Home » Returned Missioners » Making the case for reparations
Reparations rally

A June 2020 reparations rally in St. Paul, Minnesota (Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Wikimedia Commons).

A large swath of Black-owned businesses, housing and cultural institutions was destroyed when construction of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system ripped through the western part of Berkeley and north Oakland in the 1960s. Many African American families were forced to give up their homes, a major source of intergenerational wealth.

Ms. Ritchie Smith, who will soon celebrate her 90th birthday, said, “Many people were dislodged and displaced, it was helter skelter.” Even progressive Berkeley, California, has a racist history.

Roberta and I first met at UC Berkeley in 1958 and married young in 1961. We’ve grown up together in our faith and focus on social justice. In 1964, Roberta was the social justice chair of the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women (ACCW) in San Francisco. Both of us worked on the Open Housing Initiative and went door-to-door with our two young sons getting signatures in support of this legislation. We hosted and organized home gatherings of black and white families together. The ACCW raised funds for a Daycare Center in Hunter’s Point, a large African American neighborhood in San Francisco, and Roberta was involved with the children there.

When we moved to New Orleans for graduate school in 1967, Roberta became involved with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), registering black voters to get out the vote. We raised funds for the Black Panther Party breakfast program for children.

Jim and Roberta McLaughlin

Jim and Roberta McLaughlin

After graduate school, our lives of working in Bangladesh, Connecticut, New Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia and as Maryknoll lay missioners in Cambodia (2003-08) have taken us far afield. But we’ve now come full circle and are back in Berkeley, living in what remains of the city’s historic Lorin District. We’ve joined St. Columba, a Black Catholic parish in Oakland, where we have been warmly welcomed and privileged to become acquainted with African American spirituality.

After an eight-week Just Faith course with participants from three Catholic churches and one Methodist church in Berkeley, our group decided to focus on reparations for descendants of formerly enslaved persons.

We chose to facilitate sessions of the Racial Wealth Gap Learning Simulation (RWGLS), which is a graphic introduction to the justification for reparations.

The RWGLS was developed in 2018 by Bread for the World and Network to give people an understanding of how federal policies have contributed to the wealth gap between black and white families in America.

There are a number of ways of describing the white-black economic gap: One quarter of white families own $1 million dollars or more compared to only four percent of black families. The average white family owns 10 to 13 times the wealth of the average black family. The white-black wealth gap is $890,400 per household.

The current national conversation about reparations was rekindled 11 years ago by an Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations” by author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. He wrote that “more important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”

In recent years, events that have brought wider attention to the case for reparations have included a reparations proposal for African Americans that came from a taskforce of the California legislature as well as a Georgetown University effort to begin to make reparations to descendants of the 272 persons that the Jesuit university had sold in 1838. In 2019 Evanston, Illinois, established the first publicly funded reparation program for Black Americans.

The RWGLS is a table-learning experience. Typically, four to eight people sit around a table and begin by randomly drawing cards designating each person as a white participant or a Black participant. We recommend that participants draw the cards blindly since no one gets to choose their color at birth.

The participants then take turns reading 13 federal policies from the end of the Civil War to the present time. Each of these policies — from Andrew Jackson’s land policy to the GI Bill to restriction of voting rights — has contributed to the disproportionate accumulation of wealth by white families. Money, land and lost opportunity cards are distributed according to the impact of each policy. The accumulation of money and land cards by white participants and lost opportunity cards by Black participants evokes much concern and commentary.

This learning activity can be painful for African American participants who themselves or whose families have experienced the results of the policies. A Black man in our group said that many African Americans have suffered economically, but not all may know the roots of the suffering and blame themselves for their circumstances.

The RWGLS is a powerful tool that leads participants with an open mind and a loving heart to an understanding of the moral justification, indeed, the imperative, for financial reparations to descendants of formerly enslaved persons and a willingness to stand up and speak out in not only supporting but demanding reparations.

Roberta and I have co-facilitated this learning activity in a variety of settings, most recently in our granddaughter’s eighth-grade middle school class, where the students had some knowledge of discrimination against African Americans including the redlining of Black neighborhoods in Berkeley. The middle school and high school level is not too early to introduce students to the federal policies that have created the economic disparity white students have undoubtedly observed and black students have experienced. Many adult participants have asked, “Why didn’t I learn this in school?”

Today there are many efforts toward reparations in motion in the U.S.— some by individual foundations, some by cities, even the Berkeley Unified School District. However, in a recent talk at the Berkeley School of Theology, William A. Darity and A. Kirsten Mullen, the authors of From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, said that only the U.S government has the means to pay the debt owed, which they calculate to be $14 trillion dollars.

No single U.S. state or group of states could cover that debt, it can only be paid by the U.S. government. The U.S. government, Darity says, is culpable and capable of paying the debt. Any other economic efforts to right the wrongs of slavery and discrimination at all levels should be called “atonement” or simply doing what we should have been doing all along, said Mullen.

Does the U.S. government have this kind of money? Each Lockheed Martin F-35B fighter jet costs $109 million dollars, and the U.S. military already owns 900 and another 156 of these war machines are on order today. Redirecting our bloated militarized economy could more than provide the money to cover the estimated cost of the financial reparations.

The Racial Wealth Gap Learning Simulation clearly demonstrates why the debt is owed and the payment is 160 years overdue. We encourage all to organize sessions using this effective tool. All the materials needed to facilitate a RWGLS and links to the original source materials are available on this Bread for the World web page.

Jim and Roberta McLaughlin
Jim and Roberta McLaughlin (both Class of 2003) served for five years as Maryknoll lay missioners in Cambodia. A clinical microbiologist, Jim co-founded the Diagnostic Microbiology Development Program. Roberta was an advisor to the Youth Resources Development Program (YRDP), a Cambodian NGO. Before joining MKLM, Roberta and Jim served as Maryknoll Affiliates in Cochabamba, Bolivia.