A Culture Shift Can Only Happen With Reparations and Truth Telling
The COVID-19 global pandemic sent us to our homes in our respective corners of the earth, causing us to stop and take stock of the material, spiritual, social, and systemic violence imposed on us all by the powers that be: our local, state, and federal governments.
No force, no other tragedy or pandemic has ever made the whole world stop all at once.
And now—with the COVID pandemic still a threat to our very lives—global uprisings, sparked by the ruthless police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, have brought tens of thousands of people to the streets.
Similarly, no other tragedy or act of the pandemic that is anti-Black racism has ever moved the world all at once.
George Floyd’s death was the proverbial straw. Before him were too many others. Say their names: Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Tony McDade. Manuel Ellis. Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford. Sandra Bland. Terence Crutcher. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Renisha McBride. Philando Castile. Michael Brown Jr. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Charleena Lyles. Jordan Davis. John Crawford III. Walter Scott. Sean Bell. Trayvon Martin. Freddie Gray. Amadou Diallo. Oscar Grant. Anton Sterling. Malice Green. And countless others whose names may escape me at the moment, and whose names we do not publicly know.
The killings of unarmed Black people and the rate of COVID cases and deaths among us are not anomalies.
Some of us thought COVID was the great equalizer. Everyone was ordered to shelter in place and social distance because people of all races and ethnicities were testing positive, many dying. In three months, more than 100,000 people in the United States died from the disease. But we quickly learned that the disparities among African Americans were among the highest.
These manifestations of violence—the killings of unarmed Black people and the rate of COVID cases and deaths among us—are not anomalies, but are part of a pattern of behaviors and practices common in our society dating back to the enslavement of African people in this country. Slavery created, and Deconstruction, Black Codes, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, police and community violence, along with redlining, lack of resources, and poverty, cemented the post traumatic enslavement culture from which Black people continue to suffer.
These experiences are part of a culture that sees buildings and nonhuman capital as having more value than people. Many of the leaders on this planet warn of impending doom if we stop working, producing, extracting, traveling, and shopping to maintain the system of capitalist extraction of raw materials and labor from vulnerable populations. But what we’ve seen is the opposite. In the first three months of COVID, we witnessed, around the world, the Earth begin to heal as the air and water quality has improved, carbon emissions have decreased, wildlife is returning to its natural habitats.
For this healing shift to continue, we as a country have to acknowledge the truths that the combination of COVID and police violence has surfaced for us over these past several months, apologize for past harms, and educate ourselves about the true history of this nation’s founding sin—genocide and slavery, as well as the global history of European complicity and profit from slavery. The United Nations refers to this as the satisfaction component of reparations.
This component also includes construction and/or removal of memorials.
Protesters are removing statues of racist people, globally making room for satisfaction. And there has over time been a changing of street names—most recently, a two-block span of 16th St in downtown Washington, D.C., was renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza. Book sales on race and racism have skyrocketed—let’s hope folks are actually reading and internalizing.
We are shifting. So, what’s next? How do we keep the momentum going?
We will settle for nothing less than total transformation.
We need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, rooted in repair, focused on reparations, that holds hearings around the country to tell the true history of this country—not the untruths we’ve been told in history books, but the theft of Indigenous peoples’ land, of the violent horror of chattel slavery, denial of opportunities in every aspect of American life, police violence and mass incarceration, resource-poor schools, health disparities, unaffordable housing, etc.
If we’re going to heal and move on, it is crucial that these developments are a part of the new normal.
Our children—children all over the world—are learning from this culture we’ve created for them, and what they’ve learned so far is violence against our communities. So many of our children, our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins have seen this violence repeatedly. They’ve seen their loved ones killed, the life choked out, shot out, snuffed out, in the same way the world saw George Floyd’s life taken from him by an officer who pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
George Floyd’s story has been the story of Black folks, Al Sharpton said while giving the eulogy at Floyd’s funeral. “Because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck. We were smarter than the underfunded schools you put us in, but you had your knee on our neck. We could run corporations and not hustle in the street, but you had your knee on our neck. We had creative skills, we could do whatever anybody else could do, but we couldn’t get your knee off our neck. What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services and in every area of American life. It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, “Get your knee off our necks!”
In this new movement of mass protest against police violence, against anti-Black racism, against white supremacy and the racist institutions it upholds, we are saying no more reforms. We will settle for nothing less than total transformation.
Just as the New Deal sprang from the Great Depression and public health best practices were born in response to a previous plague, we need to embrace the bold transformative thinking that is arising in this moment.
I think the term “satisfaction,” used by the UN is appropriate. Satisfaction suggests a mental shift through multiple means including culture, formal education of every institution, and for the world, but explicitly centering how we’ve been miseducated about each other.
The future is upon us, but it must be one that we can choose and see ourselves in. This requires a local, national, and global effort. Maybe then, reconciliation will be possible. But let us deal with truth and repair first.
David Ragland is one of the co-directors and co-founder of the Truth Telling Project and is the Director of the Campaign for Truth and Reparations.