White America doesn’t want to hear about reparations. Here’s why

Only 16% of white Americans support reparation payments to the descendants of American slaves.  That’s not as bad as it was in 2002 when only 6% of white respondents supported the idea.  

Among Republican voters, support for reparations hovers at 5%, with 92% opposed.  These numbers are unchanged since 2002. 

Democratic voters are split on the issue; 49% approve and 47% oppose.  This suggests that a solid majority of white Democrats continue to oppose reparations. 

White Americans, regardless of party affiliation, view reparations as either unrealistic, inappropriate, or downright evil.

I have identified five interlocking explanations for white resistance.

1. Reparations talk messes with our social boundaries.

Racism is a corporate sin, a communal affair. Typically, white folks live out their lives in the company of other white folks. Rarely, if ever, are we forced to listen to Black men and women speak painful words rooted in personal experience. Our social barriers protect us from such talk. That’s why we work so hard to keep them in good repair. We can’t engage honestly with the debate over reparations unless we move into strange and uncharted social territory. We’d rather not.

Social setting matters.  I can’t prove it, but I suspect the 16% of white Americans who support reparations have discussed the issue with Black friends or have been exposed to pro-reparations arguments in progressive media outlets.  Most of these people live in urban or academic settings where you can embrace the idea of reparations without inviting harsh stares. 

Red America doesn’t want to talk about race. At all.  Full stop.  A Pew poll recently found that 52% of white Americans think seeing discrimination where it doesn’t exist does more harm than actual discrimination.  Among white Republicans, 79% feel that way.  These folks live in bubbles in which an idealized vision of America is virtually worshipped and never is heard a discouraging word.  It gets harder every year to break into that bubble and this is by intention. 

2. Reparations talk messes with family pride.

 “Some are guilty,” Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “but all are responsible.”  The prevailing white opinion is that some were guilty, but no one living today is responsible. Most white Americans can recite a family story full of struggle and hard-fought success. For us, slavery and Jim Crow segregation belong to an ancient world that has no bearing on the present.

“In America,” says Nehesi Coates, “there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife.”

The first Bean family set foot in America in 1749, Mennonite refugees from religious oppression.  They spent the first seven years in Pennsylvania working as indentured servants.  Being pacifists, they took a lot of flak from their patriotic neighbors during the Revolutionary War.  Eventually, they packed their bags and moved to Canada. 

Every white family has a similar struggle story.  Those who grow up wealthy will tell you how hard their ancestors worked to get what they got.  So, when someone suggests that the descendants of enslaved persons should be compensated, we get our backs up.  You think we’ve had it easy?

3. Reparations talk messes with our religion.

David Brooks notes that America is divided between old and young, rich and poor, urban and rural, male and female, immigrant and native-born, black and white. But the black-white division is unique: “The other divides are born out of separation and inequality,” Brooks writes, “but the racial divide is born out of sin.”

Reparations are about repair.  The conversation is about fixing what you broke and returning what you stole.  America is broken and white America broke it.  This isn’t because white people are inherently evil; it’s because we own the keys to the corridors of power. To say we rigged it in our favor would be a colossal understatement.  We even transformed Christianity into a private transaction between me and Jesus.  This brilliant move rendered issues like slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, or a white’s-only New Deal spiritually irrelevant.

A woman once told me that Black folk should thank their lucky stars that Providence brought them to American shores. Only here would they feast on the glories of western civilization and get a shot at eternal life.  She had been carefully taught to think this way.

A man with the Bible in one hand and a whip in the other will use the Bible to justify the whip. You can’t understand Moses when you think like Pharaoh.

4. Reparations talk messes with our patriotism.

A child is to grow up a Christian,” Horace Bushnell wrote in 1847, “and never know himself as being otherwise.” American patriotism works in much the same way. We want our children bathed in the mythology of American greatness from their first toddling steps. Which is why Colin Kaepernick can inspire outrage simply by taking a knee during the national anthem.  His sin is sacrilege.

It has always been easier to worship a nation we have seen than a God we have not.  For those living in the embrace of White Christian Nationalism, reparations talk sounds like heresy.  We must continue to believe that white America is exceptional, a glorious nation without spot or wrinkle.  Admitting that we are a fallen people with blood on our hands, is beyond our powers. 

5. Reparations talk messes with our politics.

For decades, John Conyers (D-Michigan) sponsored what he called The Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act (H.R. 40).  When Conyers died, Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) carried on where he left off (Cory Booker champions the idea in the Senate).  Every year this proposal is referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary where it quietly dies.

HR 40 doesn’t call for an up-or-down vote on reparations; it just asks Congress to consider the undisputed facts of history and determine a fitting legislative response.

Knowing that H.R. 40 would be wildly unpopular in white America, the Democratic Party has never thrown its weight behind the proposal.  They fold without a fight.  Every time.

Donald Trump didn’t invent white racial resentment; he just looked at public opinion surveys and shamelessly fed white America what it wanted to hear.  There was nothing new to this game; Trump just did it better.  If we didn’t understand what we are up against, now we know.   

So, how can people of good will sponsor a productive conversation about reparations without driving white folks crazy? The debate must begin on the local level.  The seeds of racial justice can only take root in hospitable soil.  Most white people will close their ears to historical fact.  We know that, and can’t change it. 

But, if we engage with the 16% who are ready to talk, we can get a serious conversation going.  And you never know who might be listening in?  

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