May 14, 2021 | OPINION | By Andrew Hoffman | Photo by Patil Khakhamian
It was a Friday evening, and I was in my room by myself. Not really in the mood to make the effort to go out and socialize, I turned on my Spotify’s Planet Money Podcast and began to listen to what NPR had to offer.
During the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests last June, I couldn’t help but feel this guilt gnawing at me. At the time I wasn’t able to label it, but upon further reflection I believe it is best described as white guilt.
Perhaps this guilt is what motivated me to click on the Planet Money podcast that was titled DIY reparations, as a way of placating the inherent shame of the nature of my privilege. Regardless of what the true nature of that motivation is, I am glad that something had pushed me to listen to that podcast because what I heard changed my views on my identity as a white(ish) man, the guilt that I had often felt too afraid to admit I even had, and the true meaning of restorative justice.
For this week, I am primarily writing to those who believe and acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in America.
DIY reparations covered the story of Moirha Smith, a Black college student in Vermont whose exhaustion with white apathy had reached its breaking point. Frustrated with government inaction, she created a Facebook list with the contact information of Black Vermonters (and it was open to any other Black Vermonter to put their information on if they wished) with the simple request to have primarily white people give these Black strangers money. She titled it Wealth Redistribution for Black People in Vermont, and the post went viral.
Now, I am certain that many of my readers have heard of the topic of reparations, but when put in such a blunt and clear manner the premise might initially sound shocking or even offensive. It caused me to pause for a bit but after some time thinking I began to understand the validity of the argument.
Just give money to strangers, no strings attached – regardless of whether they are in need of it or not – simply because they are Black and you are white? The answer is a resounding yes.
The history of slavery in America, and its following institutionalized anti-Black and anti-Indigenous policies, quite literally stole centuries upon centuries worth of wealth from those communities. That wealth was thus funneled into the pockets of white Americans. So, if a white American truly cares about “restoring” and “repairing” the Black community, then reparations are something that logically must be supported.
Yet, just as I was coming to terms with the initially shocking implications of what reparations mean, the podcast gave a new challenge.
One of the people who helped Moirha start the reparations Facebook page, Lucy, wrote a new call to action. She (a white woman) argued that redistributing money didn’t mean a generous charity donation of $50, it meant redistribute. Lucy challenged her fellow white allies to ask themselves what is the amount of money that they could give that would make their lives uncomfortable (not unlivable, but an amount of money they would truly feel) and then redistribute that money to Black Americans.
That sounds like a lot of money and when I first heard the suggestion, I paused the podcast, sat alone in my room, and began to think: Am I doing enough? Is it even fair to ask this of me? And most importantly: What was my uncomfortable amount?
It took time to mull this over before I came to a conclusion. I realized that no, I was not doing enough, and the very fact that I framed this topic as “enough” — as if the only value of reparations are to ease my white guilt, was incredibly selfish and shameful.
I also concluded that yes, this was a fair question to ask. Trillions of dollars of wealth were stolen. Repairing this historical wrong was never going to not hurt and to shy away from that responsibility would be a complete moral failure.
So, with those questions settled I began to ask the important question to myself: What is that uncomfortable amount?
The podcast, however, still was not finished and brought up two final points. It voiced the concerns of a handful of Black Vermonters who felt ashamed about receiving the money. They shared their initial hesitation of putting their name and contact information on the redistribution list, feeling guilty about the prospect of accepting charity or a handout.
The podcast also questioned if it was fair to call the Vermont phenomenon reparations. Robin D.G. Kelley, a history professor at UCLA, argued on the podcast that it was Performance Art. It was a way for white people to settle their guilt and not to truly repair and restore. If white people gave money with the idea that “now that we’ve generously donated or now that the problem is ‘solved’ Black people can finally shut up,” then nothing has truly been healed.
I think that last point by Dr. Kelley was incredibly thought provoking. Not because of his hesitancy towards the Vermont case, but rather because of the implications that a healed future is not a future where the sins of the past are treated as if they never existed. It suggests that perhaps an ideal future is a future where even if the material trauma has healed, we acknowledge the historical emotional trauma of our society’s past sins.
Colorado College is one of the richest schools in our nation. With about 24% of our student body coming from families that make over $630,000 a year, in an extremely white school, the call to address one’s own privilege is extremely potent and pointed.
With the topic of this article being the incredibly uncomfortable yet powerful nature of reparations, it should not be hard to figure out our moral obligation. Growing up, I was taught to be respectful when asking people for money, even when it came to charity, but this topic is not charity; it is a demand to either live up to the promises of anti-racism or to succumb to one’s apathy towards racism. It is incredibly easy to not care about others; history has made that painfully clear. But please, make the hard choice.