Like many, I was impressed, troubled and moved by the most recent Atlantic cover story, “The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s a complicated essay on a difficult topic, since it is so entwined with history, identity, shame and guilt. What I found most helpful was the way Coates draws attention not only to individual injustices, but to the way those injustices permeate laws, systems and economies. He paints a portrait of communal sin.
Racism is perhaps easier to deal with if we reduce the problem to the proliferation of stereotypes and some of the most visible symbols of Jim Crow. Then the solution is clear and my responsibility – as a white person of privilege - is limited. If I don’t judge people based on their race and ethnicity or actively prevent minorities from access to goods and services, I’m doing my part to solve racism.
As Coates points out, though, the problem is bigger than stereotypes and water fountains. It’s bigger than the effects of slavery, although that is certainly one factor. And, perhaps most disheartening, it’s bigger than the attitudes and actions of individuals. I think this was most clear in Coates’ discussion of redlining. This federal policy essentially prevented African Americans from using the federally backed mortgages that allowed the growing, white middle class to own their homes. The practice categorized neighborhoods with African-American residents as “unstable” and “undesirable.” What I did not understand before reading Coates’ article was that this policy created a situation in which white people who moved out of integrating neighborhoods did not simply believe their home values would drop because of racist stereotypes, but because a federal policy guaranteed that it would happen.
An expansive notion of sin helps us to understand racism, and maybe sets us on a path toward reconciliation.
What Coates’ article revealed to me is the way the sins of a few created a structure that left many well-meaning individuals with no clear path toward racial justice. In the Reformed tradition, we talk about being “born into sin,” which is hard to imagine when you see a baby who does not seem to be making conscious decisions at all. And yet, situations like the racial dynamics of the United States are a great example: white supremacy is a sin that gives me an advantage through no choice or fault of my own. Yet I am complicit nonetheless. I am still benefitting from these past policies at the expense of others, and it’s hard to see a personal choice I could take to absolve the problem. It’s systemic, and those kinds of problems have to be changed communally.
An expansive notion of sin helps us to understand this, and maybe also sets us on a path toward reconciliation. If we realize that this injustice is related to the human condition, we can set forward boldly to pursue greater justice for the future, not based in individual or family shame, but in a shared vision for God’s new creation. In his essay, Coates proposes renewed support for a 25-year-old bill – HR 40 - calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects, as well as recommendations for possible remedies. Perhaps that would be easier for us to do as a nation if we agree that sin hurts us all - not only through our own actions, but through historical systems we must work to change.