Michele Miller and Matthew Andrews: When it comes to reparations, we all have a role to play

  • A view of Main Street in downtown Amherst on March 14, 2020. FILE PHOTO

Published: 11/27/2020 1:08:39 PM

It was New Year’s Day in 1762 when the Amherst town selectmen ordered the first free Blacks of record to leave town, “considering them likely paupers if they were allowed to stay in Amherst as residents.”

This is one of dozens of facts our group — Reparations for Amherst — uncovered about the town’s history of structural racism and discrimination. Having seen what now amounts to a 12-page (and growing) report spanning nearly 400 years, we can say unequivocally that our precious little New England town is not in the clear when it comes to matters of racism, particularly anti-Black racism. Not even close.

And the problem still exists in Amherst today. In 2019, the median family income for white families was 2.4 times greater than the median family income for Black families, according to a 2020 report by the League of Women Voters, “Indicators of racial equity and justice for Amherst.” White residents in Amherst were four times more likely to own a home than Black residents, last year’s census shows. And according to the school district, the percentage of Black high school seniors who dropped out of school was nearly three times that of white seniors. While 40% of high school seniors went on to attend a private, four-year college or university, 0% were Black. Of Amherst’s 13 town councilors, none are Black.

Yet, if you wind through our picturesque roads, you will pass by anti-racist lawn signs as frequently as you’d pass by a Starbucks strolling through Manhattan. There are a lot of well-intentioned residents and there’s plenty of goodwill, but what does it really mean when we, as white people, say “Black Lives Matter”?

Following the murder of George Floyd, we were disheartened and angry, and we genuinely wanted to answer that question. We recognized there was a deep and enduring wound that needed to be healed, and we wanted to know if our community was feeling the same way. We wrote a petition calling for reparations for Black residents and invited our fellow community members to sign on and share their reasons for supporting the effort. The responses on the petition itself, and the direct outreach we received from individuals and organizations in support, confirmed our sense that Amherst was ready to face its history and begin the healing journey of restoration for its Black residents.

What exactly does it mean to “begin the healing journey of restoration for its Black residents” — particularly on a local level?

Most people think of reparations as one-time cash settlements to descendants of slavery, but local reparative efforts can take many forms. For example: symbolic redress, such as apologies and commitments to end racism, and the memorialization of Black people through naming, the creation of holidays and the installation of monuments; creative processes, including community engagement and educational programs that could create space for trauma to be worked out and true behavioral change to occur; and monetary reparations through scholarships, small-business loans and down payments for home purchases. Essentially, any measure chosen by Black residents that would move the community toward wholeness.

Reparations are not sociopolitical woo woo reserved for angry Black people or white leftists. Rather, broken down to their most fundamental meaning, reparations are a natural process that humanity depends on to evolve.

In the case of Black Americans, reparations for slavery should have been implemented immediately following emancipation to atone for 250 years of heinous crimes committed against Blacks. Crimes that injured and traumatized close to 4 million fellow humans and created a vast equity gap between Blacks and whites that persists to this day. It’s irrelevant that we did not own slaves ourselves. Slaves built the United States into one of the wealthiest countries on earth, and we benefit every day of our lives as a result. It is incumbent on us to do what our ancestors should have done 150 years ago and repay our debt to Black people.

The reparative process is a path the community takes together in full recognition that, as white people, we cannot determine what might constitute sufficient restorative action for Black people. We recently came across this quote by Indigenous activist Lilla Watson that we think captures the essence of reparations: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

It’s time to explore what that would look like for the Town of Amherst. Please join us, in collaboration with Town Council members Shalini Bahl-Milne, Alisa Brewer and Pat De Angelis for a virtual Symposium on Reparations w/Community Dialogue on Dec. 1 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Register at reparationsforamherstma.com/upcoming-events.

Michele Miller and Matthew Andrews are co-chairs of Reparations for Amherst. 
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