Two baseball teams were playing. The White Sox got off to a quick lead over the Red Sox. In the third inning the score was 15-2. That’s when someone noticed the Red Sox were all playing with one hand tied behind their backs. “That’s not fair!” someone shouted. After some discussion they agreed to untie the hands of the Red Sox players. “Play ball!” shouted the umpire. “But wait!” said one player. “What’s the score now?”
For too many Black Americans, the score is still some multiple of 2-15. And the umpires are mostly old White Sox guys.
My dad grew up in a small Mississippi town near the bottom of Appalachia. His grandfather had a small farm; his dad moved into town and sold cars. After World War II, my dad went to college on the GI bill, the first college student in his family. He married his college sweetheart and began building his version of the American dream. I grew up with all of the wealth and advantages of an educated, home-owning, middle-class white family of the ’50s and ’60s.
A Black veteran who went to Europe to fight with Dad came back home to a state that didn’t allow people of his color to go to college. Black people couldn’t get a loan for property, except in certain less valuable neighborhoods. Only certain low-paying jobs were open to him. He could not vote. His family could not go to the same schools, the same stores, the same restaurants, the same waiting rooms or the same restrooms as my family.
Then in 1965, we thought the game changed. The arms behind the backs were untied. Discrimination on the basis of race was outlawed. But the score was never settled evenly.
Today, the Black-white male wage gap is as large as it was when Harry Truman was president. The even more important wealth gap is about the same as it was in the 1950s. Between 1992 and 2013, college-educated whites saw the value of their assets rise by 86%, while their Black counterparts saw theirs fall by 55%.
We tied our Black neighbors’ hands behind their backs through 400 years of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, segregation, discrimination, bias, judicial injustice, profiling and the invisibility of white privilege. The score stayed stuck at some multiple of 2-15.
It is time to change the score. Let’s talk about reparations. Repay the debt. Create wealth for our Black neighbors. Wealth creates safety and opportunity. Wealth opens doors like college and home ownership. Wealth frees families from economic threats, like losing a job or getting sick from Covid-19.
In 1865, following his March to the Sea, Gen. William T. Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 15 dividing 400,000 acres of Confederate land into 40-acre tracts for the newly freed slave families. Soon after Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson returned those lands to rebels who took a loyalty oath. The ugly repression of former slaves resumed. It was a perpetual knee on the neck of Black people separating them from the American dream.
Our country was founded on self-evident truths that all people are created equal and endowed by God with certain inalienable rights. From the adoption of the Constitution we have betrayed our own values. We have denied life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to our Black brothers and sisters. It is past time that we pay a debt that we owe.
That promise of 40 acres is part of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”
In 2020, things are changing again. Maybe it will be different this time. Black Lives Matters seems to be alive in every city. NASCAR has banned the Confederate battle flag. Polls show that three-fourths of Americans believe that racial and ethnic discrimination is a “big problem.”
In 1865, freed slaves were promised 40 acres, a foundation for a family’s wealth and future security. We failed to keep that promise. In 2020, reparations could be a fulfillment of an obligation.
If we can invest trillions to protect the wealth of banks and businesses, we can invest to create wealth among those whom we have held down unjustly. It is time to live up to our values, to invest in the wealth, security, education and health of our Black neighbors who have been systematically excluded from the American dream.
It’s time to even the score so all of our neighbors can all compete on a fair field.
Lowell Grisham is a retired Episcopal priest who lives in Fayetteville. Email him at [email protected] .