Over the last year, a 35-year-old West Philadelphia resident came to the realization that while he worked hard for his $120,000-a-year corporate salary, he didn’t necessarily earn it.
After all, he figured, white privilege paved the way for his many advantages: a college education, limited debt, and that well-paying job.
“It’s not like I deserve all this money, and someone else doesn’t,” he said. “There’s no reason for it other than skin color and forced oppression that’s not that far in the past.”
So, he decided to start giving it away — to people of color, as reparations.
He claims he now donates about two-thirds of his annual income — tens of thousands of dollars — to a range of initiatives. He participates in Safety Pin Box, a subscription service to support black women (and, some would say, to assuage white guilt). He donates to people who request help in reparations-focused Facebook groups. He’ll give a $20 tip on a $6 Uber ride if the driver is a person of color. Or, if someone he knows runs into financial trouble, he’ll simply give them the cash. The man asked not to be identified in this article because he doesn’t want to claim any credit for repaying what is, in his view, an old debt he had no right to incur.
The concept of paying reparations for America’s troubled heritage of slavery, redlining, and Jim Crow is not new, but, as a governmental solution appears as far off as ever, this more scattershot approach has taken root.
The idea of making or requesting donations as a way of chipping away at inequities began to gain serious traction around the 2016 presidential election. Georgetown sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson, whose book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America came out last year, proposed that white Americans set aside a different type of IRA: individual reparations accounts. Since then, a small but growing number of people in Philadelphia and elsewhere have been taking part — offering services, goods or cash to total strangers who are in need.
To Bria Davis, 23, of Olney, such gestures come as both stopgap and salve. Several months back, a friend told her about a group called Reparations: Requests and Offerings, and she decided to join.
“With everything that’s going on right now in the United States and all the racial tension, the fact that there are people who understand that there’s an issue and want to be allies — that really spoke to me,” said Davis, who is a part-time student and works as a temp in the Philadelphia School District.
Last year, when she couldn’t find her birth certificate, members of the group helped her cover the $30 fee to replace it. More recently, she made a New Year’s resolution to get in shape, so she asked the group for protein powder. A member who worked for a protein supplement company shipped two 16-ounce jars directly to her home. Davis has also posted offerings of her own: used textbooks (so far, no takers), and a Groupon for a fitness class.
She sees it as one small way to address a glaring disparity: The average white family has 10 times more wealth than the average black family, according to the Federal Reserve.
“That intergenerational wealth, within the Caucasian community and the African American community, it’s a giant gap,” Davis said. “When people in the African American community require loans or whatever they may need, if they went to a bank, usually the person on the other side is Caucasian or of any other ethnicity. Sometimes, it’s like just because you’re African American, you can and will be denied certain things, even though it’s 2018 and not 1950.”
Lawrie Balfour, a University of Virginia political theorist working on a manuscript about reparations for slavery and Jim Crow, said reparations can take many forms, from reexamining Confederate statues to putting in place strong affordable-housing policies. And, it could happen at the national level or within a corporation, institution or community — such as the $5.5 million Chicago paid to 57 people in 2016 for torture by police decades ago.
“I don’t think any single form of reparations is a panacea for injustice,” Balfour said. “There’s no reason you can’t have multiple reparations efforts happening at the same time, but the political impact is going to depend on the degree to which there is a wide public acknowledgement of the harms of the past and the injustices of the present, and how the two are connected.”
In the past, white Americans have largely opposed the idea of reparations, but a 2016 poll suggested attitudes are changing: Older Americans were still largely opposed, but about half of millennials supported the idea or were not sure how they felt.
Still, when Natasha Martin, a Seattle-based artist, created a reparations Facebook group in June 2016 as a sort of social experiment, she didn’t have to spread the word. Trolls did that for her. Or, as Martin put it: “The project went viral because America is an anti-black racist nation and the word reparations is like a trigger word for white supremacist, gun-toting, hate-filled people.”
Since then, though, the group has evolved into a no-trolls-allowed community where members make all sorts of offerings and requests. Recently, from Philadelphia, a woman offered a $25 Trader Joe’s gift card and a Bryn Mawr student offered free babysitting services. There were even more local people making requests, mostly for cash — for driving lessons, college textbooks, a space heater, or just to cover basic necessities for another day.
“The theory of reparations can be quite polarizing and divisive, but that has very little to do with what’s happening in this group,” Martin said. “It’s more about addressing an immediate need. We get overwhelmed: Income inequality in general is too large a problem. But you can help another person with something like a gift card you’re not going to use; it feels actionable.”
Yet, what she sees in the group — and the numerous copycats that have followed it — is not some heightened interracial understanding. “Mostly, it’s single black moms supporting each other.” She thinks the white participants don’t, overall, spend enough time listening before they make offers: “Nobody needs a damn flower bookmark. What they need is to make rent this month.”
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Still, some group members said they found the response encouraging.
“It was welcoming,” said one woman, who is 31, lives in Logan, and declined to be identified because she worried about the stigma of requesting assistance. “I wasn’t alone. There are still some genuine, good people out there.”
She earns $10.30 an hour as a security guard and lives in a modest one-bedroom apartment she shares with her daughter. But her paychecks never seem to stretch far enough. So far, she’s made five requests: for help with rent, an electric bill, child-care costs, transportation. All were fulfilled within days by donations from white members of the group.
Not all requests are fulfilled, though. There are more requests than there are donors, and some users spend hours online trying to “bump” their posts and others’ with comments so that Facebook’s algorithm will prioritize them.
Spreading the word, though, is a challenge. A few months back, the West Philly man posted to a Philadelphia Facebook group to call for action — by calling white people’s accumulation of wealth “stealing.” The post drew some support, but also plenty of digital grumbling. Bringing it up, he said, “mostly irritates people.”
Sarah Thompson-Peer, 36, a University of Pennsylvania alumna now living in San Francisco, said she’s been trying to start such conversations on social media but they haven’t always taken off.
“It’s definitely a hot topic in social justice circles,” she said. “The question is how to get that to a wider audience.”
We have to be honest! #Repost @rosariodawson “From the March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom to the Poor Peoples Campaign for economic justice, Martin Luther King Jr. was uniting black, white and brown, young and old, across gender and oceans, criticizing foreign policy and highlighting the intersectionality of humanity's struggles the world round. The sanitized version of the movement we are often taught misrepresents the scope and breadth of the changes possible if we worked together on all of the seemingly disparate issues that institutionalized discrimination has perpetuated for generations. We are not the minority. #AllOfUs #UpToUs #reparations #TIMESUP”
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She’s trying to emphasize that there are many ways to step up. She’s been contributing to reparations-related efforts since she came across a Facebook post created for people to donate directly to black women affected by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, rather than routing funds through the Red Cross. She also offers volunteer services, such as legal work for people facing eviction. “It’s using things I’ve had access to, like a degree, as a result of my privilege to benefit people who don’t have that access.”
The idea is, however, spreading rapidly among those who need assistance, said Martin, who runs the Facebook group.
“I ask myself on a daily basis: How long am I going to do this?” she said. “I don’t see myself doing it forever, but I don’t see the need going away at all. There’s no shortage of people of color in America who need help covering their basic needs.”
Balfour doesn’t dismiss such initiatives, but says they’re not a substitute for a crucial, and much larger, conversation.
“Individual efforts are important, but that’s a separate set of considerations from what we as a nation need to do to make sure every citizen lives a livable life,” Balfour said. “It’s not fair to expect individual citizens to compensate for our collective failures that implicate all of us.”