Our response is framed by seven core convictions that we believe are foundational to a constructive engagement with the work of reparations. The first regards the nature of racism itself. Before proceeding, we should briefly state that racism, as used in this book, has three elements to it. First, classifying human beings into distinct “races” due to presumably fixed and hereditary physical characteristics. Second, assigning notions of inferior mental or moral capacities correlated to those physical, mental and moral capacities correlated to those physical characteristics. Third, pushing people who are seen to have those physical, mental, and moral qualities to the margins of a given social order. Over the course of preparing this work, we have come to see that when people look at racism, they often see very different things and further, that these various ways of seeing racism elicit varying responses to it. Some, for example, view racism personally, as a form of personal prejudice whose remedy is personal repentance. Others view it socially, as a form of relational estrangement that requires racial reconciliation. Still others view it institutionally, in terms of discrete institutional injustice whose redress lies in institutional reform. Each of these accounts holds important truths about the nature of racism and what it means to respond faithfully to it. Even so, we believe that none of these capture the whole truth, that still another view is racism if required.
Our conviction is that racism is best understood culturally, as a force that shapes the entire ecosystem of meanings, values, ideas, institutions, and practices of American culture. Seeing racism in this way- as embedded in an entire cultural order – is important not only because it reminds us that each of us, simply by virtue of living in this culture, is implicated in and affected by the reality of American racism but also because it reminds us just how expansive the work of repairing racism ultimately will be.
Our second conviction is that the best way to understand the cultural order of racism is through the lens of White supremacy. White supremacy has been present since the founding of America, pervasive across all of its institutions and enduring throughout its history. Because we understand the difficulty of this claim for many of our readers, a difficulty we ourselves feel, we want to take a moment to elaborate on just what we mean.
There is a certain revulsion in hearing this word, supremacy, and even more so the phrase White supremacy. It is a difficult phrase, and this is important to acknowledge. But it is also important to ask why it is so difficult for many of us to speak of White supremacy. Part of the difficulty lies in how we understand its meaning. For many, White supremacy is understood in fairly narrow terms: as hooded riders in the forest, torch-bearing marchers in the street, or trolls on the dark web, promoting open, active animus against people who are not White. This is understandable. Since the early twentieth century, those images of White supremacy have been deeply and deliberately etched into the popular American imagination. And they are real. When understood in these terms, it is reductive at best and cynical at worst to describe America in this way. But this is, in our view, an overly narrow account, one that obscures more than it illumines by mistaking the periphery of White supremacy for its essence. As we will see, the truth is that White supremacy is much broader than those occasional spasms of violence, much more ordinary and mundane than these moments of dark spectacle suggest.
Another difficulty some might have with the language of White supremacy regards not necessarily what it means but how it feels. Even if one grasps this more comprehensive meaning of White supremacy, and even if one sees something of the fullness of its historical reality, it is nonetheless possible to object to this language simply on the grounds that it is offensive. Indeed, we have met more than a few sympathetic people who have suggested that we use different language precisely on these grounds. “I agree with what you’re trying to say. But can’t you just find a different way to say it?” In considering these suggestions, two things have become clear to us. First, to cease to use the language of White supremacy, even though it is historically accurate and broadly used in minority communities, simply because it offends the sensibilities of White people is, in our view, to perpetuate the logic of White supremacy itself. We see no way around this. Second, if, as we will demonstrate, the American social order disproportionately (and deliberately) benefits those deemed to be White, even as those who are not deemed White are enslaved, degraded, and marginalized, what other term does honesty permit us to use?
But perhaps the most important obstacle to the language of White supremacy comes from those who, often in good faith, doubt its reality, who ask whether it really is the case that American society is one in which Whites have been at the top of the social hierarchy and have had virtually exclusive access to its benefits. This seems to us to be a fair and important question. The work of chapter 2 is to show that the unequivocal answer is yes.
The third conviction, developed in chapter 3, is that White supremacy’s most enduring effect, indeed its very essence, is theft. We believe White supremacy to be a multigenerational campaign of cultural theft, in which the identities, agency, and prosperity of African Americans are systematically stolen and given to others. As we will show, we believe that while this theft took many forms, its most significant and enduring forms are the theft of truth, the theft of power, and the theft of wealth.
Our fourth conviction is that the Christian church in America, a church that emerged and has endured in the context of White supremacy, has a fundamental responsibility to respond to this theft, for several reasons. The first reason derives from the church’s complex history, at times embracing and justifying White supremacy and at times resisting it. The church in America is not and never has been an innocent bystander to White supremacy. It has, to the contrary, been present – as both friend and foe – every step of the way. This reality entails the obligation to own this history and to take public responsibility for addressing it. This responsibility also comes from the church’s inner life. One of the glories of the Christian church is that, even in the midst of its deep brokenness, it takes the work of love seriously. Indeed, it is a community constituted by an act of love and committed to the work of love in the midst of the world. This love expresses itself as the burden, in the words of Jesus, to “proclaim good news to the poor” and “liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:18). The church is a community that, by its very nature, exists to address harms like those done by White supremacy. Last, the church’s responsibility derives from its need for missional integrity. It is easy to forget that the Christian church in America carries out its mission in one of the longest-standing White supremacist social orders in the history of the world. For this mission to have integrity, the church has to take this context seriously. If the church in America carries out its work of engaging culture, transforming cities, bringing the kingdom of God, and making all things new, without deliberately engaging the reality of White supremacy, both the integrity and efficacy of its mission are diminished. This is the subject of chapter 4.
Our fifth conviction is that one of the most important contributions of the church to the work of reparations is its historic ethic of culpability and restitution. As we will show, there is a long scriptural and deep theological tradition in the Christian church that teaches, very simply, that when you take something that does not belong to you, love requires you to return it. This ethic of culpability and restitution, embodied most clearly in the story of Zacchaeus, is a crucial element of any Christian vision of reparations. Related, our sixth conviction is that, in addition to restitution, the Chrstian tradition also teaches another response to theft: restoration. Even when not culpable for a theft, the Christian still has the obligation to restore what was lost. This ethic of restoration, seen clearly in the story of the good Samaritan, is a crucial element of the Christian vision of reparations. These two ethical responses to theft – restitution where we are culpable and restoration even where we are not – provide a broad foundation for a Christian account of reparations. In this account – and this is critical for our argument – reparations is best understood as the deliberate repair of White supremacy’s cultural theft through restitution (returning what one wrongfully took) and restoration (restoring the wronged to wholeness). We discuss these two elements in chapters 5 and 6, respectively.
Our final conviction (developed in chapter 7) is that as the church undertakes this work of reparations it must mirror the threefold theft wrought by White supremacy: not only the theft of wealth ( as is generally understood) but the theft of truth and the theft of power as well.
From “Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair” by Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson