Reparations Study Group

The Reparations Study Group advocates for First United Methodist Church to consider reparations as a part of its on-going work to become an antiracist congregation. The Sunday message on critical race theory, given on July 3, 2022, provides an important  perspective for understanding calls for reparations and can assist our church community in understanding the historical and political context for reparations.

First United Methodist Church Message on Sunday July 3, 2022

Joe Smith and Claudia Detwiler

PART 1 Joe

On July 5, 1852—a decade or so before the beginning of the civil war, the emancipation proclamation, and the eventual end of chattel slavery in the United States—Frederick Douglass, the runaway slave turned rhetorician and statesman, was invited to address the citizens of his hometown in Rochester, New York.

“Why am I called upon to speak here to-day?” Douglass asks. “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?… What, to a slave, is the fourth of July?…Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?… I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine…Above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.

What Douglass revealed to his predominantly white audience that day was the hidden history running just below the surface of white National consciousness. This hidden seam is revealed today by an academic legal framework known as Critical Race Theory. Two years ago most of us had never heard the term Critical Race Theory (or CRT, as it’s sometimes referred to). But then, in late 2020, after the brutal murder of George Floyd had ignited a national conversation about structural racism, then President Donald Trump issued a memo to federal agencies that warned against critical race theory, labeling it [QUOTE] “divisive,” followed by an executive order barring any training that suggested the United States was [QUOTE] “fundamentally racist.” 

From there, use of the term has skyrocketed in our national conversation. You can now see talking heads evaluating the merits of CRT on every new station, and law-makers crafting legislation about it on capitol hill. The public school system has become the bloodiest battleground of this most recent culture war.

So, last fall Claudia came to me to ask if I knew anything about this critical race theory stuff. I did not. She said she didn’t either, which made me feel better about myself. But she suggested that, with all the commotion about CRT in the news, perhaps we should learn something about it so that First Church might respond with at least a bit of understanding. I thought that was a pretty good idea.

We tried, first, to find someone to teach us. CRT is actually quite a specialized field. It began in the late 1970s at Harvard Law School when Black law students there began to ask: Why, after ground-breaking anti-discrimination victories of the civil rights era, was racism still so pervasive in the United States? Claudia and I eventually discovered that anyone with so specialized a knowledge in the body of legal writing that grew out of this inquiry to actually teach the stuff is too busy teaching it at law schools or putting it into practice through advocacy to come give it away at a little Methodist church. So, we decided we would set to the task of reading everything we could get our hands on, and then inviting people to read and discuss along with us, with the understanding that Claudia and I are by no means experts, but that we were all going to learn together. 

So about a dozen or more of us spent six months reading and discussing dense legal texts, news articles, YouTube videos and anything else we could find. To learn what this critical race theory thing is all about. We now want to summarize some of that for you.  

Part II:  Claudia 

Studying critical race theory has been an intense experience. It’s been a challenge to decide what part of this volume of scholarship to share.

There are three words that comprise a central tenet of critical race theory:  that racism is “ normal, not aberrational”  

Those three words are what connect critical race theory to Frederick Douglass’s speech – that racism now, and in Douglass’s time, is “normal, not aberrational”

As a study group, we really struggled with those three words . They felt confusing, overwhelming and, to some, hopeless. And they are worth struggling over because they disrupt the way we think about racism.

To say that racism is “normal” is to say that is a part of the way things work. “not aberrational” pushes even harder on that.  An aberration is an anomaly, something not typical. To say racism is not aberrational is to say it is to be expected, assumed. Critical race theory is saying that racism is functional to our social order – that racism is more than a legacy –  something passed on. And it is more than an “issue”. One of several justice “issues”. Critical race scholarship argues that the US  was intentionally created to be a white supremacist country and it is functioning as it was structured to function. This is the core of critical race theory.

I don’t see critical race theory as exactly hopeless, but “hope” does look different from a critical race theory perspective. “Hope” begins with acknowledging racism as structured into our constitution and laws. Racial justice strategies then are built around this reality. It has a name. it is called Racial Realism.

Critical race strategies involve two concepts: Colorblindness and Cumulative harm. 

Critical race theorists write a lot about color blindness as policy because it has played a big role in the past and it is back in favor. Color blindness argues that laws and institutions should not discriminate based on skin color. That sounds reasonable as far as it goes. But when color blindness becomes the exclusive way to establish racial justice that’s a serious problem and that is the direction that conservative courts are going.     

Color blindness as racial policy says that the only difference between white people and Black people is skin color.  Critical race theorists point to both history and current racial disparities in housing, education, health, wealth, law, and employment as defining differences.  Color blindness says that not relevant.

That economic disparities are social issues, not racial justice issues. Skin color is the only racial justice consideration. Critical race theory says that if  every law or institutional practice suddenly was colorblind, we would still not have racial justice. 

Over the last few years some educational institutions created affirmative action policies to acknowledge that Black people have been disadvantaged in access to schools. 

Courts today have been striking down these modest attempts to recognize racialized history – which leads us back to where we started… that racism today is “normal, not aberrational”. Even small attempts at racial progress meet resistance at the highest levels. 

Colorblindness functions a little differently in access to voting. Black people sometimes have difficulty voting for a whole host of  reasons. Congress resists attempts to address barriers.  An unspoken colorblindness is operating. It says that as the same rules apply to Black people and White people, racial justice is intact, even if the rules have a disparate impact on Black people.

Critical race theory is important because it argues that this all works to maintain a white supremacist structure. These are not disconnected policies or legacy racism.

This brings us to the second term – cumulative harm. 

Cumulative Harm is the counter to colorblindness.  It says that cumulative, intentional, denial of opportunities to Black people generation after generation have led to the disparities I mentioned earlier. 

So, what does cumulative harm look like? In our study group we looked at cumulative harm in housing, health systems, and education.  

I’m going to focus on Housing and Wealth as one example. What I want to show is government policy creating cumulative harm.  This is what makes critical race theory different from other conversation on race. It challenges the view that racial disparities result from collective personal racism, or unintentional economic fallout. It is all about government policy from the very beginning to maintain white supremacy

I’m quoting here: “Today African American wealth is about 5 percent of white wealth. Most middle-class families in this country gain their wealth from the equity they have in their homes.“

 Owning a home is to be able to grow wealth through borrowing against equity and housing appreciation. Housing supports family well-being in other ways too: quality of schools, access to transportation, access to medical care and even the quality of the air you breathe are related to having housing options. 

Historically, the Black Codes, Jim Crow laws and racial zoning severely limited opportunities for Black people to accumulate family wealth through housing. More recently, urban renewal undermined accumulation of Black wealth by massive destruction of Black owned homes and businesses. Urban renewal as policy destroyed Black wealth all over the country.

 I keep repeating this word “policy”  because this is central to critical race theory. These political decisions were intentional confiscation of Black assets to be delivered to a White political structure.

New Deal policies created wealth for white families while totally shutting out Black families. New Deal programs subsidized development of thousands of new communities all over the country. These became our suburbs. Developers were contractually prohibited from selling to Black people. Federal programs denied mortgages to Black applicants. Deeds in these new suburban communities had restrictive covenants to prevent a white family from re-selling to a Black family.  This was federal policy from the highest levels. 

Zoning laws eventually dropped reference to race and replaced it with requirements for single family houses and prohibitions on multiple family dwellings. The purpose was to make housing unaffordable to Black people. This was well known at the time. This is what we still have as policy in what we call exclusionary zoning today.

What is central to critical race theory is linking the past to the present in policy. It argues that Institutional racism today continues to limit the ability of Black families to grow wealth. Definitions of credit worthiness require a financial history that does not reflect the experience of many Black families. Risk assessments and appraisals for housing loans are impacted by proximity to dirty industries. Racial zoning in the past required dirty, high pollution industries to be located in Black communities. This is a major environmental justice issue today.

Moving on from housing,  A history of racism in health systems continues in lack of access to care, implicit bias in data gathering, and inequities in treatment. A history of racial discrimination in education continues with funding based on local tax base,  or educational materials the promote whiteness, or achievement credentialing that is biased toward privilege. 

To sum up: Critical race theory says that past and present government policies intentionally create and maintain a white supremacist structure. 

Working  toward justice then requires identifying and challenging structural racism as policy. The racial realism concept.

Because harm is cumulative, racial justice strategies require redress, or reparations, to respond to centuries of cumulative harm as policy. Reparations is where government racism as policy and cumulative harm meet.

Joe will be saying a little more about reparations and some of us will be learning more about reparations in in the future.  

Part 3 Joe

Martin Luther King famously observed that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. We lament this deep racial divide in the Church, and many of us have spent considerable energy working toward racial reconciliation, often to little avail. Decades after the civil rights movement, we have failed to realize its sacred vision of beloved community. 

But Critical Race Theory has shown us that desegregation—the mere proximity of racially diverse populations—does not meet the demands of justice. If the problem were merely racial segregation and separation, then integration and reconciliation would be an appropriate solution. But critical race theory pulls back the curtain to reveal that ways in which racism is embedded in our laws, our economy, and our institutional structures. Taking seriously the cumulative effects of harm cumulated over generation means that we cannot even being to speak in meaningful ways about racial reconciliation or beloved community until white Christians repent of our sin and commit ourselves to the work of reparation and the redistribution of power and of resources. 

When the Roman-colluding tax collector Zacchaeus—whose story Jeff read to you this morning—had a transformative encounter with Jesus, he did not determine that he would reconcile with those who had been kept destitute in order to preserve his privilege. No, he committed to paying them back, with interest to cover the compounded effect of the damage his institutionally sanctioned theft had caused. 

What would it look like for a community like First Church, made up predominantly of white congregants, in possession of accumulated privileged and benefits, to follow Zacchaeus’ example to return what was taken from Black communities?

Much of the material our studied over the last six months suggests that reparations can take many forms beyond the monetary payments we often tend to associate with that concept. To begin to develop a picture of what it might look like, I commend to your reading this book: Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, by Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson. Claudia is interested in co-leading a discussion group on this book.  

For now I’ll offer just two examples to activate your imagination. Reparations can look like race-explicit medical protocol changes, such as preferential admitting for patients from racial groups that were historically denied access to certain forms of medical care. It can look like local governments purchasing a percentage of houses in housing developments that were built with government funds and that historically mandated the exclusion of Black families, and selling those houses to Black families for what they would have cost when Black families were denied the right to purchase there.  

Perhaps a next step toward reparations for us here at First Church is to join with out siblings at

Bethel AME Church in the hill district in their ongoing fight for the return of the land that was stolen from them, and for funds to develop that land for uses that actually benefit the community of the there. Claudia will be assembling a team to create a bulletin board about Bethel’s reparations challenge. You can see her for information about that. We can also provide you with information about joining the working group entitled Fighting and Funding for Bethel AME, headed by Rev. Prudence Harris, which Claudia and others are a part of. 

If we commit ourselves to this slow, difficult, and holy work of reparation, then maybe there is hope one day for reconciliation. Amen.