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Reparations for African Americans

Published: Jan. 28, 2022


On July 17, 2021, at its Annual Session, North Pacific Yearly Meeting approved a minute to support the passage of HR 40 in the House of Representatives, concerning reparations for African Americans.

Click here to read the NPYM minute on reparations.

It is wonderful that Pacific Northwest Quakers have taken this step, but we know it is only one step on the road to true acknowledgement and redress. Contrary to any expectation that the House might act quickly to pass HR 40, and establish a Reparations Commission, there has been no action on the bill since it was voted out of the Judiciary Committee in the spring of 2021. What more can Quakers do to persuade our legislators to take some action? Of course, we can individually contact our Representatives and Senators. We can also work with Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) to educate federal legislators about the need to act.

Lobbying the Lobbyist – FCNL

The Friends Committee on National Legislation is a national, nonpartisan Quaker organization that lobbies Congress and the administration to advance peace, justice, and environmental stewardship. One of FCNL’s policy commitments is to a “Society Free of Racism”. FCNL has a strong policy platform that supports its anti-racism efforts, but it has not been actively lobbying Congress specifically on the need to pass HR 40. This is because of the way that FCNL establishes its lobbying priorities.

Every other year FCNL engages in a grassroots priority setting process with monthly meetings throughout the U.S. Packets with information about how to participate will be arriving soon via postal service to Quaker groups. During these priority setting sessions, which many of us have participated in, Quakers discern through spirit-led worship what they deem to be the most important or urgent issues of concern to the Religious Society of Friends. This information is sent to FCNL, helping the organization plan for where to focus its lobbying during the coming two years. Thus far, HR 40 has not been mentioned in these sessions in sufficient numbers to warrant FCNL to actively lobby for its passage. If enough of us are led to ask FCNL to urge Congress to act on HR 40, FCNL can be more purposeful in developing a lobbying strategy to do so.

With the passage of HR 40 there is hope that acknowledging the wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow will lead our country toward national racial healing. One might say that reparations lies at the spiritual base of every other anti-racist action we could take. David Ragland’s Truth Telling Project speaks of reparations as a spiritual practice. As filmmaker Katrina Browne eloquently points out that slavery built the nation as it is today, implicating all white people, including Quakers, in the need to make reparations.

Click here to listen to testimony by Katrina Brown
at 2019 hearing on slavery reparations.

Mindful of the need to continue Quaker work toward racial healing, let’s all ask FCNL to consider lobbying Congress to pass HR 40.

Beyond HR 40

Reparations is many things to many people. Hal Weaver, director of the Black Quaker Project, suggests that instead of calling it reparations, we should call it “retrospective justice”. He uses this term because what the reparations movement is really looking for is justice, and, because reparations should require more than monetary redress. The damages from slavery go far beyond the quantitative; they resulted in immeasurable spiritual, political, cultural harm as well. Weaver’s approach is persuasive, because of its roots in the Quaker testimonies and its breadth.

Reparations can also take place in many other ways. In California, the State has instituted its own reparations commission to study the question and recommend remedies over the next two years. Evanston, Illinois and Asheville North Carolina have reparations funds that assist Blacks to achieve home ownership. The CEOs of Starbucks and Goldman Sachs among others have initiated a program called NinetyTo Zero, to address the racial wealth gap in the United States.

Again, as with support for HR 40, what can Quakers do? After all, Quakers did own slaves, and over the centuries have benefitted from the financial bonanza provided to white Americans by slavery and Jim Crow. Liz Oppenheimer, a member of Bear Creek Meeting in Earlham, Iowa, suggested in a January 2021 article in Friends Journal that Quakers should redirect individual and family wealth, accumulated as a result of slavery, which has crossed the line from saving to hoarding, toward restoring the wealth of BIPOC communities. She gives as an example her participation in the Black-led Stolen Wealth Returns project which pays off the student loans held by a group of African Americans. Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia initiated a legal aid clinic in the Philadelphia area to advise Blacks on issues related to housing claims. Quakers can donate to secular, national, black-led organizations such as the National African American Reparations Commission (NAAARC), National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA), and Where is My Land, that are pursuing reparations. And they can research local organizations pursuing the same aims, such as WaNaWari CACE21 in Seattle.

It may be that achieving true reparations will be a long process for Quakers as well as the nation. After all, it took Quakers a long time to eschew slave trading and slave ownership among members of the Religious Society of Friends. But we as Quakers bear a special responsibility to see this through, to make reparations part of our ongoing spiritual practice.

from Theo Mace, South Seattle Meeting (1/24/2022)