Michael Resman: Restitution for Black Americans

Restitution implies that I need to make up for harm I caused. Since I participated and benefited from causing the harm, I should help alleviate it.

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These remarks only apply to you if you’ve eaten or shopped in the United States. If you have, you benefited from the exploitation of others. Almost anything you purchased cost you less money because others were paid very little. That may be in keeping with capitalism, but doesn’t jibe with how I understand God wants us to treat our sisters and brothers.

What can be done? There are discussions and some movement toward reparations due to past enslavement. Frankly, I don’t think that will get very far. Too many people argue that their ancestors didn’t own slaves and even if they did, it isn’t relevant today.

I would instead suggest that we look to a process of restitution to bring economic justice to people of color. Restitution implies that I need to make up for harm I caused. I hurt people during my life in ways that continue today. Since I participated and benefited from causing the harm, I should help alleviate it. The connection is direct and current.

The discrimination that exists against Black Americans is similar to the discrimination experienced by Hispanic American citizens. It is widespread and effects all parts of their lives – and deaths.

Large portions of the US economy depend on even deeper economic exploitation of undocumented workers. These people live in fear of being noticed by authorities. They have no protection or rights. Examples abound of unsafe and toxic work environments, long hours and sexual assault. Away from work, they may be fearful of reporting being victimized by crime or seeking medial care. Immigration reform is desperately needed in addition to economic restitution.


What would economic restitution look like? Examples could include business incubators with expertise, loans and grants. Scholarships could be provided that included housing and living allowances. All aspects of society could be examined for inequities and remediations developed.

Any form of restitution involves providing additional resources. How would this be paid for? Two things need to happen: First, a wide public understanding of how underpaid workers support society. Second and more difficult is persuasion that justice demands that those of us with the economic security of a roof over our head, food on the table and discretionary income pay more in taxes. I wonder how many people who vehemently decry the systemic racism in this country are vehement enough to accept having less, so others could have enough.

During the current COVID-19 crisis, sales of new cars, RVs and boats soared. While half of American households lost income, the other half of us have more than we need. Why should we pay more? The answers to that are individual. In my case, because my faith says so.

There is no mechanism for me to donate additional tax money and have it go to new programs. The State of Minnesota could however take some beginning steps to address inequities in housing, medical care, education, business, criminal justice and jobs. If I am going to live comfortably with my conscience, I must do what I can to see this happen.

Michael Resman is a Rochester Quaker and board member of ISAIAH Minnesota.

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