Where do I start learning about reparations?
When I first started learning more about racial inequality, police brutality, disproportionate prison population for people of color, redlining, intersectionality, I avoided reparations. What happened to move me toward believing in the importance of reparations and the actions I took in establishing 1256 Movement? The purpose of this post is to trace my thinking and help others who are stumbling over racial issues such as redlining and reparations.
I was born near Tulsa, Oklahoma into that era of denial. Forty-six years after the massacre and about forty-six miles up the road from Greenwood, I was born. But I was never told about the massacre in school or otherwise. Most white Oklahomans, like me, had not been taught about the race massacre at home, church, or school.
Though I could go even further back than five years, I want to thank my son, Jacob Taylor, for introducing me to one of the problems of racial discrimination in the United States with an epicenter here in Oklahoma.
In 2016, Jacob wrote a paper about mass incarceration that opened my eyes to how Oklahoma incarcerates more people per capita than anywhere else in the world. What further disturbed me is disproportionate prison population of women and people of color. The paper revealed to me that black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people. According to the NAACP, if Black and Hispanic people were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40 percent. “NAACP | Criminal Justice Fact Sheet,” NAACP. (Jacob R. Taylor, “The Failure of Mass Incarceration,” February 1, 2016.)
Because of new understandings about the suffering of prisoners and their families, I joined a group called Allied Communities of Tulsa Inspiring Our Neighborhoods (ACTION Tulsa). I also began working with Rev. Sharyn Cosby, founder of Oklahoma Family Empowerment Center (OFEC) in their work in interrupting the school to prison pipeline. The activist groups join the oppressed people Jesus names in Luke 4:18-19: poor, disabled, prisoners. I joined a sub-committee on criminal justice reform with a goal of reducing incarceration in Oklahoma by fifty percent in ten years.
Around that time, with friend and church shepherd John Dickmann and long-time church member and friend Quinn Fields, I heard one of the best speeches in my lifetime, by Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, who has literally taken up the mission of Jesus to release the captives from death row.
The same year, I became fed up—like so many others—with social media and commenters stuck in dualistic political systems and thinking. I decided to comment on social media only after I had done something in practice in my city. I went with a friend to the MLK parade that year, saw Phillips Theological Seminary students and faculty in the parade holding signs that read, “Love your Hindu Neighbor,” and “Love your LGBTQ+ Neighbor.” This attracted me to start my doctoral program at Phillips Theological Seminary.
In 2018, I was challenged at the seminary by Dr. Kathy McCallie to do my doctoral research on white church responses to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In response to Dr. McCallie’s call, I began exploring my own understanding of race, what it means to be white, what it means to be black. I began holding conversations with white people about the massacre. A few were interested, but I sensed a nameless resistance from white people when discussing racism and the massacre history. Why scratch at the scab? Isn’t this revisionist? Why bring this up now?
A friend suggested I read Thandeka’s Learning to Be White: Money, Race, and God in America (New York, New York ; London: Continuum, 1999). The title and the image of white people looking in the mirror caught my attention. Most white people like me simply do not understand what it means to be white.
What does that mean? For one thing, it can mean we white people are like dominant white fish swimming in a sea of supremacy we’ve always known. I began what is called “Social Location Analysis,” part of an approach called Constructive Theology. One part of the work of social location analysis is to un-familarize that water so as to cause myself to notice and examine my own social location.
Thandeka’s Race Game
Thandeka’s “Race Game” hooked me and taught me more about my white eyes. In the “Race Game,” Thandeka challenges white people to refer to their boss, wife, and friend as their “white boss,” “white wife,” and “white friend,” for one week. Like most people she challenges with this “game,” I was not willing to refer to my white friends and family in this way. Reflecting on the challenge, I feel the shame that I cannot refer to white people in this way, and yet how many times in a day do I refer to someone’s race if they are a person of color?
Thandeka introduced me to “white shame” that emerges when we, as white children, learn white racial codes but internally reject the codes. Living in silent complicity about these white racial codes, benefitting from white privilege but denying these benefits exist, even denying racial problems exist, brings shame that I am learning to address in myself and in other white people.
My Thesis on White Supremacy and Me
My thesis is that white supremacy devastatingly impacted communities in 1921, and that impact continues to be realized and internalized in Tulsans today. The hypothesis of my research is that by reflecting a community’s values back to them and educating about racism, the community can begin taking steps toward anti-racism activism. My hope is that the occasion of the centennial of the 1921 Race Massacre will be a catalyst for change in Tulsa. My proposal is to provide resources so that white communities in particular may more deeply engage in meaningful racism dialogue and reparative action around the centennial and in the decade to follow.
James H. Cone, White Theology, and Jennifer Harvey on Reparations
What I’ve discovered in my research and ongoing conversations with white and black people is that in order to dismantle institutional white supremacy, white people like me and some of you reading this, must first discover white supremacy inscribed in what James H. Cone calls, “white theology.” James H. Cone’s God of the Oppressed critiques white theology that ignores divine liberation as a starting point to approach the problem of evil. Cone calls the Enlightenment inspired providential claims naive when suffering becomes mere apologia in a rational argument and when the resolution to the problem of evil is located individually and internally. God’s action in Jesus Christ has liberated the oppressed to act for further liberation through political action. Cone contends scripture has no interest in theoretical explanations for evil, which it takes for granted. Instead, black theology is located in what God has done in Jesus Christ to liberate captives from slavery. God’s past and present acts liberate people to fight against oppression.
What became very important for me in my research was to address what reparations proponent Jennifer Harvey calls the “theological problem of whiteness.” (Jennifer Harvey, Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Harvey’s work is a good model for what I’m attempting: an anthropological, ontological starting place for theological reflection that asks, “Who are we?” and “What do we believe?” and “What do we do?” Another way to put this is, “What kind of world do we want to inhabit?” The crisis of the fact, says Harvey, that who we’ve become has been shaped in concrete and material terms by white supremacy, calls us to dismantling that is in concrete and material terms. This is why Harvey is a proponent for reparations. (Jennifer Harvey, Karin A. Case, and Robin Hawley Gorsline, Disrupting White Supremacy from within: White People on What We Need to Do Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2004).
This problem of whiteness must be addressed by me, by white people, as Cone suggests, because we are the ones who benefit from our own whiteness and a culture and nation build on white supremacy. We could say that we have been the beneficiaries of 400 years of white affirmative action, and a very violent form of that relentless action. Cone says we who benefit from white supremacy must “do our first works over.” In doing my first works over, I also wanted to walk alongside other white people in conversation with people of color.
In 2019, I took a course on Global Hermeneutics with an emphasis on Black History and Theology. The course was taught by Dr. Regina Shands Stoltzfus. Dr. Shands Stoltzfus introduced me to many black theologians and activists, including Emile Townes, who I attribute the quote, “you cannot dismantle racism until you know how it’s mantled.”
What this quote came to mean to me is that white people cannot be helpful in dismantling 400 years of white supremacy built on white theology that assumes whiteness is better than blackness, until we learn how this white theology and supremacy has been encoded, or “mantled” in us.
DiAngelo and Kendi Important Dialogue Partners for My Research
After reading Thandeka and Cone, I read a book that would become a global bestseller after the murder of George Floyd May 25, 2020. The book is Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018. DiAngelo has given me and fellow white people language of “white fragility” for how white people freak out when discussing racism. I now had a name for my own and others’ mysterious resistance to discussions about racism. I had to learn more. I am learning to lean into rather than avoid shame, embarrassment and tensions around race, by avoiding what Robin DiAngelo calls the “good/bad binary,” that over-simplifies bad people as racist and good people as not racist. In addition, I have learned to use Ibram X. Kendi’s definitions of racism that opened me to interrogate racist thoughts rather than burying them in fear of being labeled racist. (Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist. First edition. New York: One World, 2019).
I even encountered resistance in myself when I realized discussing racism in our church would be like pulling off the sheetrock from a wall to find mold, termites, and rotting studs. Expressing this concern about the project, that I was considering changing to a less controversial project, I discovered the choke point was me.
I was ashamed that I had voiced this concern to Dr. Shands Stoltzfus, a black woman who had known so much more than mere “controversy” or tension I was feeling from church members. She kindly informed me that voices of people with my particular social location could be helpful in the struggle for racial justice. Offering more kindness toward me than I deserved, Dr. Shands Stoltzfus said the struggle to dismantle racism needs white people to learn how white supremacy is mantled in us, in order to dismantle racism.
I needed to learn more about my “whiteness,” which is shorthand for white fragility, privilege, hostility, silence, rage, denial, and supremacy. My research is not about white supremacists, as in KKK or White Power. My premise is that systemic white supremacy in the United States is internalized and impacts every American and that this supremacy must be “outed” individually in white people. Supremacy must also be outed collectively, systemically in homes, churches, schools, police departments, courts, businesses, and prisons.
How do white people see the suffering of black people?
All of this led me to one of the key questions of my research that seeks to uncover white theology and white supremacy mantled in me and other white people. How were my white eyes trained to see or avoid black suffering in my community?
How do white people see suffering of black people? I set out in my doctoral research to learn how white people respond to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. As a white person, I wanted to increase awareness among white churches that Black Lives Matter by boldly telling a narrative white people have literally buried in Tulsa. After protests broke out globally over the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmad Arbery, and the president of the United States visited Tulsa on Juneteenth weekend not to comfort the nation but to stoke racism, awareness about the massacre and racial justice was heightened in Tulsa and globally.
This awareness of Black Wall Street and the massacre is an important door into my focus now: a theological anthropology on how white people see suffering of black people. How did white people see the suffering of black people in 1921? How do white people see suffering of black people today? What happened in 1921 and how does the event continue to impact black and white Tulsans today?
How can I as a white person see the suffering of black people caused directly in my community by the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and a subsequent century of actions and inactions of the “white demonic destructive gaze” that devours? How can I as a white person see the suffering of black people and become more compassion and empathetic in heart, word, and deed?
Healing the Past
We believe healing and forgiveness requires reparations. Reparation is a necessary part of healing. There was once a man named Zacchaeus who lived in Jericho in Israel. He was unpopular because he was a tax collector. And he was short, so one day when Jesus of Nazareth came to his town, he climbed a tree to see him, because he couldn’t see over the crowds. For some reason Jesus singled out Zacchaeus and said, “Come down, for I’m going to your house today.” Luke 19:7-10 narrates what happened next.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:7-10)
Building the Future
Reparations in Tulsa includes helping black families with home ownership. While the disruption or rupture that caused us to start 1256 Movement was hearing the true narrative of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the inspiration to do something to repay for lives and property lost comes from a biblical idea from ancient times.
The biblical idea is called restitution, and this likely what Zacchaeus was drawing from, except he upped the scale by many times. In what are called Levitical laws of Israel, one fifth might be added to a repayment for harm, so that it would be 120% repayment. Zacchaeus committed half of his wealth and to repay four times back if he’d defrauded anyone. Today we might call this self-imposed punitive damages.
Zacchaeus is a great exemplar for reparative actions. Like Zacchaeus, white people have caused the suffering of black people and then benefited from the ongoing suffering of black people. Tulsa city officials over time, business people, churches and non-profits have hesitated to make any punitive or reparative commitments as redress and restitution for the damages to black families.
On the national stage, likewise, reparations is a non-starter issue for too many people who won’t even hear the first word about it before talking. For white people, what I’m describing here is my own journey of listening, and continuing to listen to the voices of black people, their suffering, the history and narratives that have been ignored, that I have ignored. Will you hear the stories of black suffering and consider the case for reparations without rejecting the ideas without a hearing?
Darity and Mullen, in From Here to Equality, tell the narrative of the long relationship of suffering-benefit between white and black people, from slavery till now.
“The investment bank Lehman Brothers and textile producer WestPoint Stevens, whose fortunes had been built on slave-grown cotton, were called to account [by reparation lawsuits and research], as were the Mobile and Girard Railroad–part of present-day Norfolk Southern Railroad–and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad–now CSX–which routinely had rented human chattel by the year to lay rail lines.” (Darity and Mullen, From Here to Equality, 22).
What Darity and Mullen are doing nationally, 1256 Movement wants to do locally along with many partners in Tulsa. Zacchaeus made a crazy commitment we’re sure his family might have been biting their knuckles over. Likewise, 1256 Movement is making a crazy commitment, to pay reparations for 1,256 black families to increase home ownership with $10,000 in land, in-kind donations of labor, or materials, or cash for increasing home ownership for black families.
What will you do? Will you read some of these works I’ve named on reparations and other important issues around race? Will you do something crazy like Zacchaeus and join me in this crazy commitment to reparations in Tulsa over the next ten years? It’s a commitment of $12.56 Million over the next decade.