I would be sorely remiss in not first and foremost saying what a tremendous sense of gratitude I feel in being here with all of you today. It is a rare gift for a writer to be working at a time of what feels like transformative possibility within the nation. Perhaps rarer still is when that possibility belongs to the group to whom that writer, as a white American, has come to recognize he owes the sum of his experience as a citizen. And while part of what I intend to talk about today is how I gained a sense of that indebtedness to ADOS, I’ve also been asked to weigh in on the prevalence of its inverse; that is, why aren’t more white people—who profess a commitment to economic justice—standing with ADOS in their bid for recognition as a uniquely disadvantaged group, and its attendant justice claim for reparations.
The answer to the first question is simple. I merely had to listen. To listen with what Reverend Dr. Kevin Cosby often refers to as ‘courageous ears.’ When William Faulkner was once asked to describe his writing process, he responded, “It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” From the very beginning I have gone off in similar pursuit of the #ADOS movement, convinced that it has just as much (if not arguably more) to tell white America about itself than it does actual ADOS. As for why more white people have yet to heed that message, I am decidedly less sure. As literally no one seated in this sanctuary today needs reminding, the white American psyche is a puzzling thing. And I’m really not so sure that my lifelong membership to the group puts me at any kind of advantage in probing it for certain truths on why it bends in the especially mystifying way it does when the question becomes how we substantively address the group-specific damages stemming from—and very much subsequent to—chattel slavery.
Indeed, if anything, insofar as my writing about ADOS over the past few years has afforded me a little distance from the white psyche, I have come to appreciate just how limited it is in its ability to think about whiteness in a way that can begin radically undoing all of the inequalities it has been made to contain. And what I wish to suggest today is that the only way of overcoming that dilemma is for a white person to bracket whatever skepticism he or she might have about being told something truly and profoundly unsettling about themselves, about all that their experience as a white person in America entails. And to understand that the only way to really see whiteness for what it actually is is to sincerely listen to the one group who has only ever existed outside of it. The group who, precisely because they’ve been shut out so completely, because they’ve been made to be set apart and to observe whiteness from a vantage point well beyond it, thus knows it in its brutal and ill-gotten totality.
That vantage belongs to ADOS and only them. And it reveals a view of all that access to whiteness makes possible in the United States. Of all that’s derived from their group’s deprivation and ruin. The chief proceed of which has always been wealth; that cornerstone of stability, that basic building block of mobility that we continue to go to flagrant lengths in order to ensure they, as a group, never realize.
And I invite you, white people, to imagine your own capacity for restraint in such a scenario where this fullness of possibility has always rested on your being denied it, and to then measure that against what ADOS has been made to endure for centuries. I invite you to consider life from this place of thoroughgoing exclusion, and from there speculate honestly on your ability to be patient for progress. To tolerate over and over again the tiring rehearsal of your liberation. Of entering into coalitions only to find that, in the end, while your efforts have helped other marginalized groups secure a foothold in whiteness, your group itself remains conspicuously unmoved from the wretched terrain of its exclusion. Your group alone remains bound to that bottomland where all the failure and disadvantage goes that America has always needed to be diverted somewhere away from whiteness in order to make and preserve its meaning, its advantage, its normalcy.
Imagine for a moment that your group abides where all that failure and disadvantage pools and collects. And then imagine also having to live with the knowledge of this awful truth: that while your ancestors gave their lives in defiance of being consigned to occupy that place—in defense of the belief that their exclusion would not be your inheritance—their martyrdom seems nonetheless to have amounted to an implausible and tragically outrageous thing: merely the moral capital for everyone else’s campaigns of inclusion, ones in which your own persisting and obvious lack of incorporation into U.S. society seems to register, at most, an incidental concern. And while this cause or that cause might pay lip service to the severity of your group’s plight, they in practice empty it of its core, essential component: the imperative of advocating for targeted economic repair. As such, they proceed without ever really challenging what it’s starting to seem to you (and it seems maybe only you) inclusion in America is actually based on: complicity in maintaining the state of your group’s disrepair; a history of accumulated disadvantages that other groups can leverage to merge into American normalcy ahead of you, to then begin further contesting their place in the supremacy over you.
I invite you, white people, to envision yourself natural objecting to the ongoingness of this arrangement, only to then be given a stern lecture about how it’s all the same struggle. A sharp talking-to filled with that palpable disdain that your desire to put forward an agenda of self-interest always elicits in your apparent allies—allies whose quote unquote solidarity is so conditional and subject to such rigid terms that deny your individuality and your experience, that it less resembles cooperative movement politics than it does an abusive relationship.
At what point do you not really start to wonder about that? And how do you not begin hearing in it every confirmation that nothing will change? That the arrangement is the arrangement, and it will be made to continue.
I ask only that you seriously contemplate how long you feel you could possibly stomach this. How long do you personally feel you could subdue what would be your absolute burning awareness of those injustices? Of everything that’s been stolen from you, and then openly displayed elsewhere—to be at everyone else’s disposal, but never your own.
Of course, you can’t ever really do this. I can’t, anyway. And it’s not that I haven’t spent a great deal of time trying to be extremely conscious of the terrible realities of ADOS life. Or that I’ve not tried to be very, very disciplined in understanding my life in relation to theirs. But I would submit that it is truly impossible for you or I as non-ADOS to ever really even come close to appreciating what the oppressiveness of that existence actually feels like. Of belonging to a group who day after week after month after year must navigate a constant series of barriers meant to affirm their membership in a caste. For all practical purposes, you and I—as non-ADOS—exist in an entirely alternate dimension of American life than the one they inhabit.
Which is not to say that we shouldn’t persist in trying. Or that one will find little utility, or occasion for personal betterment, in the exercise of trying to imaginatively identify. The point is that such flings at empathy—however noble—are ultimately immaterial to the discussion of ADOS. Because it seems to me that it’s much less about understanding our life in relation to theirs, and more about understanding our life as entirely shaped by theirs. It’s about understanding the group to which we belong—with all its social, economic and political cachet—as being an end-product on the assembly line of ADOS disadvantage and their deliberate underdevelopment. And insofar as we profess to prize fairness, justice, and healing commensurate with the hurt inflicted on the ADOS community, then I would argue that everything—absolutely everything—depends on being able to make that leap from understanding our life in relation to, to understanding our life as shaped by. Because it is at that point, and only that point, that we actually begin to properly identify the true nature of whiteness in America. It is, at its root, a debt.
And in this framework, the phrase ‘check your privilege’ actually starts to mean something in how we as white people participate in bringing about meaningful justice for ADOS. Because that privilege of whiteness in fact corresponds to a definite and mounting sum of money—a sum payable to ADOS. It is a measurable asset, established with chattel slavery and which, ever since, the U.S. government has held in a kind of living trust, apportioning and distributing it to whomever it deems eligible beneficiaries. And in doing everything it can to ensure that selection process operate on a principle of ADOS exclusion, that government has underwritten the consolidation of social, economic and political capital within whiteness. It has facilitated the generational transferences of those sources of advantage and mobility, and so further consolidated them within whiteness. The result for ADOS has been a gutting of possibility that is so total, and so uniformly wrought throughout the group, that they will perpetually occupy the bottom of society in the absence of a reparations package whose dollar amount figures in the trillions. That is not alarmist hysteria, that is simply math. And all this so that the whiteness we enjoy might prosper.
What to the rightful claimants of that debt is our empathy? Our tortured senses of ourselves? What value to them is our hand-wringing reluctance in being a principal beneficiary in an economic system whose bounty is built off the theft from their group? And while we can and should talk about a world beyond a system that incentivizes and rewards the exploitation of any group, the idea that we as a country can help usher in a new paradigm of egalitarianism without first repairing ADOS is one that is utterly at odds with that vision’s fulfillment. For all the lofty pronouncements about the ‘impossibility’ of reparations, what’s truly lofty is the notion that there isn’t a basic, inevitable component to our progress as a nation that will require a very stark and wincingly honest reckoning with how we put to right our ill-gained inheritance as white people.
We cannot, in declining to act for economic justice specifically for ADOS, simply shunt the curse of that log dereliction onto our children. The work of repair must begin now, must being to be laid by us, and must be conceived as a multi-generational project of justice guided and governed not by a sense of empathy alone, but—more importantly—the knowledge that it is a debt, a debt which, until the balance is fully discharged, will find each new generation every bit as answerable for the abuses suffered by the ADOS community as the slaveholders themselves.
Opponents of reparations say that we can’t live in the past. Well, that declaration mistakes the nature of our past absolutely. Because to exist in a pre-reparations America is to naturally invite the past to dwell in us. It doesn’t matter whether you feel personally responsible. It doesn’t matter whether your ancestors came here ‘after’ slavery. What is ‘after’ slavery? There is no ‘after’ slavery. With an event of such massive economic consequence and unique legacy in America there is only before and after reparations.
White allies of ADOS, present and would-be, we are called today to help cross that divide. We are called to repair.