Updated: May 21, 2022
If reparations are necessary, then they are the only way to change the current course of “American Prosperity,” if I may use that term to name the systemic forces that have amounted to a continual assault on our social and natural fabric.. Reparations, in other words, could repair our relationships with each other and with the earth. Is that possible? Is it necessary?
My argument, first of all, depends on my assumptions about the nature of social relations
I used to ask my students to make a list of terms that would define them. The list usually contained two type of terms: individual terms like honest and hard-working, and relational terms like sister and student. Guys and westerners tended to have more individual terms, and gals and non-westerners had more relational terms, as you might expect. In the discussion, everyone recognized they had “social relations,” although some gave them more weight than others.
The peculiar character of social relations is that it is the character of the relationship that defines the individuals rather than the character of the individuals that defines the relationship. You may see yourself as honest regardless of others, but you cannot be a sister or a student by yourself. The kind of sister or student you are depends mostly on the social meaning of sisterhood and the social climate of your particular school.
Another characteristic of social relations is that they exist in history: they have a past history and a future history. Their “future history” is just a continuation of past patterns and expectations into the future. We live in history and if we don’t change it, we repeat it. Conflictual social relationships, for example, have a theme or mythology that reinforces linguistic and behavioral patterns that carry its participants into the future until they either allow its demise or they change its direction. (Social trends never last forever.)
The linguistic and behavioral patterns in which we live not only shape our perceptions and expectations of ourselves and others, but also of the earth. We generally see it as “land,” as property, as an investment, and a source of entertainment and well-being. It is a thing, sometimes a beautiful thing, there for us. Instead of seeing ourselves as part of the larger whole, we see ourselves apart from it, just like we see ourselves apart from social relations rather than embedded in them.
Even though these social relationships largely define us, we also have the capacity, somewhat limited of course, to change them. I suppose most of us have had experiences of repairing personal broken relationships. What about social relations between different groups; like relations between men and women, or rich or poor, or black and white? These groups are also largely created by the social relations between them, so if you change the relations, you change the groups. Some are probably amiable and some conflictual. Sometimes, the social relationships benefit some at the expense of others. These are unjust social relationships.
You may think that unjust social relations are not really a problem. What about: “Life is unfair: get used to it.” Or perhaps a more abstract mantra: “It is what it is.” Such pronouncements might be more persuasive if we believed that current social and environmental trends were heading in a positive direction.
The problem, of course, is that things cannot continue as they are going. Not only is the disruptive potential of the many becoming more powerful, our planet is becoming less and less inhabitable. Hotter temperatures, spreading fires, stronger winds, greater floods, strengthened hurricanes, colder winters, longer droughts, fewer species, increased pollution, ravaged coastlines: who wants such trends to continue?
If we live in a social system build and maintained by unjust relations—some have privileges at the expense of others—and if those with privileges fear they will lose their privileges if the system changes, and if they also know that the system cannot continue as it is into the future, then the change must both calm their fear and redirect the current system. Let’s return to the idea of the “historical future.”
So, If you want to change the future, you have to change the past: you have to change history. Instead of telling the story about how sharecropping, for example, became a kind of debt slavery that benefited some at the expense of others, let’s tell a story about how this unjust relationship between farm laborers and landowners or between renters and property owners, can and will be corrected. Such a “correction” changes both parties in the relationship; the privileged and the exploited. The exploited not only receive some compensation, but also recognition. The privileged can stop defending their “superiority,” and in joint action with others, deflate the social world of white male arrogance and aggression that is devastating the planet.
Does this calm our fears (I belong to the privileged as a critical member): the fears of the privileged? Can we allow the transformation of social relations that have allowed us to see ourselves as superior to others? Can we let go of our arrogance? What if we realized that arrogance pull us away from our shared humanity instead of drawing us toward it? Then we could let our house fall down, so to speak, and build a better one. After all, others are not asking the privileged to be heroes, but merely humans, which is not a bad way to live on the earth.
Some would argue that what is missing is a strong will. “We can achieve whatever we set our mind to.” “Afterall, we are America.” Let’s be honest here and recognize that it’s the strong will of European settlers to advance "American Prosperity" that created our fundamentally fragmented America. We don’t need heroes; we need repairmen.
The social world of white male arrogance by itself cannot recognize the limits of its powers or the limits of the planet. It feeds off the ideology of “unlimited possibilities,” which prevents persons who are participating in this white male world from making the changes necessary for a viable future. The process of implementing reparations might give us a chance to distance ourselves from this social world and then to transform it.
I think the process of reparations had this impact with Germany after WWII. They paid Israel money, but Germans also changed their culture and become less authoritarian and more democratic. The process of repairing broken relationships changed them as much as it helped Israel.
Could reparations do something similar for us? What would happen if civilians (those who are vulnerable to the powerful) invited citizens (those of us who have resources to protect and provide) to join them in repairing our relationships, correcting violations of our shared humanity, and restoring the earth as a habitat for everyone? A process of reparations may not be sufficient to do this, but it may be necessary.