John Senior on Jennifer Harvey’s Dear White Christians
Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, the wrenching and beautifully rendered epistolary essay on racism and American whiteness, published a “Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic. Coates makes his case for reparations by examining the history of housing discrimination in Chicago, carefully unpacking a collection of formal and informal policies and practices that together have worked to impoverish black neighborhoods in that city. Coates’s analysis is familiar: in the post-Jim Crow era, racism is encoded subtly in institutions and social structures that both deny social and political goods to marginalized communities and wreak moral violence on the perpetrators of these injustices. Fleeing the explicit legal discrimination of the Jim Crow South, African Americans followed the Great Migration to Northern cities like Chicago only to face housing policies — redlining, restrictive neighborhood covenants, discriminatory public housing practices, “block-busting” — that arrested socio-economic mobility, “actively punishing black success,” as Coates puts it. Combined with myriad other structural impediments, including a repressive criminal justice system and a dismantled welfare regime, African Americans are left to contend with a form of poverty that not only undercuts flourishing but also resists mitigation.
Coates proposes that some program of reparations is appropriate to close the “wealth gap” created through these oppressive regimes. Although he does not provide many specific recommendations, Coates does suggest that a formal process, like Rep. John J. Conyers’ proposal to establish a commission to study the persistent legacy of American slavery and to make “recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies,” could identify a reparations program. Reparations, Coates emphasizes, is not only, nor even fundamentally, about a formal program to transfer material benefits in order to repair harm done to marginalized communities, though it is also that. Instead, Coates writes, reparations are “more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe.” Instead, reparations mean “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences;” they are “about a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”
Kevin D. Williamson, writing in a response to Coates in The National Review (“The Case against Reparations”), argues that public policy in the area of reparations can have only two outcomes. For the “poorly off,” reparations can address structural conditions that hinder flourishing. For “relatively well-off men and women such as Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Williamson argues, reparations represent a political program “designed to confer a degree of psychic satisfaction.” In Williamson’s view, the fate of these two outcomes is linked. The first, Williamson thinks, violates a basic concept of justice. Justice demands treating individual cases individually; but reparations respond to injustice in the aggregate (by offering one remedy, for example, to all African Americans, as though all African Americans have been harmed equally by structural injustice, which, of course, they have not). By refusing to treat individual cases individually, the moral logic of reparations is inevitably flawed, Williamson concludes. If no reparations program can satisfy the basic demands of justice, then all that is left is the second option. As Williamson has framed it, talk of reparations is really just about making public intellectuals like Coates feel better about America’s racist past.
This is not the first time that white intellectuals have divided up the victims of racism into winners (like Coates, in Williamson’s view) and losers (the “poorly off”) in order to show that neither has anything meaningful to gain from structural change and material redistribution. But Williamson, it seems to me, misses the point of what Coates is saying. Repair, as Williamson rightly recognizes, is not a simple program of “compensation.” If it were, Williamson would be right: it does not make much sense to redistribute resources to an aggregate group of people who have not all suffered the same harms, simply because the group as a whole has been targeted for discrimination. But neither is repair simply “psychic satisfaction,” as though proponents of reparations are only looking for mea culpa. Repair, Coates is saying, requires a “national reckoning” because resources have not only been denied but unjustly acquired to begin with. Two responses are possible: Robbers can be made to return what they have acquired unjustly without wrestling with their responsibility for their crime, or they can be made to return what they have acquired unjustly while also acknowledging their responsibility for their crime. Coates is hoping for the latter. He is saying that in the framework of reparations, redistribution is meaningful only to the extent that it reflects a deeper process of renewal that, as Coates says, empowers us to create a “new country.” Coates is not concerned about his own “psychic satisfaction”; he wants the perpetrators of racism to wrestle for their own psychic debasement.
Jennifer Harvey in her Dear White Christians provides a compelling theological rationale for the kind of “reckoning” and “renewal” that the justice of repair requires, thereby also challenging the dominant discourse of “reconciliation” in white Protestant circles. The “reconciliation paradigm,” as Harvey calls it, emphasizes unity without interrogating the status of the component identities that are supposed to be unified. According to the “reconciliation paradigm,” the problem of race is a problem of division: division needs to be healed and races re-united. In the rhetoric of reconciliation, “God desires the human family to be in authentic community. Divisions along racial lines are, therefore, nothing less than a violation of God’s will.” The problem with the reconciliation paradigm is that whiteness as an identity exists as an expression of privilege and structural injustice. The reconciliation paradigm merely asks for a closing of divisions without addressing the underlying structural conditions that make the constituent identities, and thus racial divisions, possible.
Against the reconciliation paradigm, Harvey urges a “reparations paradigm.” For Harvey, reparation begins with repentance, the “unequivocally rigorous and costly process of taking responsibility for changing one’s ways and finding concrete, effective methods to demonstrate the sincerity of that repentance, by repairing the actual harm done to the greatest extent possible.” Reparation begins with a clear and targeted apology for harms done and a pledge not to repeat them, so that repentance is the central practice of reparation. Repair is a necessary concomitant to repentance. Reconciliation without reparation, Harvey argues, is “so much babble, abstraction, and absurdity.”
A great deal of Harvey’s book develops an analysis of how white Protestant traditions have failed to answer the demands of reparations since voices from the Black Power movement first made them, insisting rather on the reconciliation paradigm as the dominant response to the claims of the Civil Rights movement. The defining moment in this history is James Forman’s May 4, 1969 interruption of Sunday worship at Riverside Church to present the “Black Manifesto.” The Black Manifesto called on “white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues” to spend $500,000,000 on ten initiatives as “reparations to black people in this country.” In an exhaustive, at times tedious, analysis of denominational policy on racial justice issues from the Civil Rights period onward, Harvey shows that the white Protestant Mainline never seriously took up Forman’s appeal. Though some movement has been made towards taking the “reparations paradigm” more seriously, white Protestants, by and large, remain committed to reconciliation as an approach to racial justice. In the final section of the book, Harvey examines movements in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Episcopal Church to engage the reparations paradigm. In the final chapter, she undertakes an ethnography of the Maryland Reparations Task Force and the New York Reparations Committee, Episcopal lay movements formed to critically interrogate the Episcopal Church’s complicity in slavery and its continuing legacy. Both efforts emerged as responses to movements in the Episcopal Church in the early 2000s, challenging dioceses to come to terms with the Church’s participation in slavery and in maintaining its legacy. Harvey shows that these movements were transformative for the persons that participated in them, but that they struggled to gain broader official support within their respective diocese. These examples illustrate both the creativity and commitment of participants working to develop and refine practices of repair, the inertia of denominational authorities committed to the inertia-inducing idealism of the reconciliation paradigm, and the enduring tension between the two paradigms.
There are three main strengths of Harvey’s book. First, Harvey provides a compelling and thoroughly documented critique of the reconciliation paradigm in the white Protestant Mainline. Second, Harvey offers a clear theological rationale for the reparations paradigm that is accessible to lay readers. Finally, her theological framework clarifies the connection between the kind of “national reckoning” leading to “spiritual renewal” that Coates advocates and the need for the concrete redistribution of material resources to realize the reparations project. The emphasis on repentance is especially important for white Christians, because it shows that reparation project is not about achieving “psychic satisfaction,” to use Williamson’s phrase, for oppressed groups. In the U.S. context, the onus of repair lies with white Christians, but white Christians won’t be able to engage the work of reparation until they undertake the discipline of repentance.
A weakness of the book is connected to the rapidly changing character of mainline Protestantism in America. Harvey makes a considerable effort to examine denominational policy and documentation relating to racial justice. But, frankly, white Protestants by and large do not take denominational policy seriously; probably not many have even read the relevant denominational documents, and do not care to do so. It is as though Harvey is writing for the white Protestants who populated the mainline before the 1960s, when ordinary lay persons actually cared about what denominational authorities said in public spaces. The book’s argument would be much more effective if Harvey had focused more on the ethnographic treatment of lay organizations that are wrestling with the reparation paradigm, and if she had suggested in more concrete ways what the work of reparation demands for white Protestants who wish to undertake it. For the white Christian who asks, “Tell me again: what exactly do I need to do?” there is not a lot in the book. Still, the book makes an excellent contribution in terms of showing the way forward on racial justice issues.