We must find ways to address our sordid past

I’ve been trying to think clearly about the reparations movement.

Sometimes I feel like we’re all in a whirlwind about this. The premise is simple — that descendants of enslaved people have suffered from generations of rules and policies that prevented them from having an equal chance for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Those in the movement say it’s way past time for us to address this. We cannot reach our potential as a nation until these wrongs, which stretch back 600 years, are addressed.

But then we run into scary numbers. One California reparations expert estimated the wealth gap between white and Black residents at $300,000, and his state’s share of reparations would equal $600 billion.

Apply that standard to the rest of America, and 50 million Black residents would need to receive $15 trillion.

Some communities are looking at solutions on a smaller plane. Evanston, Illinois figured that land ownership is the key, so it offered $25,000 to selected residents for down payments, mortgages or home repairs. 

In South Bend, a committee is asking for $60 million, but I haven’t found a clear explanation of who would handle that money and how it would be distributed. If we have about 30,000 Black residents, that comes to $2,000 per person.

It’s undeniable that Black men and women have suffered in America for centuries. They were enslaved, mistreated and murdered. After slavery ended, they were segregated. Then they were stereotyped, profiled and discriminated against. At each step, they were treated as if they didn’t deserve what other people had.

I am limited in what I can understand, in part because of my own family’s journey. My family has a ninth-great-grandfather who owned at least three enslaved people in Maryland in the mid-1600s. The way math works then, I am a 0.0488 percent slaveholder by blood.

We overcame deep white poverty in that family tree as well. My father was the oldest of four children raised by his grandparents on a dirt-poor farm near Lima, Ohio, during the Great Depression. His likely path was to be another dirt-poor farmer or a factory worker in the Lima Locomotive Works.

World War II changed all that. As a white veteran of that war, Dad used funds from the G.I. Bill to pay his way through a business college. He became an accountant, bought a house and spent the rest of his years accumulating wealth.

Until a couple weeks ago, I wondered why Black veterans didn’t use the G.I. Bill the same way Dad did. It turns out, they couldn’t. Because of racial discrimination, they were prevented from receiving the same education benefits and from buying the same sorts of homes.

These million or so Black men returned from the war, just like my father, but without those stairsteps out of poverty. I had noticed how classmates at LaSalle High School in the 1970s lived the way they did. I understand better now.

We can’t undo those rules made by racist politicians in the 1940s. We can do something about the racist decisions our generation is making today – the re-segregating by shifting of education funds from integrated public schools to predominantly white private schools, for example.

In years to come, we will be ashamed of ourselves for allowing this to happen.

What else can we do now?

One compelling thought is that Black Americans could follow an example set by Native Americans, who have their own legitimate grievances with how their ancestors were treated by European Americans.

In the past four decades, Natives have been rebuilding their culture and gaining some economic justice through a focus on casino gambling. Statistics are difficult to compare and shouldn’t be trusted completely, but it’s likely that Native casinos are cashing in on about 40 percent of an $80 billion legal gaming industry nationwide.

Tribes operate about 500 casinos in 28 states where Natives have sovereign rights of regulation within their own reservations. In our area, the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi operate casino resorts in New Buffalo and South Bend as well as smaller operations in Hartford and Dowagiac.

Here and in other states, profits are shared by recognized tribe members. The question is, are these casinos really helping repair the damages caused when European-born settlers uprooted the indigenous tribes and attempted to destroy their cultures?

The answer would seem to be yes.

Nationwide reports immediately saw young Native adults returning to their reservations, for an overall increase in population of 11.5 percent. Employment improved, decreasing the percentage of working poor by 14 percent.

A 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found, after studying 102 tribes, that casinos brought a noticeable increase in overall Native health. The reasons for that were broad-based. Residents were better educated, for example, because they could afford better schools. They had more money for preventative care and saw more options for exercise.

This seems to have provided an effective pathway out of poverty for many Native groups, but I’m not suggesting that anyone open more casinos.

There are other banned businesses that could be declared as legal and tax-free for structured Black groups. Sports gambling and recreational marijuana sales could be among them. The key would be making sure that all families within that structure benefit by having solid education, medical and housing options.

Better ideas need to emerge. We shouldn’t just find it convenient to push the problem back under the rug because we don’t have $15 trillion.

It is not for people like me to decide. I can’t be another white person trying to fix what we think that Black people are doing wrong.

In the meantime, it costs nothing for us to simply acknowledge and apologize for what our ancestors have done and to stop doing those things now. That is where we can start.