Columnist Andrea Ayvazian: An invitation for white reparations


Published: 2/17/2017 7:53:00 PM

I recently went to visit my grown son in Austin, Texas — on the train. It is true. Three days there and three days back.

It was like a six-day moving retreat. I saw the country go by, reflected on our new life under the Republican administration, and read book after book.

The most gripping book I read, which I marked up heavily despite the train’s gentle swaying, was “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America” by Michael Eric Dyson. I am a big fan of his and scooped up this new book as soon as it came out.

Named by Ebony magazine as one of the 100 most influential African-Americans in the nation, Michael Eric Dyson is the author of 20 books and countless articles. His new book is more brutally honest than some of his earlier writing — it is beautifully written, difficult to read in places, and immensely powerful. White people from coast to coast should read and ponder his words.

Although I found something to underline on almost every page, the final section — the “Benediction” — was especially stirring. In the “Benediction,” Dyson offers “a few practical suggestions” about what white people — as individuals — “can do to make things better.”

Dyson’s suggestions begin with his recommendation that white people make reparations. He acknowledges that not all white people may have followed the debate about reparations, and that even if we have, we may not support the idea.

In recent decades, many prominent members of the African-American community have called for reparations. A United Nations report, published in 2016, states that due to the history of slavery in the United States, reparations for African-Americans is justified and could include, “a formal apology, health initiatives, educational opportunities, psychological rehabilitation, technology transfer and financial support, and debt cancellation.”

Dyson writes, “If affirmation action is a hard sell for many of you, then reparations, the notion that the descendants of enslaved Africans should receive from the society that exploited them some form of compensation, is beyond the pale.”

Yet he goes on to promote the idea of individual reparations, acknowledging that we may not be able to make reparations happen politically on the national level.

Dyson recognizes that many white people are descendants of people who arrived in this country long after slavery was abolished, as was true of my family.

Nevertheless, he argues that white people are the beneficiaries of a society built upon the labor of Africans in bondage. “Please don’t say that your ancestors didn’t own slaves,” he writes. “Your white privilege has not been hampered by that fact. Black sweat built the country you now reside in, and you continue to enjoy the fruits of that labor.”

Although I was familiar with the concept of individual white people making reparations, I was grateful to have Dyson spell out specific examples and ideas. I think his suggestions are meaningful, doable, and constructive.

The local and individual reparations he offers include hiring black people at the office and paying them slightly better than that position would ordinarily be paid. Or, similarly, pay the black person who cuts your grass double what you might ordinarily pay.

Another idea Dyson proposes is to give a deserving black student that you know scholarship help. These are small ways, Dyson says, of returning to the black community what was taken from them.

Dyson wants white people to view reparations as a “secular tithe.” He suggests that predominately white religious and civic institutions commit a tenth of their resources to educating black youth.

Dyson encourages individual white people or small groups to set up an “I.R.A., an Individual Reparations Account.” The funds in the I.R.A. could be funneled to black families who cannot afford to send their kids to summer camp, or to pay fees for a sports team, or to buy instruments to play in the school band. The I.R.A. could help black parents pay for tutors for math, science or English, or wherever help is needed.

Dyson encourages white people to reflect on the “black tax” — a concept, he says, that all black folks understand. According to Dyson, the black tax refers to the cost and penalty of being black in America — of having to work twice as hard for half of what whites receive by less strenuous means.

“You can help defray the black tax by offering black tax incentives.” Dyson writes, “If a black accountant is doing a good job for you, assume a surcharge and pay her more. If a black lawyer performs a good service, then compensate him even more for his labor.”

Dyson’s suggestion that white people take seriously the idea of individual reparations, and consider compensating black people for the black tax they live with, has burrowed deeply into my thinking. While Dyson’s entire book is illuminating, the notion that each white person can quietly, purposefully, and freely repay, in modest ways, a tiny portion of the great debt we owe to black folks makes sense to me and is a very attractive concept.

As I sat on the train watching the American heartland roll by, I realized that Dyson’s suggestion that white people make individual reparations is a just and reasonable course of action.

Offered by someone who is a scholar, writer, activist, and ordained minister, Michael Eric Dyson invites white people to take an action that would be healing on many levels. And he makes the invitation with respect and grace.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, of Northampton, is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She writes a monthly column on the intersection of faith, culture and politics.

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