shakespeare, facility at arithmetic -- you certainly share as many random factors with those who didn’t win.

However, when the myths of whiteness as some essential part of me or you are gone, all that’s left in whiteness is a certain position in a social system. Unfortunately, a deplorable position in a deplorable system.

Let me tell you a family story of whiteness.

About 70 years ago, the story in my family goes, my grandmother, as she did every morning in her rural Georgia home, went in the kitchen to start making breakfast for my grandfather and their six kids. A young Black man was dozing at the kitchen table. It’s not clear if she knew him, but she knew he had no business there, and she went and got my grandfather. My grandfather came and shook the young man by the shoulder, and the young man woke up and ran away. A few days later, the story goes on, my grandfather got a letter of thanks from a local Black schoolteacher, the young man’s aunt. Why did she thank him? Because at that time, my grandfather not only could have had the young man arrested, he could have shot him dead on the spot -- with no legal consequences. That’s what whiteness meant at that point in time. My grandparents didn’t ask for that privilege to kill without liability. They didn’t use it. But they had it. And every person of African descent in the South lived with that every day.

Today, whiteness does not carry the same intimate power it did in Jim Crow Georgia. But it still means power and privilege, unearned and unasked for, usually invisible to those who have it, but always at hand.

How do we escape this ugliness? The ugly answer is that we cannot escape it. But we can take action to end the system of racism, to break the institutional chain. I have come to the conclusion that the key thing we must do is to genuinely trust those who know the system better than we do -- those who suffer most from it.

What does this mean, in practical terms? In 1988, I put my career in the hands of low income people, mostly African American, that I had never met. I was working on a very complex housing issue; tens of thousands of low income households were at risk of losing their homes. The premier experts on the issue -- smart and good people -- thought bringing in low income tenants would confuse the discussion and ensure disaster.

To their dismay, I insisted on democracy -- the people at risk had to be part of solving the problem. It worked. Tenants that I helped to organize became a key part of the solutions.

I didn’t blindly trust one individual Black or Latino person. I trusted that in a crisis, if given some support, leadership would emerge, and grow in sophistication to meet the need. This happened. And my career -- and my life -- benefitted from my trust.

Now, as this book demonstrates, I support the call for reparations for slavery. Not just any random reparations scheme that anyone proposes. But if mass African American support arises for a particular program for reparations, I will support it. I trust the wisdom and the self-interest of African-Americans, in this case as I have before.

How does a fish learn about the water that she or he has been swimming in for a whole lifetime? A critical step is to learn from those who have watched so long from dry land. Trust their humanity -- which, after all, is also your own.

Often, that common humanity seems like a remote abstraction, something from books and from doctrine. We are taught, in our tribalism, that common humanity is what we should believe in but not what realistically is.

But in fact, biology teaches us our common humanity is what pulses in our veins. Accurate history and sociology show us it is what rings true in the intermingled stories of our families. And our faith teaches us that our common humanity is what informs the centuries of philosophy and spiritual truth that have been passed from mind to mind and heart to heart with no arbitrary limitations of color or sect or condition of servitude.

It is whiteness that is the abstraction. It is whiteness that is the dry construction of intellect and law books and political maneuvering. It is the nagging voice of whiteness that we should hear as a constructed and narrow correctness, that should make us uncomfortable with its contorted and unnatural demands.

There is a whole world of common humanity that never stops calling to us. The voice of that humanity, as we re-learn to hear it, is as mighty as the millennia of striving to create hope and decency and a common vision. And the voice of that humanity is as intimate and true as our breath, as our cells.