Have you ever wondered how you might feel if the world, and your country, literally owed you something? I mean, if they had stolen your freedom, your property, your dignity, your opportunity to achieve and to succeed? What if they had spread evil lies implying, if not directly stating, that you weren’t even human?
The German government owned up to what it had stolen from Jewish and other victims of Nazi genocide throughout Europe and beyond. It owned its systemic racism that supported the genocide and the taking of freedom, property, dignity and opportunity. Many countries and cultures played a role in the Christian anti-Semitism that fueled the holocaust. Germany recognized, and accepted responsibility for the evil it brought into the world in defining “the Jewish problem” and attempting to solve it. Germany has paid reparations both to countries and individuals and survivors. It has not paid compensation to the families of those it murdered. It is important to note, though, that this massive burden of reparations has been carried by today’s Germans, the vast majority who had not even been born at the time of the holocaust.
What has the world paid to compensate the ancestors of slaves abducted from Africa, bought and sold in markets, like cattle? What has the U.S. paid to the victims of official and unofficial racism even after slavery was supposedly outlawed? This racism continued, as State sanctioned discrimination, manifesting in Jim Crow laws and the creation of racial stereotypes that even today mark individuals as presumptive criminals because of the color of their skin. Germany sought to claim some legitimacy as a nation and as a people after the horrifying destruction of WWII. It committed to make payments to provide some compensation for what it had taken, stolen. Make no mistake about it. The money did not fix everything. It certainly did not fix racism and anti-Semitism and the centuries of oppression that resulted from anti-Semitism that was pervasive throughout Europe. But it was an acknowledgment that the crimes of the Nazi war machine were real and that the German people accepted responsibility.
What has the United States of America done to acknowledge its crimes against native Americans, African Americans and other people of color? Addressing poverty is a good thing, but the paltry efforts undertaken do not add up to reparations because there was no acknowledgement. Implicit in the anti-poverty programs was that something was wrong with black people, with red people, and that government programs could fix that. Kidnapping and colonization of people was going to be fixed by more colonization?
How about self-determination? If my people were historically persecuted and oppressed, I’d want to have places where we could gather and develop our own programs, our own paths to creating a more just and compassionate society as a stakeholder and leader, not as a recipient of public assistance. I would expect to be treated with dignity, like the conquered Native American nations what were supposedly granted treaties to be honored for all time.
In the U.S., we have inherited the wealth of land, infrastructure, culture and history that was carried on the backs of slaves. America of 1850 had already amassed a huge debt to African Americans and Native Americans and other people of color. That debt was never paid. It was never acknowledged in a meaningful way. It was never dissipated. And under Jim Crow, the debt grew exponentially, with billions more accrued in lost opportunities, degradation, trauma and death. These debts are still on the balance sheets. Germany has acknowledge its debts to its own citizens as well as others. America has not. Yet, we proclaim ourselves to be the land of the free and the home of the brave. How brave was it for Germans to acknowledge their crimes against humanity and to commit to reparations to mark a commitment to building a better world and to remembering the evil that its people had perpetrated? Yes, they were a vanquished, shamed people. But the German people, the vast majority of whom played no role in the Holocaust, have worked hard and have paid large debts. They are a morally strong people to do this. Where is the moral strength of the U.S.A.? Rather than agree to reparations, the U.S.A. whines about how black and red people are not deserving, that it was too long ago, that we’ve already paid through affirmative action and government poverty programs. Americans whine that the centuries of oppression have been compensated for by affirmative action programs and that those who have not succeeded in rising from poverty are somehow defective, unable or unwilling to work hard. Yes, this racism is alive and well today in America.
Well, there are some differences between the U.S. and Germany. Germany lost a war, so they were forced to endure enormous suffering. They also had decades of soul-searching and generations of self-reflecting without the ego of “American Exceptionalism” and being the world’s most powerful country to imagine themselves as an ideal country, as the embodiment of all of the world’s hopes and dreams.
No, Germany realized that it had become the embodiment of the world’s fears and nightmares. This has been a transformative process, one in which there is a deep commitment to remain compassionate and decent, despite the inclinations of many Germans to revert to past arrogance and delusions of grandeur, even white supremacy.
The U.S., instead, won WWII and became the most powerful nation on earth, a vast military empire ruled by unbridled capitalism and fueled by a value system that holds ambition and even avarice as engines of greatness. America feels its own greatness well beyond any reasonable measure. We want to forget our racism and our genocide as if we had evolved into a superior race, a superior fountainhead of unprecedented greatness and moral grandeur.
Perhaps it was useful that Germany suffered so deeply, and that it lost its Jewish citizens and saw its culture and economy devastated. At the time, the U.S. could have agreed to turn Germany into an agrarian nation, carved up between its neighbors. Instead, the U.S. offered Germany a chance, the Marshall Plan. Germany needed to re-create itself from the ashes of WWII, and it has. The U.S. has re-created itself as an empire, instead, fancying that it provides equal opportunity to all, delusional in its proclamation of “justice for all.” As a result of the Holocaust, the world has allowed the Jewish people to take a homeland and to wrest self-determination from the entrenched anti-Semitism of Europe. Tragically, in my opinion, this has been at the expense of Palestinian people. Israel, or other nations in its stead, will have its own journey to reparations in the future.
There can be no reconciliation without truth. There can be no reparations without self-determination. The U.S.A. has its work cut out for it. Today, in the U.S., there are millions of victims of American racism and genocide. The road for them to acquire self-determination, to be free from American colonialism, requires self-determination. What will that look like? My sense is that it will not quite be a melting pot with everyone ending up looking white in white culture, or almost white. I think that self-determination will mean substantial areas governed under black leadership and with care to preserve and create black spaces that re-define and serve communities in ways that eliminate poverty within a generation. There must be an intent to compensate the ancestors of slaves and genocide survivors with real opportunity – not just to fit into the current American economy – but to create their own economies and cultures as they move forward to create their own better future for humanity.
White Americans will just have to tough it up like the German people did, and still do. What one might think of as the asset base and infrastructure of America – the wealthiest country on earth - is in large part stolen property. It is not ours, today. It was stolen from people hundreds of years ago, decades ago, and even still just yesterday. The process of truth, reconciliation and reparations will be difficult, but it, alone, carries realistic hopes for peace and harmony.
Rather than deny the need for reparations, we need to ask how we can help make this work. Rather than feeling oppressed by the need to compensate those our ancestors oppressed, we need to respect and admire black culture for not seeking revenge, but as having had enough of hatred and degradation and violence. There are points where oppressed people are cleansed by the fires of hatred that have decimated them. For years, this was true of the Jewish people, although Israel has succumbed to hatred after decades of instigation and threats from non-Palestinian nations and other sources. It is tragic, in my opinion, that the U.S. has allowed peace to remain elusive in the Middle East, partly because of new forms of anti-Semitism and global capitalism that have been manipulated by wealthy elites in the Middle East to turn the U.S. against Iran and encourage the hatred of Muslims. Seeds of compassion and hope are there. They always appear and reappear. Like the Bristlecone Pine, whose seeds can only germinate in the intense conflagration of a forest fire, the seeds of hope are always within us. Tragedy cannot vanquish them. Often, recognizing the tragedy can actually help release these seeds. As white Americans, we just need to find ways to step back, witness, and allow black people the opportunity to begin to determine their own destiny. There will be some anger that will emerge, but that this is normal, and necessary. It can best be channeled through black leadership supporting black communities that are allowed to flourish with the genius of black Americans. This process is unprecedented in America. But it is necessary. And the time is now. If white people, today, continue to cling to the systems of oppression from the past that have stolen so much from people of color, we run the risk of entering into a time, very soon, in which over half of our population will not feel that our society, let alone our particular government, is legitimate. Before that happens, now, we have the opportunity to reform our empire and forge a new path to honor what we claim to be our deep quest for freedom and justice for all. It is time to stop complaining and resisting, and to just “do it.”