OPINION: How reparations can address systemic racism and its impacts


As a longtime advocate for the underserved in our community, I've witnessed firsthand how the stresses of poverty can warp even good people's decision-making in harmful, seemingly illogical ways. For many struggling just to survive from one day to the next, drastic measures feel like the only recourse when all other options have been closed off.

The pressures facing those in generational disadvantage are multilayered and relentless. Lack of stable housing, low-wage jobs with no benefits, crumbling schools, poor healthcare access - these accumulate into what researchers call "toxic stress" over the lifespan. When an individual is trapped in a near-constant state of fight-or-flight response, long-term planning and risk-aversion naturally fade as basic survival instincts take over.

Chronic disinvestment and restricted opportunities mean Black families have faced greater difficulties accumulating and passing down wealth to offspring through home equity, small business ownership, inheritance or college educations in the same way as white families. Mass criminalization policies starting in the 1970s further impaired stability through high incarceration rates that disrupted family structures and deprived communities of economic contributors and role models.

As a result of this history of racist oppression and neglect, Black communities have struggled with lack of job opportunities, lower incomes, and higher unemployment that keep many stuck in cycles of poverty at rates disproportionate to the overall population. The cumulative effect of persistent marginalization, bias, and lack of policy support means racial economic inequalities and lack of accumulated assets persist even decades after the end of legalized segregation.

These desperate situations stem from political and economic failures accumulating over generations. Historical lack of investment and opportunity due to racism, classism and other "isms" are compounded across decades into inequitable systems cementing disadvantage as multigenerational destiny. The daily constraints and cruelties endured become normalized, internalized even, further fraying the social fabric.

We cannot address symptoms alone through policing or charity alone. A holistic approach demands reconsidering how public policies from education to healthcare to criminal justice too often function as tools of subjugation rather than paths of empowerment for those most at risk. It means prioritizing prevention by tangibly reducing socioeconomic disparities at their structural roots through good jobs, living wages, affordable housing and comprehensive community supports.

When the most vulnerable face daily inhumanity society shares responsibility for their outcomes. True justice and public safety rest upon guaranteeing all citizens' basic human right to live freely according to their God-given potential, unburdened by accumulated disadvantages. That ambition will not be achieved through short-sighted quick fixes alone but requires moral courage to remedy systemic harms through collaborative long-term solutions.

Reparations could provide much needed relief and resources for African American communities that have endured the accumulated disadvantages of systemic racism for generations. Direct financial payments or economic development programs focused on jobs and workforce training would help address the vast racial wealth gap that exists due to the deprivation of wealth-building opportunities through slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing discrimination. Black families have been stuck in cycles of poverty through no fault of their own, lacking the ability to build intergenerational assets like homeownership, business ownership, and educational attainment enjoyed by white families. Reparations could begin to remedy these historic wrongs by providing resources to Black families for long-term stability, homeownership, and educational advancement in stable career paths. 

In addition, reparations investment in predominantly Black neighborhoods could reverse the impacts of decades of purposeful disinvestment, a form of structural racism. Neighborhoods with majority Black residents have been deprived of vital public services and economic activity through the denial of infrastructure improvements, access to quality schools and healthcare, and the ability to acquire property and build businesses. This has created deep economic and health disparities as entire communities were cut off from the ability to thrive. Reparations focused on community development could revitalize these neighborhoods by funding improvements to infrastructure, building new schools and healthcare clinics, providing subsidies for local businesses and home ownership. This would improve living conditions and quality of life overall for Black residents after so many years of being denied equal resources and protection.

From a moral perspective, reparations are justified given the tremendous human and economic cost that was forced upon Black Americans through the evils of slavery, the oppressive Black codes and Jim Crow laws after emancipation, and the ongoing structural obstacles that public policy has placed before Black communities. The government sanctioned and facilitated the suffering of slavery and continued to deprive Black citizens of full civil rights and economic justice through the 20th century. As a society, we have a moral duty to remedy the multi-generational harms this has inflicted and provide restorative justice for the injustices that Black Americans have endured for centuries. Equity demands acknowledging how our shared history has systemically disadvantaged one group over another through no fault but the color of their skin. Reparations are a step towards fulfilling the unrealized promise of equality and justice for all under the law.

Significant political and social barriers have prevented a large-scale, nationwide program from being implemented. Many argue the vast scope and impacts of over 250 years of slavery, legal oppression, and systemic racism since have rendered calculating comprehensive reparations nearly impossible. Critics argue it would be too expensive or that no living persons were personally responsible. 

However, proponents emphasize that the accumulated harms have been inflicted over multiple generations and disadvantaged Black Americans today through no fault of their own but the color of their skin. They point to moral justifications and precedents like reparations for interned Japanese Americans and Native American tribal nations. Some legal scholars argue the 13th and 14th Amendments give Congress authority to enact reparations as a form of redressing unequal treatment under the law. 

Despite this, no modern bills on reparations have progressed at the federal level. Some states and city government haveinitiatives seeking to apologize for past injustices offer some glimpses of how leadership might address the issue. Cities like Chicago, Detroit, and municipalities on the West Coast have launched commissions studying how local government policies perpetuated discrimination. 

Recognizing the political limitations nationally, advocates emphasize the ability of states, counties and cities to provide their own forms of reparative justice. Beyond apologies, localized efforts could invest in disadvantaged neighborhoods, fund small business equity programs, establish education and wealth-building trusts, offer housing assistance, and more. While unable to fully remedy the vast harms alone, such initiatives acknowledging ongoing impacts may help foster healing and economic empowerment on a community level.

Overall, the complexity and enduring impacts of America's racist history have thus far prevented comprehensive reparations. But acknowledgement of ongoing responsibility and targeted local remedies offer some pathways for progress where full-scale top-down programs have stalled. With sustained advocacy, additional municipalities taking reparative steps may help move the national conversation forward. I believe Jackson has the collective will to establish justice and community where none falls through cracks of indifference alone again.

Sabrina Parker is a guest columnist writing about faith, diversity and equality in Jackson and beyond. Contact her at parkerintennessee@gmail.com.