B. Awareness & Acknowledgement

A widespread awareness and acknowledgement of the full truth of America's history of racial oppression (as touched upon in Section II above) is necessary before there can be any hope for systemic improvement and ultimate reconciliation.


1. Awareness

People wonder what they, individually and collectively, can do to try to correct injustice, understanding, as they do, deep down that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." It is easy to be discouraged by the sheer scope of the problem, considering that systemic racism has existed on this continent, after all, for nearly half a millennium. So, we struggle with what we can do. Our isolated ability and limited wherewithal lead us to question our capability to help. In the face of such daunting doubts, it is useful to remember that a single person can make a difference. Public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson discusses the idea of "personal reparations":

There are all sorts of ways to make reparations work at the local and individual level. You can hire black folk at your office and pay them slightly better than you would ordinarily pay them. You can pay the black person who cuts your grass double what you might ordinarily pay. Or you can give a deserving black student in your neighborhood, or one you run across in the course of your work, scholarship help.

For those unable to do more, reconciliation can be as little as having a friendly smile for the "other." As Nainoa Thompson, captain of the Polynesian traditional sailing vessel Hokule'a, says, "[e]very act of kindness of any person ... is an act to better the entire earth."

Anyone interested in promoting an ethos of fairness might consciously imagine standing in the shoes of certain individuals or groups, minority or otherwise, who are most adversely affected by existing social systems; and then to consider, based on one's own self-interest while standing in those shoes, how those systems might be changed to improve their circumstances. This technique, which John Rawls described as operating from behind a "veil of ignorance," leverages a basic human instinct--survival--to guide people in making fair and just decisions. In other words, because people naturally tend to operate in their own self-interest, folks of good faith can help historically-oppressed groups by deeply imagining themselves as members of those groups, and taking (self-interested) action accordingly.

In the racial justice context, Michael Eric Dyson puts it in terms of empathy:

It sounds simple, but [empathy's] benefits are profound. Whiteness must shed its posture of competence, its will to omniscience, its belief in its goodness and purity, and then walk a mile or two in the boots of blackness. The siege will not end until white folk imagine themselves as black folk--vulnerable despite our virtues. If enough of you, one by one, exercises your civic imagination, and puts yourself in the shoes of your black brothers and sisters, you might develop a democratic impatience for injustice, for the cruel disregard of black life, for the careless indifference to our plight.

Empathy must be cultivated. The practice of empathy means taking a moment to imagine how you might behave if you were in our positions. Do not tell us how we should act if we were you; imagine how you would act if you were us. Imagine living in a society where your white skin marks you for disgust, hate, and fear. Imagine that for many moments. Only when you see black folk as we are, and imagine yourselves as we have to live our lives, only then will the suffering stop, the hurt cease, the pain go away.

Awareness also requires an understanding of the role played by privilege in matters of race. Imani Michelle Scott explains:

[I]n today's America, white skin is still highly privileged skin; just ask the number of Asians, Cubans, and others of non-European ancestry who classify themselves with the coveted white label. To those who are born "white," little thought is likely given to this socially constructed birthright until they feel somehow threatened that it may be losing its power as a consequence of some major social change, e.g., voting rights legislation, affirmative action, or the election of a black president. But no one should doubt that most, if not all, whites in America instinctively know the value of their white skin.

Scott speculates that most whites are likely unaware of their privilege:

They are, through no fault of their own, simply ignorant of the fact. They do not think twice about stepping outside to take a walk around the block in a strange neighborhood; whereas a black person knows someone might view them as "suspicious" and call the cops. White parents do not think twice about sending their teen children out of the house without instructions on how to interact with the police, should they encounter them; whereas black parents know they must instruct their teens that they must be "twice as good."

Black folks do not need to be reminded about the history of racial oppression in this country and continent. They live it every day. Their ancestors lived it every day. White folks, on the other hand, do need some remedial work. Randomly, they happened to have been born in a place where, for four centuries, whites have occupied the dominant social and political position. As a result, they simply do not have the experience of what it is like to be the "other." The first step in their remediation is awareness. Every white person would be well-served to take his or her own private "privilege inventory" for an eye-opening exercise in the markedly different subjective realities faced by different persons depending on the color of their skin.

It is telling to ask, "what do white people do then once they become aware of their racial privilege?" Do they say, "good for me," and act in ways that perpetuate the privilege-divide, while completely ignoring the challenges of the less-privileged? Or do they recognize the sheer chance or dumb luck involved in being born into whatever conditions or surroundings they enjoy, and seek to aid in advancing opportunity for the less-privileged?


2. Acknowledgement

After awareness comes acknowledgement. True healing can begin only when past atrocities and injustices are acknowledged. "We cannot be afraid of our truth," New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu says, adding, "[t]he Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity." Fundamentally, "a great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them."

Acknowledgement of America's history of racial injustice needs to happen not only in Congress, but also at the state, local, and personal levels. Consider, for example, Georgetown University's September 2016 acknowledgement of its sale of 272 slaves nearly two centuries ago in order to stabilize the institution's finances. At a special ceremony, the university president announced plans "[to issue] a formal apology on behalf of the university, establish an institute to study slavery, and erect a public memorial to the slaves who labored to sustain Georgetown, including those men, women, and children ... whose sale in 1838 saved the school."

In the last ten years, there have been the beginnings of acknowledgement at a national level. In 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives issued a formal apology in the form of H.R. Res. 194, which:

(1) acknowledges that slavery is incompatible with the basic founding principles recognized in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal;

(2) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow;

(3) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow; and

(4) expresses its commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow and to stop the occurrence of human rights violations in the future.

And in 2009, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed Concurrent Resolution 26, resolving (with the House of Representatives concurring):

That the sense of the Congress is the following:

(1) Apology for the Enslavement and Segregation of African-Americans. The Congress:

A. acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws;

B. apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws; and

C. expresses its recommitment to the principle that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and calls on all people of the United States to work toward eliminating racial prejudices, injustices, and discrimination from our society.

These efforts are a very good first start; now they need to be expanded upon and embraced more broadly.

A logical next step would be for Congress to take up H.R. 40 ("Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act"), first introduced by Rep. John Conyers in 1989 and reintroduced in every subsequent Congress. The Bill proposes:

To address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.

Why has H.R. 40 never been advanced out of committee? Nkechi Taifa (co-founder N'COBRA) suggests: "[i]t's because it's black folks making the claim .... People who talk about reparations are considered left lunatics. But all we are talking about is studying [reparations]." Taifa continues, "[a]s John Conyers has said, we study everything. We study the water, the air. We can't even study the issue? This bill does not authorize one red cent to anyone." Coates suggests it is past time for Congress to take up H.R. 40. After all, "[a] crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them."