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Reparations Aren’t the Answer to America’s Moral and Spiritual Free Fall


A recent recommendation from San Francisco’s Advisory Committee on Reparations, to provide a one-time payment of $5 million to eligible Black recipients, has reignited news coverage of the reparations issue and generated heated arguments between those who are for and against the idea.

The issue of reparations is fraught with practical, logical and moral problems. Who, exactly, should pay, and who, exactly, should receive reparations? The question has no clear-cut answer. The unexamined assumption of those who defend the idea is that all whites are oppressors, who must pay, and all Blacks are innocent victims, who must be paid. How, then, would we treat the 3,700 free Blacks who held 12,000 slaves? How would we treat whites whose ancestors didn’t arrive on these shores until long after slavery was abolished, or Native Americans who owned slaves? No group is completely innocent or completely guilty.

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)David McNew/Getty Images

There is, in addition, the not-so-subtle racism that reparations suppose. Many Black Americans see the attempt to monetize suffering as belittling, because it presumes that the destiny of Blacks is determined by what whites do or fail to do. Is this not an insulting new version of white supremacy? Blacks in America were at their best when whites were at their worst. Their achievements in the face of oppression are inspiring. When Blacks were denied access to hotels, they built their own. That ethic of entrepreneurship and mutual support was echoed in the creation of Black-owned banks, railroads, hospitals and colleges. Thriving Black entrepreneurial enclaves, called “Black Wall Streets,” existed not only in Tulsa, Okla., but also in the Bronzeville section of Chicago, Hayti in Durham, N.C., Sweet Auburn in Atlanta, West Ninth Street in Little Rock, Ark., and Farish Street in Jackson, Miss. 

The entrepreneurial achievements of Blacks are evidence that sustainable wealth is created through small business development, not income transfer, which is an insult to human pride and competence.

The issue we should focus on is not what happened to Blacks in America, but how they responded to their adversity. Frederick Douglass wrote: “I was not a slave who was a man, but a man who was a slave.” Reparations sees the slave, but not the man, struggling nobly amidst adversity. 

I was born in the mid-1930s in the Depression Era and grew up in a strong, cohesive community where the vast majority of families were headed by both a mother and father; the elderly didn’t walk the streets in fear of being accosted by grandchildren; and babies were not shot in their beds or car seats. Today, children wander the streets with no life in their eyes, and no father in their homes. Each year, the number of Black lives lost to homicides in the streets is greater than the death toll produced by 40 years of Ku Klux Klan lynchings.

The most damaging aspect of the myopic focus on reparations is that it is a diversion from identifying and supporting solutions to the most critical issue affecting our nation: The greatest crisis in America today is not racism, but moral and spiritual free fall — and it is taking its toll across all boundaries of race, ethnicity and income level. Without a sense of purpose or value in their lives, young people are poised to take their own life or the life of another. Is this the future we want?

For youths in low-income urban areas, the greatest threat they face is street violence and homicide. The annual homicide rate in our major cities confirms this. In upscale neighborhoods of Silicon Valley, the suicide rate among young people is six times the national average. In Palo Alto, Calif., desperate parents have taken shifts standing guard at a notorious bridge from which many teens had hurled themselves to their deaths. In rural Appalachia, overdose deaths from prescription drugs have taken far too many lives. Are these not the problems we should be thinking about?

The Office of the Surgeon General recently issued an advisory regarding the deadly epidemic of loneliness in America, which can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The crisis is most pronounced in young people ages 15-24, who today have 70% less social interaction with friends. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study of students in Washington, D.C., reported that 10% of the 4,000 middle-school youths attempted suicide in a single year — more than one a day.

There are, of course, Black “spokespersons” who are given the media spotlight each and every day. They provide us with a litany of grievances and demands for retribution and reparations. To this vocal minority, we must ask: What problem would your victory solve? What would your success look like? 

Within the most vulnerable low-income communities — which have suffered the crisis of the moral and spiritual free fall more than any other community in America — men and women have emerged as quiet leaders; they have facilitated the uplift of entire neighborhoods, and empowered those they serve to reclaim their own lives.

For 40 years, my organization, the Woodson Center, has served as a “Geiger counter” that identifies these neighborhood healers and garners support to strengthen and sustain their efforts. The 3,000 community leaders and neighborhood organizations that are now in our network include a gang intervention initiative in a violence-plagued neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where homicides once claimed 53 young lives in a five-block area within three years. The initiative was launched by a group of men who grew up in that neighborhood, and whose consistent outreach won the trust of the youths. As a result, the homicide rate fell to zero and remained so for 12 years. The transformation was sustained because those whose lives had been reclaimed served as mentors to younger youths.

In the midst of a devastating moral and spiritual free fall, models of resilience and transformation such as these are powerful testimonies to hope; they are the embodiment of principles of personal responsibility and self-determination that the opportunists who capitalize on a grievance-based agenda deny. It is crucial that we recognize and support their life-salvaging efforts. Collective guilt and collective payments will contribute nothing to the betterment of America. Only the continuous actions of citizens transforming their own lives and serving others can heal ancient wounds.

Robert L. Woodson Sr. is the founder and president of the Woodson Center and the author of “Lessons From the Least of These: The Woodson Principles,” and the editor of “Red, White, and Black: Rescuing American History from Revisionists and Race Hustlers.” Follow him on Twitter @BobWoodson.

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