Transforming Our Unjust World and Personal Teshuvah: Considering Reparations for Slavery

Mark Pinsky joined us for an Evolve web conversation on Monday, February 14, 2021, which you can view here.

We stand in the midst of the burning world

primed to burn with compassionate love and justice,

To turn inward and find holy fire at its core,

To turn outward and see the world that is all

of one flesh with us …

-Marge Piercy In Kol Haneshamah

Last year, Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek explained that

The freedom gained in the Exodus has as its end the creation of a society founded on a web of mutual obligation and care, in which the communal good enhances [each of our] personal well-being[s].

There is a continuous line from Exodus to the state of our nation and our world today, including the places where mutual obligation and care have grown stronger and those where it has broken down.

That line runs through and lifts up the history of social, economic and political justice movements, and struggles against oppression: the American Revolution, the abolitionist movement, trust-busting, the women’s movement, the labor movement, the civil-rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement, the environmental movement, Black Lives Matter.

And so, each year on Yom Kippur, we gather our souls together to affirm the communal good by acknowledging, naming and seeking to repent and atone for the wrongs we have done.

We ask one another for forgiveness for the oaths and vows we have not kept.

We forgive others as we hope to forgive ourselves.

Think with me about the responsibilities each of us carries for the world that is bigger than us but still within our domain — the natural, social, cultural, legal, political and financial worlds we are part of. The worlds we work to make part of the common good. Perhaps you will think of them, as I do, in the framework of the question: “What is the connection between personal teshuvah and transforming an unjust society?” How can we respond through teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah to the wrongs done in our names, and those done on our behalf, with and without our consent? How do we oppose and overcome structural and systemic sins? How do we transform our unjust world?

In my career, my work has been about transformational change — fundamental shifts in how government works; aligning capital with social, economic and political justice; and most recently, making the financial system work for progressive causes and not against them.

I think about the world in terms of structures (laws and rules) and systems (practices, norms, and cultures). I wonder: Is structural and systemic teshuvah even a thing?

I am struggling with those questions in two ways — with the scale and scope of structural and systemic wrongs; and with the cynicism that I realize has infected me.

We all see the scale and scope of wrongs done in our names and on our behalf:

As we see what is still happening to Black lives, and we learn about the recurring failure of our laws and the people hired to enforce them for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Amaud Arbery and so many others whose names need to be spoken.

As we understand the unceasing pain and suffering that has resulted from unprecedented wealth and income inequities that are getting worse, not better.

As we hear from family and friends near wildfires, in flood zones and in the paths of hurricanes and tornados who are experiencing climate change with every breath.

As we know from experience and from friends working to protect immigrants that the immigration crisis is so much worse than most of us can understand.

As so many have died and continue to die worldwide from COVID-19.

I am discouraged, worn down and worried. I suspect we are all discouraged, worn down and worried.

The ideas, strategies and approaches that worked for me for the last 40 years or more — and the organizations and institutions that I have trusted — no longer seem so effective or effective enough. Yet still I find it difficult to open myself to new ideas, to let go of what got me here, to really see and accept the richness and importance of a new generation of ideas, strategies and leaders.

In 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, our daughter Clara scolded me for my skepticism that the outcry for police system reforms would result in real systemic change.

“Can’t you just let yourself imagine it?” she asked me, angrily. “We have to be able to imagine better ways!” What she didn’t say but I heard was, “Because your old ways didn’t get it done!”

She is right. I need to open my mind. For her and for me.

Maybe you’ve heard the story — or a version of it — about a man who prayed daily at the Western Wall from sunup to sundown. Each day he’d pull on his tallit, wrap his tefillin and daven silently from sun-up until midday. He would return mid-afternoon to daven until the sun went down.

One day, a journalist stopped the man to talk.

“I’ve seen you praying at the Wall, day in and day out. What are you praying for?”

“Well, in the morning I pray for peace in the world, for a two-state solution and for the end of all wars. I go home for lunch and a nap. When I come back, I pray for the end of disease, equal human rights for all and love among all peoples.”

“That’s wonderful!” she says. “And you’ve been doing this for how long?”

“23 years.”

“23 years!” she cries. “That’s amazing. How do you feel after 23 years?”

“Well,” he says, “to tell you the truth, I feel like I’ve been talking to a wall.”

I used to identify with that davener. Now, I sometimes I feel like a wall, blocking the way. When and how did that happen? How do I learn again to see the truth with brutal honesty but still know that good and right will prevail?

I want to atone for the sins we have done to our world so that I can do something about them. I need to atone for becoming a wall. I need to see and feel the connection between transforming an unjust world and personal teshuvah.

I have found a connection in an unlikely knot of structural and systemic wrongs. I have long wrestled with the argument that slavery reparations are possible to help us overcome and address the 400-year legacy of America’s original sin. But just as quickly, I have dismissed them because they seemed to me laden with unsolvable complications. I wasn’t using my imagination. I didn’t see how reparations could be national teshuvah.

In his 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.” As important, he says, is that we will be locked in unsustainable and undefendable injustice until we pay our debt.

He anchors his argument in part on Deuteronomy 15:12-15: When a Hebrew man or woman is freed from slavery, “do not let [them] go empty-handed: Furnish [them] out of the flock, threshing floor and vat, with which the Lord your God has blessed you.”

Coates traces the ways that past racial injustices rooted in slavery multiplied economically over generations. He details how ongoing social injustice such as segregation and Jim Crow created a “concentration of disadvantage” that continues to cost Black Americans today. He recounts the ways that white people knowingly chose to perpetuate injustices against Black people, compounding their liabilities for their sins. He provides estimates of that liability, which range from as little as $205 billion to as much as $17 trillion. Recently, others who argue for reparations say the bill due for slavery would be closer to $35 trillion if Black Americans were compensated using the algorithms the nation used to compensate Japanese Americans for their mistreatment during World War II. That is, if America and Americans would atone for our collective sins.

Those are big numbers. By contrast, at the height of the federal COVID response in 2020, our government was spending about $1 trillion per month. The U.S. economy overall is about $21 trillion.

Now, the case Coates made in The Atlantic was not actually for reparations. Rather, he was making the case for Congressional action on HR40 legislation to fund an effort to find a process to discuss reparations.

The legislation was stuck in the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee, without meaningful congressional action, from 1989 until 2021 In 2021, it got a hearing. One hearing. The Judiciary Committee approved it in April 2021 and sent it to a hoped-for full House vote. If it were to pass the House, there still would be little to no chance that the Senate would take it up. How can it be that our national leaders are not yet even ready to consider how we might discuss reparations?

Considering HR4, I began to think — or failed to imagine otherwise — that reparations are not achievable. How to calculate the costs? Who would pay? How to establish fairness in payments? How to decide who deserves reparations? All Black people? Or only those who prove their lineage back to slavery? Why would the burden of proof be on the victims?

This is how I became a wall, failing to imagine that the impossible is possible, failing believe that slavery reparations must get done because it is not only necessary, it is right. And that there is no other way that we can move forward as a nation.

The case for slavery reparations rests in no small part on the scale of Holocaust reparations or restitution. Germany has paid more than $60 billion since 1952 to victims of the Holocaust and their families. Holocaust restitution is proof that slavery reparations can be done, even if takes 70 years. Or even 400 years.

Yet Stuart Eizenstat, who led the U.S. delegation on Holocaust reparations for presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, opposes slavery reparations . His reasons are as fragile and racist as they seem rational:

  • First: German payments were made by “direct perpetrators largely to those who directly suffered and survived, and, in some cases, their direct heirs.
  • Second: “poor record-keeping during the slavery era, which predated America’s founding, makes it extremely difficult to trace ancestry back to a specific slave family.” He calculates as a reason against reparations that by some counts there could be as many as 37 million Black Americans with claims. Let that reason sink in.
  • Black people would be better served by “committing the nation to reducing inequality in income and wealth by making targeted and thoughtful investments to lift up both low-income communities and communities of color … .” We have tried that several times. It is necessary but far from sufficient.

Near the end of his essay, Coates acknowledges the practical challenges of reparations. “Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate,” he concludes, “we may find that the country can never fully repay African-Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion.”

That starts to sound to me like teshuvah. Structural and systemic teshuvah.

Right before Yom Kippur 5781, Citi, one of the biggest financial institutions in the world, released research which found that the failure to serve Black people fairly and equally in the United States has cost the economy $16 trillion over the last 20 years. In my mind — and in my career working with and sometimes against the financial system — the Citi analysis exposed the failure of my imagination.

Raymond J. Maguire, Citi’s Vice Chairman at the time, explained the reality:

“The analysis in the report that follows shows that if four key racial gaps for Blacks — wages, education, housing, and investment — were closed 20 years ago, $16 trillion could have been added to the U.S. economy. And if the gaps are closed today, $5 trillion can be added to U.S. GDP over the next five years.”

The numbers $17 trillion and $35 trillion don’t sound so large anymore when economic racial equity would pay dividends twice — once by supporting Black economic growth and once by generating more than enough new wealth to pay for Reparations.

Coates was, in fact, urging teshuvah through reparations, though he never used the word. “What I’m talking about,” he writes, “is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. … Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

A return to our nation living by the real meaning of its founding values.

“To become the perfect union its founders intended,” Professor Olufemi Taiwo of Georgetown University wrote in the fall of 2020, “the United States must make its black citizens whole, without legal equivocations or constitutional hair-splitting. That is the ultimate argument for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in our land. It is the precondition for a different future,” he said.

“A precondition for a different future” is the reason I do teshuvah.

Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari of Congregation Kol Tzedek argues pointedly for reparations as teshuvah. He says teshuvah for 400 years of injustice from slavery to today must be “a process of reparations and restorative justice. Those who have profited are responsible for the process of repair.”

The broader anti-racism goal we have set for Minyan Dorshei Derekh requires a systemic effort to transform us. It is deeply personal and communal work that is a precondition for making ourselves, our community and our world anti-racist.

Finally, I think I know why I started to become a wall, why I started to gloss over good ideas and resist right solutions, shying away from opportunities to make change — internally and externally: Age. Well, really, time.

The unfinished work of my life and my unaccomplished goals started to run up against the inescapable limit of my lifespan. And no amount of imagination could change that.

Those of you who are older than me might be chuckling because you have been there and, perhaps, moved past it. Or maybe you never get past it. Those of you are younger may be laughing because you think it is past time for people like me get out of your way — at least that is what I was thinking when I was your age.

But with a different perspective, I can imagine that I must learn to start new things even though I may not be able to move them forward or live to see them through — to see that the wall that frightened me can also be a support when I need help, a shelter when I need safety and a resting place when I need recovery.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “In a free society, only some are guilty, but all are responsible.” I guess my own limitations are no excuse.

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