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?

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Minneapolis announces Truth and Reconciliation Working Group

At the end of last year, the city of Minneapolis announced a new truth and reconciliation work group made up of City staff, community leaders and experts “to study the meaning of reconciliation and research different models of truth and reconciliation commissions.”

This follows a Minneapolis City Council resolution approved last October establishing a truth and reconciliation process. The goal: Begin implementing specific solutions to specific harms that created and perpetuate racial disparities, with a focus on healing with historically Black American descendants of slavery and American Indian/Indigenous communities.

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U.S. reparations efforts: Japanese internment camps during WW II and the Civil Liberties Act of 1988

Part of a series highlighting examples of truth telling and repair

In the fear and panic following the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, allowing military commanders to designate “exclusion zones” to protect the country. It allowed military commanders to designate areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded.”

The order didn’t specifically name or target Japanese immigrants or Japanese Americans, but that’s how it was implemented. The racism becomes apparent when you learn that 112,000 people of Japanese heritage were interned compared to some 10,000-plus people of German or Italian ancestry. Japan, Germany and Italy all were aligned in the Axis Powers and hostile to the United States.

It took decades, but the United States ultimately created opportunities for former internees to tell their stories. The government issued an apology and made meager financial repairs.

This past September, the Minnesota Council of Churches launched a multi-year effort at truth telling, education, and reparations with Indigenous and African American communities. This blog is part of a series to support that work by looking at past reparations efforts.

Official notice of exclusion and removal of San Fransisco residents of Japanese ancestry. Photo: Wikipedia

The U.S. response to the Japanese internment camps is one example — an imperfect one — of how this country has grappled with reparations for our past injustices. It shows we have the capacity to name and acknowledge racism, listen to stories of those who have been harmed, and make financial repairs. It also clearly shows that reparations such as these can never come close to undoing the damage done.

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