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Thinking the Unthinkable

Photo by Jim Mone (AP)

It has long been the case that any mention of the ‘R’ word would be met with a roll of the eyes and a dismissive wave of the hand. The idea of reparations for African Americans as one means to redress the sin of slavery has seemed fanciful, as a trip into the La La Land of racial justice. But actions by Georgetown University, the City of Evansville, and the pledge reported yesterday by the Jesuits to establish a $100 million reparations fund (building on steps taken by other institutions in prior years), may begin to lead people in this country to think the unthinkable. In the face of claims that reparations would be impractical, ineffective, political suicide and contrary to our free market system of capitalism – these independent initiatives are popping up around the country. As they do, they begin to erode the narrative that says that there is no workable means to provide concrete, economic remedies (in some form) to atone for the theft and rape of slavery and the residual inequities that continue to deeply disadvantage people of color in the United States today.

On January 4th of this year, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee re-introduced H.R. 40 -- The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. The late Michigan congressman John Conyers first began introducing this legislation in 1989 – and for 21 years it has died in committees. In introducing this legislation last summer, Rep. Jackson Lee said, “Though critics have argued that the idea of reparations is unworkable politically or financially, their focus on money misses the point of the H.R. 40 commission’s mandate. The goal of these historical investigations is to bring American society to a new reckoning with how our past affects the current conditions of African Americans and to make America a better place by helping the truly disadvantaged. Consequently, the reparations movement does not focus on payments to individuals, but to remedies that can be created in as many forms necessary to equitably address the many kinds of injuries sustained from chattel slavery and its continuing vestiges.”

It seems as though there are cracks forming in the walls that keep us from seeing how as a nation we might make amends for the crimes of slavery. One faith community at a time, one company at a time, one university at a time, one government entity at a time, are we beginning to think the unthinkable? Are we beginning to imagine into reality ways to make racial justice real?

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