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How changing one word in church could radically transform America (opinion)

CNN logo CNN 8/5/2020 Opinion by Jennifer Harvey
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People keep asking of the ongoing wave of racial reckoning, "Is this moment different?" No wonder. Daily, public actions against racism across the nation haven't ceased -- even in small cities like mine in Iowa, one of the Whitest states in the nation.

Then there are the signs White Americans are coming into different awareness about the depth of our national racial crisis and the moral urgency of injustice. A June Monmouth University poll showed 71% of Americans now agree that "racism and discrimination are a 'big problem,'" a surge of 26 percentage points since 2015. According to Pew, 67% of Americans either strongly or somewhat support the Black Lives Matter movement.

But however much these indicators suggest that lasting change may be possible, that can only happen if there is also a serious, collective shift in how White Americans engage with the subject of reparations.

Virtually every existing racial disparity between White and Black communities in the United States can be meaningfully traced back to one of two original sins. Alongside the dispossession and genocide of Native communities, unredressed legacies of enslavement impact all the conditions of racial life in America.

These legacies are generational. From enslavement, to sharecropping, to Jim and Jane Crow, to exclusions from unions, social security and federal housing loans, to mass incarceration and policing: systemic subjugation shows up today in everything from housing, to educational access, to wealth, to public health and more. Any area of social life where individual and communal well-being can be reliably associated with racial identity, therefore, is a necessary candidate for targeted, systemic interventions through reparations.

As a scholar of religion, I am particularly invested in whether a meaningful shift is happening right now among White Christians in the US. Lesser-known histories of calls for reparations made from within and to White Christians offer a cautionary tale for any of us who believe ourselves to be serious about racial justice.

In the late 1960s, also amidst significant civic turmoil and calls for substantive transformation in the economic and political circumstances of Black life, a cross-section of Black leaders from across the nation drafted the "Black Manifesto."

James Forman, former executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, brought the manifesto into public view by disrupting services to read its demands at Riverside Church in New York City on May 4, 1969. The manifesto indicted White churches' membership for having exploited and continuing to profit from Black people. It made persuasively clear that reparations were morally due from White Christians to Black communities.

The manifesto included a list of concrete points of redress to which the reparations would be channeled. These were power-shifting interventions that would have meaningfully impacted the economic, educational, political and health realities of Black life in America.

Yet the predominantly and historically White congregations and denominations to whom the manifesto was addressed turned away. They repudiated the drafters' methods and the document's demands. This "no" didn't happen in a vacuum; it coincided with a fissure between many White and Black Christians as the latter engaged more and more with Black Power movements in the late 1960s.

As historians have shown, even the vast majority of White Christians who had been active in the civil rights movement rejected both Black Power, generally, and the manifesto, specifically.

Since that time, when White Christians have concerned ourselves with race, the overwhelming focus has been on what most describe as "racial reconciliation." We've mainly lamented how racially segregated churches still are. (What that usually means is, "How can we get more Black people to come to our church?" Most never take seriously the possibility of integrating in the other direction.) We've tended to focus on interracial dialogue, emphasizing the need to learn to embrace differences.

As I have explored more fully in my own work, none of this focus has brought collective transformation. It hasn't led on a wide scale to more authentic interracial relationships or to more multiracial churches -- which remain statistically as racially separate today as before the civil rights movement. More importantly, it hasn't meaningfully challenged systemic racism in society at large.

As someone who left the White evangelicalism I was born and raised into more than 30 years ago, sojourning in theologically liberal forms of Christianity ever since, I've long been haunted by this church story. I can't help but wonder where would we be today -- not just churches, but the nation as a whole given the moral power, and political and economic capacity of white Christianity in the 1960s -- if more White Christians had responded to the just demand for reparations instead of turning their backs and, eventually, opting to pursue reconciliation without repair?

It needn't be too late to make reparations to the framework for how White Christians make racial justice a tenet of their faith.

A fixation on racial reconciliation fundamentally misunderstood what Black people, Christian and otherwise, long ago deserved and began to demand from White Christians in America. Most White churches essentially listened to calls for racial repair and turned them into focus on relationships. They took calls for radical and just institutional transformations and turned them into a focus on diversifying existing programs and institutions.

Remembering these responses to organized calls for systemic disruption of white supremacy's legacy is deeply relevant right now and to all of us, whether we are religious or not. Racial reconciliation may be the language of Christianity, but "diversity and inclusion" or even "inclusive excellence" are nonreligious versions of essentially the same thing. Such ways of framing our collective racial crisis pervade many contexts -- from higher education to corporate America.

I am certainly in support of diversity and of concrete policies and practices that meaningfully increase inclusion. But we need to be clear that friendships are never a substitute for justice. We need to reread the Black Manifesto and consider how it may apply in 2020.

Racism has life and death consequences for Black communities and other communities of color. Meanwhile White communities -- including White Christians -- collectively continue to systemically benefit (economically, politically and otherwise) from its machinations.

Unredressed histories and ongoing structural inequities literally shape our every interaction. How could any group of people forge meaningful and mutual relationships when such devastating realities create the conditions under which said relationships are being sought?

The word "reparations" is fortunately gaining more traction in our public discussion. It's being helped along by the work of public intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah Jones, which is amplifying and building on the work Black activists have been doing for decades.

The City Council of Asheville, North Carolina, passed a bill on reparations just last month, earmarking tax money to be deployed toward homeownership, business and other areas of civic life in which racial disparities reflect a generational opportunity gap. Last year, in response to organizing by Black alumni, Princeton Theological Seminary pledged a significant portion of its endowment -- built through participation in enslavement -- for scholarships and other initiatives as a form of reparations. There are countless and growing examples one could name.

The moral logic of reparations isn't just for White Christians, of course. But in the moment and movement that young Black leaders are bringing to every city across the nation right now, White Christians have a particular opportunity to step up to lend their voices and social power to this moral course. If they do, that's one way we'll know whether, at least among White Americans, this moment truly can be different.

a man wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: Jennifer Harvey © Bakari Caldwell Jennifer Harvey
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