If we care about having a just society, we must acknowledge and repair from harms of the past. How can atone, especially for injustices that have perpetuated for hundreds of years?
This episode features three guests: Denise Hamilton, DEI Leader and Entrepreneur; Sam Lewis, Executive Director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition; and Zaheer Ali, educator and oral historian.
We explore and parse apart three distinct elements of atonement: telling the truth, acknowledging and apologizing for harms, and taking direct action to repair. As this conversation underscores, atonement represents just one element of a more complex set of reforms necessary to address systemic racism. Absent a broader effort, public efforts to atone would be hollow, as the very harms it seeks to repair would perpetuate.
Denise, Sam, and Zaheer's personal reflections make this conversation especially powerful. Denise expresses the labor involved in bringing this topic to light, Sam shares his experience atoning and paying restitution for the crime that had him spend 24 years in prison, and Zaheer highlights the ways in which our mindsets of individuality inhibit our ability to take responsibility for each other.
Zaheer Ali (ZA): The logic that resists collective shared responsibility is built on individual notions of selfhood, and the rugged individualism that's promoted in capitalism, and in the American narrative of the self-made person. But what if we moved beyond that, right? It would require us to think differently about not just our history of how we all arrived here to this point, but also how we see ourselves as a collective body. To me, the fundamental question is do we believe that we are a collective body? I just want us to sit with that question. Do we believe that we're a collective body? And then now that we're collective body, do we share responsibility for each other?"
[00:00:59] Jenny Stefanotti (JS): That's Zaheer Ali, educator and oral historian who wears many hats for his work in social justice. And this is the Becoming Denizen podcast. I'm your host and curator, Jenny Stefanotti.
This episode explores questions of social justice, in particular, the topic of atonement and reparations. Because if we care about having a just society, we have to right the wrongs in the past. How do we do that? How do we atone? How do we repair? What's required for the wounds of the past to heal so that we can move forward together? This is a complex question particularly when we're talking about harms that have been happening for hundreds of years.
There was a New York Times article just last week about a task force currently underway in California. Its work represents the United States' most significant effort to date to explore some sort of concrete restitution for African-Americans. There's a lot to atone for. It's not just slavery.
In fact, the California task force isn't even looking at slavery in their assessment of compensation. They're looking at housing discrimination, mass incarceration, unjust property seizures, devaluation of Black businesses and health care.
We spoke about atonement and reparations back in 2021, which is the conversation you'll hear momentarily. It actually happened the very day that the Derek Chauvin verdict was delivered.
In this conversation, we're focused on African-Americans in the U.S. But much of what is discussed is relevant for other marginalized groups around the world. We have three incredible guests for this episode. Denise Hamilton (DH), she's a nationally-recognized diversity and inclusion leader specializing in ally training. She's also the founder and CEO of WatchHerWork, a digital learning program for professional women. I met her on Clubhouse where she was one of the platform's leading creators.
Sam Lewis (SL), he's the Executive Director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, an organization working to end mass incarceration in California. Sam spent 24 years in prison himself, a life experience that significantly informs his contributions to our conversation.
And Zaheer Ali, whose powerful words you heard at the opening of the episode. His work lies at the intersection of oral history, historic preservation and narrative change using multiple media formats, including podcasts and film.
This episode is just the first hour of a three-hour conversation that included many additional voices and perspectives. If any listeners would like to hear the full recording, you can contact me through our website, www.becomingdenizen.com. There you can also find robust show notes for this episode and sign up for our newsletter.
This is an important conversation. Thank you in advance for listening.
[00:03:27] DH: Should compensation be given to those that wrong was done to? We've done it before. The Japanese were interned for three years and got reparations. Slavery was 246 years. And I think that the idea that reparations are about making peace, that concept is really interesting to me, about creating harmony. And I'm probably not interested in that at all.
To me, reparations are about righting a wrong. It's not about how we feel about it. I think we make it sometimes a lot more complicated than it needs to be because it's hard and because it requires sacrifice. And I always try to pull the conversation back just a little bit. Like, was wrong done? Check. Should that wrong be righted? Check. Then we can get to the how. But I don't even know that we agree on that.
[00:04:26] JS: Sam, I know we talked about this a little bit earlier when you were talking about the role of the apology and reparations and how they're complementary. I'd love to hear your thoughts.
[00:04:36] SL: Thank you. I think a really great example, current day, that's happening right now in the County of Los Angeles. Bruce's Beach was a Black-owned resort that was taken by force from a Black family in 1924. A beachfront property in Newport Beach I think it is. And the current supervisor of that county is attempting to restore that property to the descendants of the family that it was taken from.
So, when this was recognized, you have people that disagree with it. And some said – there was an apology. But what is an apology without action behind it? And so, when we talk about reparation, here's a really great example of a leader who's a Caucasian, a woman that's one of our supervisors, who's pushing to make sure that this family receives a form of reparation. And when we look at it, an apology has no meaning, in my opinion, if there's no action behind it.
For me, for instance, I was incarcerated for 24 years for committing a violent crime. And the reparations that the family received from me were twofold. One, I spent 24 years in prison. Two, I had to pay restitution. Those are the tangible pieces. But also, within my heart and my actions that I live today is an example of who I am and what I'm giving back to that family to some extent and how I live my life and how I give back to the community.
If I came back out and continued to do the same things that I did before, you would know that both the restitution and my apology and the time that I spent meant nothing. And so, there has to be, to me, a tangible piece to this that people can see when we talk about reparations. An apology is great, but it has no tangible meaning.
And to give you another really great example. Nationally, if we look at the Equal Justice Initiative in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, you have these Memorial monuments for all these counties across the country. In California – I live in California. Kern County has one there. They have not claimed it. They have not claimed and given anything to that person and those in this country and those persons that were murdered, lynched.
And so, when we talk about reparations, there are clear paths to reparations. And as meaningful, when we think of many of the other groups of color that have received reparations, I have to ask this question. And it goes back to what I previously said. The least of us, meaning African-Americans. Because if you read this new book called Caste, we're considered to be at the bottom of the caste so to speak.
If the least of us receive reparations, then all of us are made whole to some extent. Every other group that has been wronged by this country has received some form of reparations, except for African-Americans. And so, I have to ask myself, "Why is that? What is this country saying about us? What is the leadership, not just on the federal level, but in every state saying about us? Saying about me? Saying about my kids and my grandkids?"
And so, an apology is only a start without a tangible something to actually demonstrate that there's true remorse in what was done to an entire group of people for hundreds of years.
[00:07:47] JS: I think, Sam, you also mentioned in – was it in South Africa, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there was only an apology? The reparations piece was missing and it was incomplete.? Isn't that what you just told me earlier?
[00:07:57] SL: Correct. Absolutely. For instance, right now in the United States, we currently have House Congressional Bill 19. Last year was 100. And basically, as the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission. That would be the equivalent of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which brought all of the truth and apologies.
But what South Africa didn't have that was connected, which should have been connected to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was some form of reparations to make people whole again. Instead – and it was great that a number of academic studies have said that they found that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa was instrumental in facilitating both the political and social transition from apartheid. But there are still those ghosts that are going to haunt that country just as they haunt this country until those that have been wronged have been made right.
And so, the commission helped with the transition of social and political power. But look at America. We've had an African-American president. And, yes, you can get elected to office and be African-American and all of those things. But look at what the underlying pieces that – for instance, look at the last four years prior to the new administration, the hate that literally is simmering below the surface of this country. And why is that? And until we address it, we're going to continue in this cycle of brutality against people for no reason.
[00:09:22] JS: I think, Sam, also, your comments align with what I was saying about the distinction between the atonement and the reparations and where we want to actually get which requires real representation in all levels of government and fundamentally a redistribution of power towards traditionally marginalized groups.
Now, Zaheer, I know that you, your role is so critical in education, and in storytelling and in lifting marginalized voices. And I feel like that storytelling is so essential for the healing process. I just love to hear your reflections on the conversation so far.
[00:10:01] ZA: Yeah. I think I've come to the topic of reparations from two perspectives. One that's very focused and quite narrow, and the other that's broad. What I mean by that is I don't think, for example, it resonates for me to talk about reparations as a cure-all for all of the racial problems in the country.
I think if you look at the examples, I think even the example that Sam mentioned, of a specific incident, or a specific event, or a specific phenomenon. Japanese internment. Families who had relatives who were victims of 9/11. Families who lost relatives in the Sandy Hook shootings. These are all people who have received federal dollars, right? Whether they're called reparations or not, they received federal dollars. And they're very specific about what they were for.
And so, I think if we're talking about – when I talk about reparations, when I think about reparations, I'm thinking specifically of reparations that address the accumulated intergenerational racial wealth gap in our country. I don't think reparations will solve policing. I don't think reparations will solve unemployment. I don't think reparations will address mass incarceration. I think that all those are things that have to be addressed.
But when I'm thinking of reparations. I don't want to hang everything on reparations. And let's say that reparations happen, then people are going to say, "Well, you got whatever you got. What's your problem now?" That's the first thing that I think about when I think about reparations. Now that's the real focus in the narrowed idea of reparations.
Now, to talk about reparations, this is where I think about what Denise was saying, like, back up. Before we even get to like what reparations looks like, is it even deserved? Do we believe it's deserved? And I would back up before that question and ask us, "Do we believe ourselves to be one body?" That to me is the first question. Do we believe ourselves to be one body of a nation?
Because I look at reparation as a way to address a wound as opposed to repairing a people. Let me explain why I think about it as a wound as opposed to a way to repair a people. That I resist the potential for pathologizing Black people as pathologically damaged people in need of repair. I don't think reparations is meant – or the way I think about reparations is not intended to paint us as victims, or to paint us as deficient, or to paint us as lacking.
I think reparations – when I think of reparations, I think of it as addressing a wound in the body that we all share. Because we are all part of this body. We all share this history. We all share this heritage. We all have benefited from this accumulated labor and wealth gap.
And so, when I think of reparations, I'm thinking of how do we repair the wound? How do we dress the wound? How do we dress the wound and bring the wound to heal? And so, to me, to your question about the power of storytelling. And, for me, the power of story listening is that we all have to come to this conversation with three things; humility, curiosity and courage.
We have to come to it with humility because we all don't know everything. And we have to be willing to learn of the experiences of other people and how intergenerationally their experience has been impacted by our shared history. We have to have that curiosity to want to know. And we have to have the courage to create a new relationship to our past. The past is fixed. It holds us accountable. But the way we see our past can change. The way we relate to our past can change. And the impact that the past has on us can change. And we have to give ourselves permission to create a new story out of that past.
And so, to me, when we think about the power of storytelling or history telling and the need for us to listen, I understand the language of harm. But I'm challenged by the language of harm because these conversations take a kind of therapeutic turn of, like, I'm forgiving you. You apologize – I don't know that that works for me as much as it does the approach of we are a shared body and there is a wound. And that wound is affecting all of us. And we have to address, redress, heal this wound. I don't need a white person to tell me they're sorry. I don't need to engage in the performance of forgiveness. What I do need is to see us commit ourselves to healing a wound that our nation, and we're all part of this nation, has allowed to fester unaddressed or maybe with Band-Aids. We've put Band-Aids on the wound. We've changed the bandages. But we've never really worked on healing the wound.
And the wound specifically is, to me, the economic gap that is the result of the intergenerational plunder of Black labor. There are other wounds, of course. But the specific one to me is that one when we talk about reparations.
[00:16:14] JS: Interesting. Well, so a couple of things. One, I think to your first point, Zaheer, that it’s not a cure-all for racial problems. This is what I was trying to distinguish between the objective of atoning for. And I think the way that you describe healing the wound, it's a wider lens than just somehow making up for the harm of the past versus addressing racism and all the racial problems. And to your point, I think reparations does the former, but not the latter. Or maybe not. Maybe for some, that feels like the right kinds of things that make up for it. Not just saying sorry and giving me some sort of compensation. But actually, fixing the systemic problems is a required part of it, right?
Whereas I don't see reparations addressing the systemic challenges directly. And that would have to be required in tandem because there's absolutely no way that just simply making amends is going to address this deep structural inequality. And to your point, looking at the economic gaps. But I do find it interesting that if you have that wider lens of what atonement and reparations look like? It's an essential additional piece of the puzzle.
For me, as I think about this and just the complexity of this, I think two things come up for me. And I'm curious what you think. One is how do you account for, or consider, or does it matter that, to some extent, you're making up for atrocities that happened generations ago? And obviously, it's not just slavery. It is also all the systemic oppression since. Because if – again, reading the New York Times article – It talked about how some people say, "Look, we're not responsible for that. That's generations in the past. We missed the chance to make up for that a long time ago." Right? How do we think about the intergenerational aspect of it? Or is that relevant at all?
And then I think a secondary related question is the fact that there are different constituents that will have different points of view about what is required for atonement and making amends. I'm curious about your thoughts about both of those questions.
[00:18:27] DH: Well, first, I think that this idea that, "Well, no one was alive. No one today is alive that was a part of that." We have tons of treaties and relationships with countries that were established hundreds of years ago that we honor today. Wealth is transferred from generation to generation. Does that policy or that thought process around nobody was alive that earned the Rockefeller money? So, we shouldn't transfer that between generations? I don't really understand that logic. I hear people say that all the time.
But the top one percent of wealth in the United States, it's about 1.2 million households, is 96.1% white. Are we not going to transfer that wealth from white people to other white people? I think we are. I don't think we have some tests that, "Well, you didn't earn that money. So, you can't inherit that money." I struggle with that logic.
The truth of this is public policy created this chasm. Public policy is going to be required to eliminate it. None of this was accidental. It was intentional. And if we are sincere, which I want to believe we're sincere about righting wrongs. I don't know how you right a wrong without righting the wrong. I don't know how you do that.
And then to Zaheer's beautiful point, we don't have to pathologize people to give them what they're due. The Japanese were not pathologized to get their reparations. They were given to them because what we did was wrong and we had to fix it. And so, I think this idea that somehow everybody can wash their hands. I don't understand the fundamental belief system because I think we don't do that in any other place. Otherwise, when the richest families in the country that have direct ties to slavery, that's where the money came from. To see their businesses when they die, let's throw all that money in a pool because none of those kids earned that money. That logic would be ridiculous. This idea that we can transmit the assets but not the liabilities. Where do you do that? Where do we see that anywhere else in our society?
[00:20:57] JS: And I think that's totally spot-on. And that really builds on Zaheer's point about the wound being the economic gap that's been built on generations of oppression of certain groups.
[00:21:11] ZA: This is why I've been thinking about this idea of the body. Because there's a way to look at reparations and say, "Look, we're two people. You did me wrong. Give me my check. Peace out." Right? That form of reparations tends to work after a bloodshed. Germany paid reparations to survivors of the Holocaust and their families. We talked a little bit about this Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. I actually think there was money set aside. I think 0.02% of it was actually distributed. So, it wasn't really done.
Part of the thing about story listening is how do you create the circumstances for people to listen, right? Not just here, but listen. And so, I'm trying to think about what frameworks do we need short of the war where the nation becomes ungovernable and people are forced to say, "Okay, the only way we're going to give peace is this."
We have had these moments in the past year where cities have become unmanageable because of the failure of every other institution to deliver any kind of justice. And so, people make things unmanageable. That's why I'm trying to think about this notion of if we're all one body. Because, look, I didn't build any of these roads out here. But I would sure drive on them, right?
The logic that resists collective shared responsibility is built on individual notions of selfhood and the rugged individualism that's promoted in capitalism, and in the American narrative of the self-made person. But what if we moved beyond that, right? It would require us to think differently about not just our history of how we all arrived here to this point. But also, how we see ourselves as a collective body.
To me, the fundamental question is do we believe that we are a collective body? I just want us to sit with that question. Do we believe that we're a collective body? And then, now that we're a collective body, do we share responsibility for each other?
[00:23:27] SL: And I think the answer to that lies with one of the things that governs all of us now in this nation, which they consider a living document, the Constitution. Even today, that Constitution remains flawed with the 13th Amendment and even a preamble which says all men are created equal. What about all human beings are created equal? We have to look at, one, the state's role in an atonement is learning from the past and changing laws to be more equitable. And that's just the beginning.
But even before that, going back to truth, to racial healing and a transformation commission, there has to be admission of all of these things that were done. And some schools, they're literally erasing or attempting to erase the middle passage in slavery. And in some textbooks, I've actually read where they say that slaves volunteered to be slaves, which is just crazy.
Going back also – first the conversation has to be had. We need that commission. We should be pushing for that commission. And we're talking about building bridges and all these things right now. The Biden administration needs to say this is a conversation that needs to be on every channel that there is. And we have this commission. And we need to address everything that was done in order for us to begin to heal.
Now, going back to reparations –
[00:24:39] JS: And that's the truth part, right? The truth is the number one piece of the puzzle.
[00:24:41] SL: That's the truth part. That's the first piece. Now, going back to reparations, my grandson asked me why was slavery wrong? And I was trying not to make it real brutal. And so, I'm pretty sure everybody on here has played Monopoly before. And so, me and my grandson play Monopoly. And I asked him, I said, "Imagine if we played Monopoly and I changed the rules. And I told you have to go around four times before you can buy any property. But grandpa can buy property as soon as he rolls the dice." I said, "Would that be fair?" And he said, "No." I said, "Would you ever be able to catch up with me?" He said, "No. You'll win every time." I said, "That's part of the unfairness." I said, "When you get older, you'll understand the really mean parts."
And he wanted me to explain those parts, but I wouldn't explain. But that was the most basic way I could explain when we look at the economic part. If we stop for a minute and take into consideration today, today, the average white family has roughly 10 times the amount of wealth of the average Black family. White college graduates have over seven times more wealth than Black college graduates. Those are just facts. That's how it lays.
The last thing I'll say is working in mass incarceration both in California and across the nation. We have to look at the way our prisons are filled mostly with people of color. And I focus on African-Americans. Because if you break it down in California, we make up 6% of the population in the state but 23% of the population in prisons. It's disproportionate. It's systemic in this sense.
Poverty in all of the areas where you see the pockets of people that are incarcerated. And specifically, I speak to the city that I grew up in and that I live in. South L.A., Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles. Los Angeles is the biggest county of people that go to the prison system in the state of California. And those areas are primarily Black or brown. They used to primarily be Black.
And so, when we look at it – and let's go back because people say this was generations ago. It wasn't a generation ago. There are a couple of books that you could read that you can really see where middle-class wealth in this nation was created. One of them is called When Affirmative Action Was White.
When GIs – when my grandfather and great-grandfather came back from World Wars, the GI bill, they were not allowed to actually participate in it at first. That's just one thing that you'll find in When Affirmative Action Was White.
And so, we look at these areas of poverty, they're under-resourced. People don't have opportunities. When we say second chances after a person is incarcerated, often, that's a misstatement. Oftentimes, it's the first chance. When a person gets out and gets a chance to go to school or while he's incarcerated or she's incarcerated, go to school, that's their first chance. Because they didn't have the opportunity because of poverty, which was created.
This was created. If you think about it going all the way back, you keep an entire race of people, enslaved, and then you let them go and say, "Okay, you can compete equally with everybody else." And that goes back to the part of reparations. There has to be a way to make some level of equality where the average white family is not 10 times richer than the average Black family.
The last thing I'll say is this, understanding – like, with Jewish people, I've read how, generationally, after going through the Holocaust, parts of that is still within their DNA. I would love if everybody took the time to read – there's a book called Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Imagine hundreds of years of having experiments done on you, babies stripped away from you and being emasculated, families being broken up, beaten, hung, all the worst atrocities you could imagine for hundreds of years, for generation on top of generation on top of generation.
And then we come to this part. They just released a report that talked about just being Black in America is bad for your health because of many of these microaggressions that you experience just living everyday life. The rich you are does not make a difference in how healthy you are.
And so, if people were more informed, and we first addressed the truth, and we start with the truth and racial healing and transformation commission, that's the starting point. Then determining how we line up these reparations? Is it college? How do we make an entire race of people whole after basically destroying them for hundreds of years?
And so, those are questions that would have to be asked on a national level and really for people to understand, "This is the truth." Because oftentimes, you have some people that don't believe slavery exists. And you even have people that are trying to erase the Holocaust. These are atrocities that should never ever be forgotten so that they never happen again to anyone.
[00:29:15] JS: Thank you so much for that. Zaheer, you make such an important point. And this is something that actually has come up a lot in our conversations, the necessity of a paradigm shift. Not just in addressing systemic oppression but addressing the myth of the meritocracy, and the myth of mine, and the orientation of the self that justifies the accumulation of wealth. And I think that that's so essential. And I just love how you brought that into the conversation here and asking the question of atoning for something that is generations ago. And Denise, of course, your point, "Why is this even a question?" I just really appreciate both of your responses to that.
And Sam, I mean, there's just so much – everything you just said really makes it so clear just how deep this runs. Step one, it’s essential to let the truth be told for once and for all and forever as a starting point, right? Then getting into these questions about atonement in terms of some sort of potential policy. But really it needs to be this comprehensive set of interventions that really addresses, to your question, "How do we make an entire race whole after destroying them for hundreds of years?" It's a huge question.
[00:30:33] DH: I just think it's so foundational, right? And I think like there's this piece that I just – like, this conversation isn't complete unless we really unpack it. This isn't charity. It's justice. It's not a gift. It's a debt. And it's really important to consider it that way.
And there's even a temptation among well-intentioned kind people to see this as "it's just the right thing to do to help". That is not how I see reparations. It is simple – it's restoring people that you stole from.
And I'll give you an example. I have been – I don't know if anybody else has been really watching this, but I am fascinated with the art world. The museum culture, the art world, is having a really difficult time right now. Because with this issue, wrestling with this issue of stolen artifacts. Artifacts that are in museums all over the world that, when you really look at it, it's not yours. You shouldn't have it. It should be returned to the culture that it was stolen from.
And what's the struggle? I literally listened to a panel discussion, and the curators of the museums were saying, "I mean, I know that it should be returned. But these countries are poor countries. They don't even have the infrastructure to care for these precious artifacts." And I literally sat with that. I sat with it for weeks. Because that's the problem. I don't care if those people take those artifacts back and they use them for commodes in their house. It's theirs. It's not for you or anyone else to decide how they manage the return of what has been stolen from them. If it's owed to them and it's the right thing to do, give it to them, because it's the right thing to do.
You can't simultaneously acknowledge that these items were all stolen but then explain away why you don't have to make restitution. And that's what we do all the time. That's literally what this conversation is, explaining to people why it's too hard, it's too challenging, it's too difficult to return to them what was stolen from them. This is not an act of charity. This is an act of restitution.
And the evidence of the crime is all around us and we still feel it today. We felt it literally today as we all took a collective breath for the first time because we got a crumb of justice that, let's be honest, we weren't sure we were going to get. The idea that this was something that happened yesterday is crazy. We're all living with it right now, today, and it needs to be fixed. Not because people are kind or good, but because it's the right thing, it's the honest thing to do. And you cannot enforce a system of justice on anyone else that you do not honor for yourself. In a country that incarcerates the most people on the face of the Earth all of a sudden doesn't understand reparations, doesn't understand paying for your crime. I don't understand that inconsistency. And we have to honor that.
[00:34:13] SL: Denise, I have to say this. You made a point. Thank you. You hit the nail on the head. It's restitution. And I want to give you an example. I'm still paying restitution even though the crime that I committed is over 30 years old. You know what? I don't have a problem with it because I owe that. I owe that. I pay restitution every month. And until it's paid off, that's what I owe. And I spent 24 years in prison. That was also a form of what I had to pay back.
And so, when we talk about restitution, that was a generation ago. Why should I have to pay it? I should have to pay it because it was done. Was it done by me? Yes. It was done by me.
Now, when people go back to – when people say, "Well, I wasn't born or that's –” You know what? I might get in trouble for this, but I'm going to say it anyway. Some of the largest foundations have been created from wealth from slavery. And these are the foundations as a non-profit, as executive director, that I have to fundraise through. We're working on the end of mass incarceration. Just the work that we're doing – we've put in three years close to 300 people in the union jobs that were incarcerated. They never would have had that chance without us. They never would have had that chance if we had not created this program, if we did not get funding that we got from foundations.
When we look at this and we talk about the redistribution of wealth, the money that's actually given through grants it's literally just to avoid taxes to some. It's a small – I want to say it's five percent of the overall endowment.
[00:35:38] JS: Oh, yeah. And the other 95% is potentially funding things that perpetuate the very problems that five percent allocation might be trying to solve.
[00:35:44] SL: Exactly. When we talk about this, let's put it out there. The truth is part of reparations has to be some type of monetary giveback to the descendants of those that were enslaved. That's just to God's honest truth. Because if not, we will never ever find equality in it. Because here's the thing in America, wealth equates to power. I can run for office. There are so many different things I could do. If I had $50 billion, can you imagine the things that Sam could do to change the criminal justice system? Could you imagine the things that I could do to help so many people that are coming home, jobs, education, all the different things that I could do?
Wealth equates to power. I can influence elections. I can influence laws. There are things – literally all of the things that I want to change in this country come back to reparations because wealth determines where you stand in this country whether we like it or not.
[00:36:39] DH: Well, Sam, wait. I have to ask. Getting back on something Sam said. This notion, right? This notion of moving forward without fixing this and the power that's associated with it. And people – this notion that, "Well, this happened a while ago." This is not the first-time reparations have been discussed. Reparations have been discussed at every juncture of American history since slavery ended. It's been punted. It's been punted from generation to generation, to generation, to generation.
The idea that you can dodge a debt by just passing the buck to the next generation, that's unacceptable. And I'll say that you know what would have stopped? This is a harsh thing to say. I'm down with you Sam. We're going to do it together. America had its chance. It didn't have to – it really, there are a million other ways that we could have corrected some of these challenges. We didn't choose to. America had its shot. And it has proven dishonest. It's been proven lacking in integrity in addressing these things. Instead of addressing them legislatively, economically, they reinforced, they doubled down. That's why we're still here generations later. You reap what you sow.
And so, the idea that you had your shot to fix it another way. Now when we say reparations, it's too big, it's too hard, it's too much. We can't figure it out. It's too much because you made it too much. Because you let the disease fester instead of addressing it 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago. Those were choices that were made. And so, now we're at a spot where that's the choice that's available. And if we have any integrity, we have to honor that choice and do the correct correction.
[00:38:37] ZA: I obviously believe that there should be reparations and then it should be monetary. My ideas align closely with William Darity and Kirsten Mullen's From Here to Equality as a starting point for the conversation. But I sit with that question, Denise and Sam, is there a systemic and institutional will to be just? Is there a systemic and institutional will to honor the debt, right?
I think, Denise, you made a perfect point. The bill that Jenny referred to from The New York Times, H.R. 40, had been in committee for decades. For decades, it had been in committee, right? It's come out of committee, and it's going to take a Herculean effort to get it to pass the House and then the Senate to even create not reparations, but a commission to study reparations. We're not even debating now whether or not we want to have the conversation. When we, I'm talking about the Congress, right?
H.R. 40 is named after the Forty Acres. Many people know it as 40 Acres and a Mule thanks to Spike Lee. But the 40 acres that William Sherman, General Sherman, divided up these thousands of acres as the civil war came to a close and distributed it to formerly enslaved people. And then Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. And Andrew Johnson became president and rescinded that order. It was Sherman's general order number 13, I think, and rescinded that order. That was the first punch, right? That was the moment where that redistribution of resources – General Sherman, at the beginning, I think, 1865, met with Black leaders in Charleston, I believe. And he said, "What would freedom mean to you? What is it that you want out of this?" And they said, "We want the freedom to own ourselves, own our labor and own their product of our labor." And that's how he came up with his order. That was the first attempt, right?
When Andrew Johnson rescinded it, there was some Congress people, the Radical Republicans, who were left. They decided that the basis for Andrew Johnson rescinding it was like the federal government doesn't have the authority to take private people's land without due process. So then, the Radical Republicans said, "Well, there's public land that the federal government owns in the South. And we'll distribute that."
They actually did distribute some land. It wasn't overwhelming. But there was a significant minority of Black land ownership following the Civil War. We know the things that happened. Rosewood terrorism. Ways to swindle people out of their land to steal their land, to rob their land, to terrorize them out of their land. And so, that was all part of the robbing, the intergenerational plunder of Black labor, wealth and resources.
Yes, there's always been this punting. And so, this is the thing that I struggle with, right? I'm trying to understand how we, who constitute 15% of the population I think, are going to get to a point where the other 85% or at least 40% or 35%, whatever we need to get a little over majority, to even move this conversation forward.
And I think, based on the history of the United States, that there has never been a will on the part of its people or government to even have this honest conversation, to even do right bias, to even honor its debt. And so, I'm trying to think about how do we frame the conversation? How do we approach the conversation in order to move it forward? That's why I kept talking about, “do we believe that we are a single body,” right? We may say we do. But that's the question, right? We all have to challenge ourselves. And I'm not just talking about those of us who are advocates of reparation. I'm talking about thinking about the people that we will need to sign on to this, right? And I don't know that appeals to justice and honoring your debt are going to work. That's the struggle that I'm grappling with.
[00:43:08] JS: I just wanted to punctuate some of the things that you said that are so important. I mean, I think, Denise, to your point, and this is some of the pushback that I read about the New York Times piece. Just the framing of it as a gift is just deeply flawed. And how you even think about framing reparations is really essential.
Zaheer, to your point, I feel like there has been a seismic shift in this country in the last year in a sense of value and importance of having that conversation and really putting in place meaningful policies around it. Do you not feel like that's the case?
[00:43:47] ZA: The conversations that I see reflect the kind of intransigence and reticence to even have conversations about racial justice. I'm sure that there are pockets of folk. But like I said, I'm always waiting for the other shoe to drop. And so, I am so sorry that I don't share that optimism. I want to. I'm happy to be surprised. But I have walked into so many rooms that have shown an utter and complete disregard for the historical experience of Black people in the United States. Not only a disregard, but a complete dismissal of Black people's experiences, a complete hand washing of any kind of shared heritage, shared history or shared responsibility.
And to be quite honest, it's been disillusioning. And the only way that I can not be disillusioned is to go back to my place of like, "Okay, so this conversation needs to happen differently because this is what I'm dealing with. I'm dealing with folks who are hyper individualistic. I'm dealing with folks who have atomized everything about their experience. Dealing with folks who don't feel a shared responsibility. Who don't feel a shared heritage? Who don't feel a shared history? Who don't honor a sense of debt? Who don't feel like they owe anyone." Right?
And I hope, I hope that's not representative. But I see the winds of reactionary wins, right? January 6 was a riot. A white riot of lost cause confederates, right? A refusal to accept a presidential election. I see the rise of people under the guise of free speech, absolutists, who want to use free speech absolutism as a cover for having conversations that open up space to entertain racist ideas.
That's why I want to think about reparations in a really focused way. How do we talk about it in a way that brings people on board? And so, I don't know if appeals to justice and honor and a sense of paying your debt and restitution are going to work. I'm open to seeing that. We need the people to acknowledge the need for restitution and then empower the state to make it happen. But without that state enforcement initially, how do we get people to a place where they're like, "Yes, I understand that I have a shared responsibility to make this right." That's my question.
[00:46:39] JS: Let me quickly layer on another piece of that, which is the last question that I want to ask because we've – gosh, we can talk forever. Was this question of how you think about or consider that different groups and constituents, they're just a subjectivity around what is enough and what is sufficient? And how might you consider that in thinking about the right interventions?
[00:47:02] DH: (laughter) That's actually one of my favorite questions. I always say, "Oh, honey, when does it start?" We haven't even started yet. We haven't tried anything. The efforts and the way we have conducted our public policy in this country is so shameful. We should really – we should choke when we go to other countries to tell them what to do. We really should.
This idea of what will be enough when we haven't done anything I always find to be a particularly interesting question. Let's start and I'll tell you when we're good. But we aren't anywhere near being close to what we have to do to correct these injustices.
And Zaheer's point is such a powerful point, like the weight and the burden. He was talking and I just felt instantly tired. Because, again, we have to figure out how to convince people to do the right thing. We have to figure out exactly the right phrasing, the right tone, the right analogies, the right metaphors, the right things to just compel them to just do what the right thing is despite all of this evidence.
What is our military spending budget a year? Is it what? Like, 900 billion? Some unbelievable number. What's the check that we wrote for the pandemic? We do what we want to do when we want to do it. And I think the saddest thing, the saddest from what Zaheer just said is the truth of the matter is we just don't want to do it. It's not about an artful argument. It's not about laying out the facts. Because we choose to individualize these conversations instead of being honest and looking at the collective harm and the collective impact.
And it's frustrating to think about the labor of figuring out how to say it just right so people will believe. And so, that's the beauty of a conversation like this. I don't know who's listening. I don't know who is hearing some of these concepts maybe for the first time. And hopefully opening their minds, opening their hearts and really thinking about it.
Because here's the danger of well-intended people. Homeostasis. Homeostasis is a beast. That force that pushes you back. You step out and you're trying to do something new, innovative, incredible, amazing. But the status quo pulls you back. And unfortunately, this toxicity is America's normal. This is what we do.
The issue isn't the good intentions. The issue is the commitment, the force, the power to fight the homeostatic forces that come and tell you, "You know, it isn't really practical. We really can't figure this out."
I mean, how would we do it? I mean, what would they even do with the money? You know it would destabilize the economy. And then what did Germany spent? 89 billion? Did it destabilize their economy? I think they're okay. All of the excuses that quite frankly are attractive excuses. Because to fix this requires sacrifice. Nobody wants to sacrifice.
When those homeostatic forces pop up and wear their ugly heads, it's well-intended people that have to say, "No. Ah-ah. The status quo is unacceptable. And we have to do something different." And I think that is what is missing from this conversation. We can talk about it forever. But at some point, you know, the old quote, "All that has to occur for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing." What are the good people doing when it comes to this topic?
[00:50:55] JS: I have never had a conversation where I have been so rapt, and so engaged and so hanging on to every word that was said. Can't tell you what an honor it is to host this conversation and how grateful I am. And for me, it's just such an imperative to fold this into the work that I'm doing in this conversation. And I'm really committed to doing my role. And I just can't thank you enough for being here with us today.
[00:51:23] DH: Thanks so much for the invitation. I mean, this is what it's about. It's about sharing the mic. It's about creating space. It's about listening. It's about deeply listening, which is different. And I just appreciate your spirit, your energy, your questions, your sincerity. This is big and it's hard, and there are a lot of feelings about it. And this was a hard day to have this conversation. But I'm so, so, so glad we did. That's the place that we got to start moving this – let's make this possible and stop putting it in that impossible category. Thank you for your contribution to that effort.
[00:52:01] ZA: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me and for creating this space. I think one of the things I'm taking away from this conversation is that there are some fundamental things we agree on. And I think there's some details that we have different perspectives on. But that's a place that we start. And so, I look forward to seeing how this conversation evolves. And I hope that it will move on.
I think we are in a period of change. I know, Jenny, you asked me if I thought the last year was a period of like a sign of shift. And I did kind of shoot it down. I think part of that is informed by today. But I don't want it to be taken as a pessimistic view. I don't know if anyone's ever read – last year, Arundhati Roy wrote a piece for I think the Financial Times called The Pandemic is a Portal. And it's a beautiful, beautiful piece that talks about how the pandemic revealed the deep, deep failure and inability of our institutions to really uphold what we've expected them to do.
And she said, she closes the piece eloquently by saying, "This is an opportunity. It's a portal. Are we going to walk into the next? A new? Are we going to drag our baggage? All of the ways that we have failed in the past? Are we going to bring that into the new?"
And so, a lot of conversations are about returning back to normal. And we have a chance really not to restore but to transform what that new space is. And so, hopefully, in that new space. Again, it's not about abandoning the past. It is not about avoiding the past. The past will always be there to hold us accountable. It is about us deciding that we're going to engage, and embrace, and think, and talk about that past and use that past differently. And so, I think that conversations like this help us to move in that direction. So, thank you again.
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