A Choice Between Retributive and Restorative Justice

How many times will we tolerate hearing “we need to have a conversation about race?” How many times will we enthusiastically assert the possibility that, finally, we have reached the point at which a solution to systemic racism may be at hand? How many times will we ensure that the advantaged position of white people is preserved while claiming to be solidly on the side of oppressed minorities?

The answers are just as stale as the questions. The emotionally-charged questions and their carefully compassionate but thoroughly hypocritical responses are utterly predictable and hopelessly pointless. The only logical first step is for white folks to admit guilt, whether through individual responsibility for oppression or through willing acceptance of the spoils of what amounts to crimes against humanity. But because white people fear the potential downside of a bald admission of our own moral corruption, the majority of us will insist, though not necessarily explicitly, on some assurances that the outcome of a guilty plea will be no worse than unsupervised probation. Yes, we want a favorable plea bargain. Never mind that thousands upon thousands of people of color have died at the hands of a brutally racist system in which the perpetrators of murder and oppression escape even a reprimand, much less actual punishment.

Conversations about “race” too often focus exclusively on the plight of descendants of Africans brought against their will to this land. With rare public exception, we seem to have forgotten the genocidal purge that began the moment Europeans landed on the shores of North America. The original inhabitants of the land we now call our own have few remaining ancestors, thanks to our ancestors’ treatment of other human beings as unworthy of life. Our “ancestors” in the form of our government and its policies (and our own behaviors) continue treating native people that way even today.

No, we did not kidnap Africans and enslave them. No, we did not murder native inhabitants of this land and corral them into ghettos. No, we did not write the laws and regulations that effectively subjugate huge swaths of our population to the will of its white majority. But we continue to allow ourselves to deny the guilt that resides in our cultural DNA. And we continue to profit from the misdeeds and moral failings of our ancestors and their descendants.

I read an extremely well-written essay about race a few days ago. The writer suggested we need the equivalent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He said, “The United States needs a national reckoning of its sins.” We do. I do not think a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the right approach; the economic and racial disparities evident in South Africa today offer evidence that such a model has massive systemic flaws. But we need to do something BIG. Something to shock our systems. Something to eradicate the focus on the individual and on economic and political subjugation, replacing them with collectivism and genuine equality.

We need to acknowledge how we came to be rich and powerful. And we need to find a way to transfer that wealth and that power to people who have been enslaved by a system purpose-built to minimize benefits that otherwise would accrue to them. Even if that means reducing the wealth and power of the white majority. Even if that means accepting a lower standard of self-direction and opportunity.

I am afraid we do not have the political will nor the moral backbone to accomplish what needs to be done. I am afraid the solutions will flow like gasoline from a hose onto a burning inferno. A post I wrote a year ago, in which I mentioned an Ethiopian proverb, suddenly got a lot of traffic beginning a few days ago. I think I may know why, given the flames engulfing many of our cities today. The proverb says, “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” Indeed. Oppressed minorities subjected to systemic abuse represent today’s child. This society built on systemic racism and control represents the village.

We may still have a choice, if we decide now, between retributive and restorative justice. I think it is up to us to decide whether we want the village to burn or to expand into an inclusive city.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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