Recently, I came home to find an unexpected late fee from my utility company. I was shocked because I had set up auto-pay, and I had enough money in my bank account to pay the bill. The company must have been at fault for this hefty mistake, not me. My two roommates and I have always had an agreement to split our utility bills evenly, but I do the chore of paying them.
Who should pay this unfair bill? Would it be right for my roommates to say, “It wasn’t my fault, so I’m not paying,” and leave me to make the payment by myself? I certainly hope not.
I bring up this anecdote because I usually experience a similar situation when I mention that black Mississippians are owed monetary reparations. A common response I hear to this assertion –– especially from my fellow white Mississippians –– is, “Well, I’m not racist, so why should I have to pay?” I think this is a fair question to ask. No one should have to pay for our state’s historic and contemporary racist sins because those sins should have never happened in the first place. But that is not the reality we are living in.
Of course, I would never conflate a foolish late fee to the injustices black Mississippians experience, but if you can see the wrong in the first, you should be able to see the wrong in the second.
Black Mississippians are significantly disadvantaged in education, the criminal justice system, housing, access to health care, wealth and life expectancy. It is also true that the state, many private entities and even our university currently benefit from the theft of black Mississippians. Monetary reparations for black Mississippians could do much to mitigate disparities and would be at least be an acknowledgement of past theft.
It could be true that you are not racist and have never supported any racist policies. However, neither have black people, and right now, they are the main people paying the consequences of our state’s racism.
The main reason people seem to oppose reparations is because they think it would be unfair to hold people accountable for things that happened so long ago –– that we are not tied to our state’s past. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has famously written about reparations, responded to that sentiment in a recent interview. “If we weren’t tied to things in our past, we wouldn’t have much of a country… We have no problem claiming our ties to the past when they credit us,” Coates said. We celebrate Presidents Day and Independence Day, Coates says, so we should own the bad, too.
There is no question that Mississippi often and proudly ties itself to its past. Our state’s flag has Confederate imagery on it. Our university and cities have Confederate monuments prominently erected. For anyone to claim that our state is not proudly tethered to its past would be inaccurate.
Another common rebuke to reparations is that we can’t all agree on which historical event, specifically, caused current racial disparities and therefore should not bother with reparations. Who and what is responsible? Slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, discriminatory housing laws, land violently stolen from black farmers? Probably a mix of all of the above are responsible for current racial disparities, but ultimately, we do not have to agree on a specific person or policy to be our mascot of guilt.
The details of reparations –– how much money to whom and when –– need to be thoroughly discussed and argued over. I don’t know the best answers to these questions, but I do hope that a significant component of the reparations process would be for all of our state to grapple with our sins, teach accurate history, remove racist images from the public sphere and start the healing process.
We owe black Mississippians reparations for the historic and contemporary racism our state has put them through. Even if you had no part in the hurt caused, you do have a responsibility to help carry the consequences.
Wesley Craft is a senior public policy leadership major from Raleigh, Mississippi.