Unfiltered Real Talk: Reparations or Repairing the Black Community

I became a Christian in college through the ministry of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship after they planted a chapter for Black students at the University of Texas at Austin. Shortly after graduating, I came on staff with IV and began working to reach college students with the gospel. I used my education, experience, and ethnicity for IV as a bridge into the Black community. Over the years, however, one constant has remained:  I have never been fully funded. I have never had the ministry budget to dream big and create at the level of my heart’s desire. I have never been able to raise the budget to receive a paycheck comparable to my education and experience, primarily because my contacts, networks, and family do not have the financial flexibility to give away thousands of dollars annually.

Family and friends have often said I should leave, but my heart breaks for the campus and I know if I do leave, advocacy for Black students will not disappear but it will greatly diminish. To help with my funding, friends and co-workers of various ethnic backgrounds began introducing me to their networks. A few people began to partner with me through prayer, volunteering, and giving financially. Most, however, typically give the same response when I finish a presentation, “You are very articulate.”

Normally, that would be a complement, but when it is the majority of responses from cross-cultural conversations after you share about the needs of Black students, it eventually—and consistently—is insulting.

Because of a lack of funding, for two years I took a part-time job with another non-profit teaching character and relationship education in middle and high schools around Austin. When I would visit the suburbs, the affluent schools around Austin, I saw spotless marble floors. Students in every class had iPads and teachers had brand new Apple computers. Flats screens and HD projectors were in every room, hallway, and auditorium. In the teacher’s lounges, there were chocolate-covered strawberries and catered meals from four or five-star restaurants to show appreciation for their hard work, and parking lots filled with cars with German accents (i.e. Audi, BMW, Mercedes, etc.). Those cars belonged to both teachers and students.

When I visit schools in the inner city, however, I would see almost the exact opposite. Those cars don’t have German accents, but old American ones. The students weren’t driving luxury cars to school. They were walking or on the bus. There were no iPads in those schools. Actually, the old PCs the teachers were using barely worked. There were limited supplies for kids. The copy machines didn’t work. The teachers had to buy all of their supplies, including paper for the copy machine—which didn’t work. There were no chocolate-covered strawberries or catered meals in these schools, only exhausted teachers and systemically-abandoned Black and Hispanic kids. They are just like the elementary, middle, and high school I attended when I was their age. I recently went to visit my old high school. I stopped by the science lab, looked through the sink and could see the floor. It was like that when I was a student, too…just wanted to see if it had been fixed.

When I return home to South Union in Houston, Texas, I pass the same three pot holes right off of Highway 288 that have been there for over 10 years. I have to slow down, not just because it is a residential neighborhood, but because the road hasn’t been paved in some time. That’s probably why Black people are walking down the street, much like Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. Being a pedestrian is part of the culture of the hood.

I go to visit my mom, who was in elementary when separate but equal was declared unconstitutional but was in college when integration was enforced by the National Guard. She still lives paycheck to paycheck—in the inner city. She wasn’t given opportunities for upward mobility and economic expansion—even with a Master’s degree. Her house, which is now hers since the passing of my step-father, is at least forty years old. There’s a crack in the foundation, so when it rains, the den floods which causes bacteria and mildew beneath the carpet. There’s an electrical short behind the wall in the kitchen so sometimes the lights work. Sometimes they don’t.

She has received numerous offers to sell the house. It’s a great location. It’s within ten minutes of downtown Houston, several colleges and universities, and a large Black church she has faithfully been a part of for almost fifty years. My mom knows if she sells the house, it is the opening banks and businesses are looking for to begin gentrification in the neighborhood– where whites move in, raise property taxes, and ultimately forces Blacks to leave and go God knows where.

I visited that same Black church in December. It has been an integral part of my mom’s life and mine as she raised me in it. I saw literally hundreds of Black people in the service that Sunday. The same Black people that businesses, multi-ethnic churches, and non-profits want to reach and hire. The same Black people that live in the surrounding neighborhoods, and even some who live in the suburbs but drive past all types of churches to come to this Black church because they long to be understood. (By the way, one of the points in the sermon that Sunday was “Black Lives Matter.”)

As a Black man working in a diverse context, I get to peek into both worlds. I live among the marginalized, the low-income, the borderline poor. I work with and fundraise from groups of people that are middle, upper-middle, and affluent classes. I see the hurting, the forgotten, the abandoned, and I see the financially stable, wealthy, and honestly—at times—clueless. In every city I visit, the gap between these groups is the size of the Grand Canyon…and it’s growing.

When race relations hit significant peaks like now, at some point people began to bring up reparations—monetary repayment to the descendants of slaves for the centuries of free labor slavery provided to build the foundation of the U.S. economy.

Reparations in the form of checks to every black person in the country is not the answer. For the same reasons NFL and NBA players are broke when their careers are done, for the same reasons lottery winners are worse off after winning the lottery, it is never a wise choice to give large the sums of money to anyone, or any group, who hasn’t developed the discipline to manage it. Reparations in that form will fail—not that it would ever happen in the US. (What was it once called? Oh yeah, our “40 acres and a mule”. Wasn’t given back then and I won’t hold my breath.) What is needed is not simply reparations but the repair of the Black community.

Schools need to be rebuilt. All the Black businesses that were destroyed by race riots in the 1890s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1960s that were unable to be recovered because Blacks were not sold insurance, need to be restarted. Hopes of starting Black businesses that were destroyed because many banks refused to give loans to Blacks need to be restored.

This will not come from the government. It must come from the church.  The Gospel brings salvation and shalom—justice, honesty, peace, restoration, and equality.

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Within the US, now 60 years after segregation has ended, the church still functions as though that law still stands. Not only are our churches and businesses still segregated, but so are our hearts and minds.

If you want Black people to trust multi-ethic communities:

Acknowledge the Troubled History of our people in this country. Stop waiting for us to tell you. Be proactive and discover it yourself, as you do with any other hobby or field of study.

Recognize the Economic Disparities in the country are not just statistics, but people. They are ethnic minority staff working in majority institutions, students of color accepting loans to go to college. They are your friends checking their bank accounts before you go out to eat. They are…me, my mother, my grandparents. They are probably that one Black friend you have or that one Black person on your team. Not always, but much of the time.

Become an Advocate.  Consider being a mentor, supporting a staff of color at a sacrificial level, sharing financial supporters long-term, partnering with a worthwhile but underfunded organization that seeks to promote the overall health of the under-privileged.

I am an advocate for strengthening the Black voice at the multi-ethnic table, but we must see the socio-economic disparities in this country cross color-lines. It just disproportionately affects Black and Latino communities.

Let’s stop pretending we don’t see it. Let’s stop pretending we don’t care. If you want to make sure Ferguson/Michael Brown, Eric Garner/NY, and all the other cases don’t continue to happen, then do something.

Put your mind, energy, time, prayers, money, and support where your mouth is.

We have a saying where I am from, “I am from Show Me, Texas. Don’t tell me. Show me.” James 2:18 says some people show their faith by what they say, others by what they actions.

What will you do?

-SMW

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