Reparations start with letting go of our myths

Part of an occasional series on truth telling and repair

Riot at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6. Photo: Ted Eytan, Creative Commons license.

The tragic and horrific Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol offers an important lesson about how strongly we hold to our sacred national stories and myths.

The day of the attack, President-elect Joe Biden said: “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect the true America. This is not who we are.”

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have made similar arguments. Implicit in their speeches is this affirmative statement: “We are a good and decent people.”

Some commentators are pushing back, saying the “this-is-not-who-we-are” argument denies of our history and current reality.

Omar Wasow, writing in the Washington Post, said: “A better way to make sense of the news of the past few days — not only the violent occupation in Washington but also the historic Senate victories by Democrats in Georgia — is as a long-run contest between two competing American traditions: one committed to preserving the status quo racial hierarchy and one fighting to advance equality.

We face a crucial choice: Which American tradition do we follow?

This blog is written by a white man for a white audience.

Those arrested for the Capitol riots included white supremacists, right-wing extremists, Q-ANON supporters, and people on the FBI’s terrorism watch list. Those arrested also included people leading mainstream lives.

The Washington Post, CNN and BBC said those recently charged include: Thomas Robertson, 47, and Jacob Fracker, 29, of Rocky Mount, Va., both officers with the Rocky Mount Police Department; Klete Keller, a five-time Olympic medalist in swimming; Brad Rukstales, CEO of Chicago-area marketing technology firm Cogensia; Andrew Williams, a firefighter in Sanford, Fla.; Robert Sandford, a recently retired firefighter from a Philadelphia suburb; William Pepe, who works for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority; Larry Rendall Brock, 53, a retired Air Force Reserve officer in Texas; and Derrick Evans, a West Virginia state lawmaker.

This is who we are.

Here are examples closer to home.

Thursday’s Star Tribune ran an article about a Minnesota National Guard member who posted a Facebook comment critical of the Guard for not making a stronger public statement against the Capitol insurrection. The Guard needed to root out right-wing extremism in its own ranks, said Specialist Joshua Preston.

“You know as well as I do that there are Boogaloo Bois and other anti-government types in our ranks, and so instead of sending out social media etiquette memos, perhaps you should be court-martialing and discharging those who are publicly siding with insurrectionists and traitors to the Constitution.”

Preston’s Facebook Post

Next, consider our state capitol renovation a few years ago. One of the most controversial issues leaders faced was whether or not to keep several pieces of racist art. Behind-the-scenes power brokers stifled conversation and prevented discussion about art in the Minnesota Senate Chamber. Below is the mural that Senate leaders felt they needed to defend, titled: Discoverers and Civilizers led to the source of the Mississippi.

This Senate mural: Discoverers and Civilizers led to the source of the Mississippi. Photo: Minnesota Historical Society

The mural depicts the forced conversion of Native Americans to Christianity. It depicts God’s blessing for the conquest and “civilization” of these lands. (Note the man in the lower left restraining attack dogs behind the priest with cross extended.) This mural is about violence and domination.

Senate leaders were too afraid to even have a conversation about changing the art.

This is who we are. We can’t even change the wall paper of our past with something more contemporary and uplifting.

We need to let go of the “This-is-not-who-we-are” story and look honestly at the white supremacy around us. We can’t fix a problem we can’t name accurately.

We hold to the myth of American Exceptionalism — and the notion that we are fundamentally a good and decent people — by ignoring difficult truths.

We don’t have to define ourselves solely by our violent and racist past and present, but it’s the part we least examine, let alone mourn or repent.

There is momentum to face such truths, to learn, mourn, and repair. The Minnesota Council of Churches, the Minneapolis and St. Paul city councils, and other organizations and governments are embarking on this work in their own ways.

These are not the first such efforts. Who knows if these will stick? But if we are to be about the important work of reparations, we not only need to do some serious truth telling, we need to let go of a lot of the comfortable stories we tell ourselves, such as being a Shining City on a Hill.

During the past four years, people who came to our “Shining City” looking for hope instead had their children ripped from their arms and locked up with no plan to reunite them.

Is that what a good and decent nation does?

We are a nation that encouraged slave traders to bring African hostages to our shores. Here, white people brutally beat them, stole their labor, and sold them like livestock. We are a nation that stole lands from Indigenous peoples by breaking every treaty the U.S. government ever made with them. We took Indigenous children from their families and sent them to boarding schools to be assimilated.

Peter, a whipped Louisiana slave, photographed in April 1863 and later distributed by abolitionists. Photo: Matthew Brady

These incredible traumas live today, damage passing down parent to child, generation to generation.

We are a nation where 750,000 people died in the Civil War — more than any other war in our history — over the question of whether black people could be bought and sold as slaves.

We are a nation that embraces freedom of religion, yet for centuries our nation persecuted Indigenous peoples for practicing theirs. They had to meet in secret. It wasn’t until 1978 that Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

There’s been no consequential public effort to admit to and repair these wrongs.

These issues continue today.

We are a nation that has suppressed the votes of people of color, discriminated against them in education, housing, jobs, and opportunities, then lock them in prison at disproportionately high rates.

Just last year, we were a nation that looked on with institutional indifference to the disparate and fatal impact COVID-19 has on black and Indigenous communities.

Is that what a good and decent nation does?

Repair is long overdue. We are a divided nation and will never get everybody on board. But we can get enough.

Don’t get caught up in the American “rugged individualism” myth and think this is a problem you’re supposed to solve. That’s too much weight.

This is something we do together.

One thought on “Reparations start with letting go of our myths

  1. This is powerful Scott. Thank you so much for your incisive writing reminding us of our past that we I too often want to gloss over and forget.


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