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The Second Step Toward Restorative Justice for Native Americans and African Americans Is Community Engagement

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
August 1, 2019

This is the third in a series of columns related to achieving restorative justice for Native Americans and African Americans who are living with the pervasive, negative consequences of crimes against humanity perpetrated against their ancestors during the foundation of the United States (to read the previous column in this series go here). I am writing this column as the contest to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee is heating up over maters of racial equity and, for the first time in my life, there is a serious conversation occurring across the country about issues of reparations.

Amidst all of this foment, various economists have attempted to estimate the value of the involuntary capital donation that enslaved persons of African origin made to the United States from the 1600s until 1865. You can read a survey of these estimates in a recent New York Times article. It is telling in their own right that all estimates range in the many trillions of dollars, eliciting responses from among many members of congress and some erstwhile presidential candidates that the United States simply cannot afford the bill for slavery and its consequences. It turns out to be expensive to pay for the foundation of a house you originally built on for free and then forgot about those killed to “donate” the land underneath it and the slaves who “donated” their labor to build it.

What I bring to the attention of the readers of PA Times is that reparations will have to be a process, not an event. That process is in dire need of a new governance structure that goes well beyond the proposal in H.R. 40 to establish a congressional commission on reparations. If the country is serious about restorative justice, first it must get serious about community engagement. This is why I am not discussing dollar values when there simply is no credible process under consideration for bringing the African American and the Native American communities into a conversation about what forms of reparations will meet their longer term needs. The recent intense focus on dollar amounts has completely pushed aside the question of whether reparations is more than transforming crimes against humanity into paychecks.

Before I turn to thoughts about governance in the context of reparations, I note that writing cheques on the order of $20,000 to $100,000 to every eligible person may not be the best intervention for long-term improvement in the lives of African Americans and Native Americans. The rather sordid results on the lives of those winning huge state lottery pay-outs is one indication of potential trouble. Another issue has been raised recently by assessments of reparations paid to Japanese Americans who were held in concentration camps during World War Two: At the end of the day, those payments created a public relations “cover” for the United States Government but did little to undo the tragic consequences of that policy. Before we reach for the public checkbook, we need to engage the communities affected about their perspectives and their ideas and input about achieving real positive improvements in their lives.

My number one question about governance is: Why is the United States struggling to recognize the importance of a broader level of community engagement? I think the sad answer is that racism related to the oppression of African Americans and Native Americans is so baked into the fabric of our polity that we forget that these are real people with real experiences and authentic perspectives that need to be heard on their own terms, not the terms set by politicians in Washington or academic economists of any stripe. Just recognizing such racism and moving beyond it would be a major step toward restorative justice. We need a truth and reconciliation process more than we need clever econometric estimates of the work performed by enslaved persons of African origin or the valuation of the land taken away from the Native Americans. We need to recognize that many within the African American and Native American populations crave to be recognized as equal citizens and equal partners in the American narrative.

Undoing the legacies of slavery and the Native American genocide will be the single most important public policy process in the history of the United States and a landmark achievement worldwide. To get to that promised land, we will need to develop a very deep and broad system of community engagement that reaches down to the very local level everywhere in the United States, and gives voice to as many persons as possible including those other than African Americans and Native Americans. There will be unexpected diversity in the views expressed. It will take time for those diverse voices to be heard and appreciated and accommodated. It will be expensive and time consuming to operate a system of community engagement that never has been attempted at this scope in United States history. It will completely transform the very fabric of our democracy just to make the attempt.

Based on current indications of the sad state of our democracy, we need to do this right away.

Author: Erik Devereux has worked for 25 years in the public policy and management field. Erik currently is an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations and to higher education and teaches applied policy analysis at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). Contact Erik at [email protected].



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