Every innovation our world has experienced began with imagination. In today’s society, we suffer from imagination deficiency when it comes to considering the humanity of all people, regardless of their race, class, or sexual/gender orientation.
Because of this lack of imagination, some of us hold on to the idea that reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans is not possible. Comments made by President Barack Obama in a 2016 interview, exemplify this: “You can make a theoretical, abstract argument in favor of something like reparations. And maybe I’m just not being sufficiently optimistic or imaginative enough…”
Several cases have been made to prove that the U.S. government owes reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans on this land. Those cases are based on facts that slavery—specifically the enslavement of African people brought to this land, and the subsequent exploitation and economic oppression of their descendants—created the economic superpower that the United States is today. Yet the imagination of our leaders on how to make possible repair for that particular harm is consistently faulty, even when we’ve been shown solutionary models here and abroad—the Sioux Indian and Japanese examples, and the South African model, Ubuntu.
For the purposes of this discussion, which is focused on the United Nations definition of reparations, we might consider compensation for slavery and the world that slavery created as necessarily focused on the moral framework of Ubuntu, a Zulu term that means “humanity,” and translates, “I am because you are.”
Ubuntu was popularized because of Bishop Desmond Tutu’s work on truth and reconciliation hearing in South Africa. While Tutu’s framing was important, some possibilities offered by Dr. Fania Davis, author of the Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice, centers Ubuntu, which understands that reciprocal relationships creates moral and just possibilities.
Dr. Jeanine Ntihirageza also offers the concept of Ubuntu as a core aspect of African philosophy, which she described as humanistic, compassionate, forgiving and a blessing. Ntihirageza said that because of the interconnectedness of neighbors and community, Ubuntu was also a curse, because in the context of genocide, people did not run. This has many connotations that cannot be fully explored here, but the notion of relationships must lead us to how we approach compensation for reparations.
If we are considering a moral framework, who we listen to about reparations must change. For instance, a national plan to decide how much the government owes is one that, as civil rights leader Queen Mother Audley Moore believed, must be democratic, in that all Black folk in the United States should have a say—not just an appointed committee composed of some policymakers and a few academic elites. Several organizations are collaborating to this end.
The imagination and dreams we must cultivate and act on are not only about how to bring Black folks into economic equity—closing the wealth gap—on which many academics seem to focus. This not to say that actual dollars are not owed. But how might reparations truly be compensation for the moral and material debt that White America and the U.S. government owes to Black folk.
To be sure, reparations is a moral and material debt, not only owed by the U.S. government (given lower socioeconomic, working and lower middle class communities pay more in taxes than upper middle class and wealthy people), but White institutions, families and individuals who continue to benefit from slavery and subsequent oppression of the descendants of enslaved Africans. We might get our checks, but if average white folk and their institutions don’t have skin in the game at some level—beyond charity and philanthropy—we will always be subject to the racial terrorism that we experience in every facet of Black life.
The businesses that benefited from slavery and its emerging society-shaping legacy extends to all White Americans, given the direct correlation between the injustices Black folk experience and the privileges or moral debt that is conceived as wealth that white folk are a beneficiary to.
But a moral debt requires healing—physical, spiritual, and mental; the return of what was stolen—or restitution; compensation, education, and memorialization so this society can be aware at every turn what its imposition of slavery has done; and guarantees of non-repeat to make sure that changes are in place to prevent from happening again a legalized system of enslavement.
My argument is that along with the government, White people, their institutions —schools and churches owe reparations. Virginia and New Jersey seminaries have acknowledged their complicity, and have set aside some form of reparations.
So while economic equity or reducing the wealth gap may be desirable, for some, we make these arguments in absence of considering the reality that the current overall wealth structure in our country is unjust. Does it make moral or common sense to demand entry into a system whose wealth is based on theft, then maintained and increased by oppression throughout the world? This is not giving the government a pass, but inserting into the conversation and decision-making that reparations must be in the context of dismantling an overall oppressive exploitative system—a system that is rooted in a model of scarcity, where a few win and all others lose.
The fact that religious institutions are grappling with reparations speaks to the spiritual dimension of owing a moral and material debt.
While we could all live in relative abundance—because there is enough for us all—we live in perpetual want because a few take much more than they actually need.
Economic equity and equality is what humanitarian societies do. Paying a moral and material debt while withdrawing from investments and purchases that grow when people suffer is about spiritual, civic and political accountability. Compensation for reparations must come from the government, but also people and institutions—religious and secular—must lead the way by making interpersonal reparations.
Otherwise, a lack of our collective imaginations will continue us down this path of perpetual chaos and violence—not only economically, but also socially, spiritually, mentally, and environmentally.
This is Part 4 of our exclusive series, On Reparations. Read more:
David Ragland is one of the co-directors and co-founder of the Truth Telling Project and is the Director of the Campaign for Truth and Reparations.