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The demand for reparations has become an increasingly hot topic that is being debated at the local, state, and national level. However, reparations is not a new concept for the U.S., and as the discussion around reparations increases, so do the misconceptions of what reparations is, who it’s for, and whether it is necessary.
The definition of reparations is: “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged”.
One of the first cases of reparations were paid to Native and Indigenous tribes and groups for the genocide and colonial conquest committed by our founders. Congress created the Indian Claims Commission in 1946, which ended up awarding $1.3 billion to over 175 tribes, but the government kept Natives from having direct control of the funds in the belief they were not “competent to receive such large amounts of money.”
In 1973, the U.S. began an attempt to reconcile for the Tuskegee Experiments, where 600 Black men were unknowingly left untreated for syphilis after being misled by officials who involuntarily enrolled them in a “treatment program.” After a class-action lawsuit the men were awarded $10 million and the U.S. promised to provide healthcare and burial services for the men. Eventually, the state ended up awarding healthcare and other services to the men’s spouses and descendants, too.
A short history of the U.S. providing reparations
On separate occasions 40 years apart, Congress awarded payments to Japanese-Americans who were taken from their homes during World War II and sent to internment camps. The Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act of 1948 offered compensation for real and personal property they had lost. About $37 million was paid to 26,000 claimants. But no provision was made for lost freedom or violated rights. That came in 1988, when Congress voted to extend an apology and pay $20,000 to each Japanese-American survivor of the internment. More than $1.6 billion was paid to 82,219 eligible claimants.
In each case, the government made a public apology (long after the incidents) for what was done as well as monetary payment. There’s one group of people that have notoriously been left out of reparations both on a local and national level: Black people.
The United States government as a whole has never taken any concrete steps towards amending the atrocities committed against Black people during the 400-plus years of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws, redlining, and vigilante and police lynchings.
Massacre Centennial reignites demand for reparations locally
2021 marked the Centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which over 35 square blocks of businesses and homes were burned to the ground and hundreds of Black residents killed. The event has widely gone unmentioned in history books after decades of efforts to cover up what took place in Greenwood.
Survivors and descendants of the Tulsa Race Massacre have been calling for reparations for years from the city of Tulsa for their role in the massacre. In Rosewood, Florida a similar massacre was committed by a White mob in 1923, and the city ended up paying out over $2 million in reparations to survivors.
As the social climate of the U.S. has risen over the last five years, more allies have joined the fight in the demand for reparations. In Tulsa, where 53 percent of the population identifies as Evangelical, the discussion around reparations largely falls along racial lines.
The cost of doing nothing
“I do think one of the biggest reasons for why many people push back against the discussion of reparations is because of the possibility that it might cost all of us something,” said Luke Wagner, who is currently pursuing a Master of Arts Degree in Biblical Studies at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa. “It’s crucial to remember, though, that the cost it may require from all of Tulsa’s citizens will never match what it cost those directly affected by the Massacre.”
When Greenwood was destroyed by a racist White mob, deputized by the city of Tulsa, generational wealth was wiped away in an instant. Businesses and homes, one of the easiest ways wealth is passed down in families, were destroyed. Moreover, because the massacre was labeled a riot by the city at the time Black entrepreneurs and residents were not able to make claims on their insurance for their property.
“Citizens of Tulsa should recognize that helping Greenwood also helps Tulsa; helping north Tulsa helps all of us. The same way in which we would desire to see our neighborhoods and parks and businesses thrive, so we should seek to make that a reality in other areas of Tulsa—otherwise we are still living in a segregated city,” said Wagner.
Wagner went on to explain how from an Evangelical perspective reparations is not only a Biblical concept, it’s one that is central to the faith:
“As someone who has been reading the Bible since I was a kid and now has a Bachelor’s Degree in Biblical Studies and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts Degree in Biblical Studies, I am deeply convinced that reparations—not only as an idea, but as a practice of justice—intersects with the Bible in a number of ways. First of all, Christians recognize that central to Scripture is a call to repentance—not only individually but also communally. Far too often, we can think of ourselves only as individuals and forget that we are also a part of communities—whether that be the Body of Christ or the body politic. We each have roles to play in order to make Tulsa a better city, and I believe reparations are a part of that.
Secondly, individual/communal repentance includes repair. The Bible makes clear that repentance will lead to the bearing of ‘good fruit’, and to this day, the city of Tulsa still has not borne good fruit. When Zacchaeus, a tax collector, encountered Jesus and repented for the ways in which he had robbed and defrauded people, he not only apologized and recognized his fault, but he committed to pay back what he owed those individuals four times as much (Luke 19:8). Biblical justice includes restoration and repair.”
Tulsa has the chance in 2021 to do what Rosewood, Florida did back in 1994. It’s never too late to administer proper justice and repair the damage that was done.
“The city of Tulsa has made social media posts, built memorials and museums, painted murals, and established committees—which is all helpful and important, but without the practicalities of reparations, that is not biblical justice, it is only performative. As God spoke through his prophet Amos to Israel millennia ago, ‘I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies’ (Amos 5:21). Why? Not because they are bad, but rather because by themselves they are only a distraction from the real work of justice. I pray, with Amos and Martin Luther King, Jr., after him, that here in Tulsa we might see ‘justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5:24),” Evangelical Luke Wagner said.