Posted on December 2, 2021

Reparations Call Is a Moral Reckoning White Americans Can No Longer Delay

Eileen Rivers, USA Today, November 28, 2021

When I called Georgetown University community engagement associate Melisande Short-Colomb on a recent weeknight, I had a few questions about a piece she had written for “Repairing America,” a USA TODAY project exploring reparations and the fight for social justice in the United States.

I was helping Meli finish a first-person narrative that involved the trafficking of young slaves, records of her family’s deportation to Louisiana, and Georgetown’s reckoning with its slave history.

The determination and positivity that came through on the call, I had grown to expect from Meli. A descendant of slaves who had begun her career as a student at Georgetown at age 63, she approaches life with a gratitude that resonates in her voice.

But what she shared that night, I hadn’t expected.

Meli was in a Zoom meeting with several white supporters of reparations, some of whom I had encountered late in the project.

That there are white people who believe in reparations for the pain and suffering of Black America didn’t surprise me. But the fact there are white allies who believe in reparations strongly enough to help persuade other white Americans to act did surprise me.

I started the reparations project with the goal of shining the brightest light possible on the centuries of struggle faced by Black America. {snip}


But as I finish this six-month project, I realize that in addition to talking about Black struggle, the movement toward justice requires talking about the white moral reckoning that is necessary in America – one similar to the racial reckoning that erupted after white Americans saw, through the death of George Floyd, the police brutality that Black people had fought for decades.

One horrific moment caught on camera tapped the conscience of the nation. It also showed how the passivity of white Americans is killing us.

Some of our country’s most horrific moral injustices happened generations ago – slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, redlining – and the need to confront them can easily be ignored. But their ramifications are still here. And it’s not just Black people who are struggling to get out from under the oppressive footprint those injustices left behind.

The story of American progress isn’t about one group of people, just as the story of American oppression has never been.

The history of Black oppression, its relevance and the need for atonement have to be recognized by every white person in America.

Without that realization, without the work by white America, reparations will remain little more than committees whose suggestions never turn into action, a 30-year-old bill in Congress that has made little progress, and a housing program in Evanston, Illinois, that is being sold as reparations but, according to a member of the county council, really isn’t.


Cheryl Grills, former president of the Association of Black Psychologists, said it best during two interviews. She quoted author Zora Neale Hurston: “The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.” In that context, she talked about the psychological ramifications of slavery that still take a toll on Black and white America. And both groups need to be healed.

Trauma dating back to slavery has been passed down through generations for Black America, Grills said. But the ability of white Americans to be desensitized to the depths of Black suffering has been passed down as well.


Tamara Lanier is a woman on a mission to bring dignity and justice to the legacy of her enslaved ancestors – an ambition that is far removed from monetary compensation.

She has taken Harvard University to court for the right to photos of an African man named Renty (her great-great-great-grandfather) and his daughter, Delia. She also wants stories of her ancestors to be based on the truth and pride she had learned as a child. A Harvard professor commissioned the photos originally to support white supremacist ideology.

In the process, she is forcing the conversation about repair to go in a deeper, necessary direction – one that rightly refutes the idea that white people and institutions should own the pillages of slavery.


I challenge Americans to confront their ancestral and institutional history, accept the truth they find and act.