Fairness and the “R” word

Last week I shared my concern that efforts to hold the United States accountable for what our society has done to handicap some population groups could lead to some very negative side-effects. That is, our discussions of collective responsibility could lead to a backlash and a disavowal of democracy altogether. If we shift to a form of government where citizens are only minimally involved – an authoritarian style where we leave responsibility to the person in charge – some might find that liberating.

As an example of such accountability efforts, I mentioned the idea of “reparations,” such as the original plan to give the newly emancipated African Americans 40 acres and a mule, and more recent suggestions by Ta-Nehisi Coates.


One of my readers (RT), made the point that “if people are disadvantaged in the present, we have a collective responsibility to do something about it regardless of what happened in the past.” I agree! Unfortunately, as this timely op-ed by Heather C. McGhee makes clear, the United States isn’t doing well in this regard – programs designed to help the general public have historically begun by advancing the prosperity of whites, but once they get to the point that many of their beneficiaries would be non-white, the powers-that-be tend to consider them optional. (It’s not a zero-sum game – she points out that America would be immensely more prosperous if the gap between white men and everyone else were closed.)

For many of us, our gut reaction to the idea of reparations is negative or skeptical. We don’t think it will work properly, and/or we’re apprehensive about the social problems it might cause. But… I’m white. Whatever I might want or think isn’t as important as listening to the voices of people affected by our chronic unfairness. We can’t just guess what they’ll say, and we can’t expect them all to want the same thing. For some, the acknowledgment of what they’ve gone through may be vitally important; others may be content to focus solely on the long-term outcome.

Asking people what they want or need has a value in itself.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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