By Christine Schmidt, LCSW, CGP
I owe a debt. My debt was incurred when the English settled in Jamestown in 1619 with 20 people stolen from Africa (Higginbotham & Higginbotham, 1978). A promise towards payment of my debt was made after the Civil War when the government authorized a meager redistribution of wealth – forty acres and a mule – to formerly enslaved black farmers (Foner, 1988, p 70). That promise, approved by President Lincoln, was never honored. Instead, the only monetary compensation granted by my government for the institution of slavery was $300 payouts to former white enslavers to compensate for labor lost due to emancipation (Hunter, 2019). Perversely, they called these payouts reparations. I am white and I embrace Reparations for slavery in America as I accept responsibility for the kidnapping, murder, rape, separation of families, exploitation of labor, terrorism, and deprivation of human rights that my racial group has taken from African-descended people for four hundred years.
There’ve been many demands for my white accountability and reparation to African-descended people. I was in high school in 1969 when James Foreman delivered the Black Manifesto on behalf of the National Black Economic Development Conference. The Manifesto demanded that my predominantly white Christian and Jewish faith institutions fund a half-billion dollar plan for reparations. More recently, Duke University economist William Darity calculated the debt as $2.6 trillion (Cohen, 2019). But The National Coalition for Blacks for Reparations in America, N’COBRA, demanded apology and material reparations from my government and my corporations that have benefited from the Trans-Atlantic Slave “trade”. In 1989, on behalf of N’COBRA, Representative John Conyers introduced HR 40, the Congressional Reparations Study Bill, in every legislative session until he retired in 2017. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee continued to sponsor HR 40. My government refused a hearing on this bill until 2019. Author, scholar, activist Ta-Nehisi Coates (2014) makes a case for reparations that begins in twentieth century with portraits of black families struggling to survive under the burdens of racist residential, educational policies. These policies, designed to control black bodies, extend the moral and material debts of slavery.
Throughout my 28 years of work in NYC public schools, including schools for students incarcerated on Rikers Island, I lived side-by-side with the debt owed to descendants of Africans whose bodies were stolen for their labor. Many of my students whose black and brown bodies were confined, searched and humiliated daily, remained incarcerated because they were too poor to make bail. Only twenty percent had been convicted (Wynn, 2002). The horrors of Rikers Island and separation of children from their families is memorialized in the documentary about Kalief Browder, a youth who was incarcerated there for three years for allegedly stealing a backpack [citation]. I tried to advocate for these youth from within the school system (Schmidt, 2010). I tried to use my position of power as a white special education administrator to offer respite to victims of poverty, mis-education, and racial injustice. At the beginning of each day I turned over my IDs to the guards and was voluntarily incarcerated in the schools. At the end of each day, I exhaled when was released to go home to my children. I had to reconcile that my school system served incarcerated youth torn apart from their families. What is the debt owed to these young people whose ancestors suffered the trauma of forced separation by white enslavers? Both the Trans-Atlantic and Domestic Slave “trades” traumatized generations through forcibly separating children from their parents.
My white America intentionally reproduces structures to exploit black and brown bodies from slavery to mass incarceration (Alexander, 2011). Monetary compensation alone won’t repair emotional and spiritual suffering. In addition to repayment for theft, my white debt for emotional and spiritual trauma begins with acknowledgment of intentional harm. It includes apology and doesn’t require forgiveness. According to the UN’s guidelines, reparations for violations of human rights include compensation that is proportional to the gravity of the suffering for a physical or mental harm; lost opportunities, including employment, education and social benefits; material damages including loss of earnings and earning potential; moral damage, and psychological damage that includes costs required for legal, medical and psychological services; and a guarantee of non-repeat.
The guarantee of non-repeat is especially salient for me as a psychotherapist. Disavowal, a foundational psychoanalytic concept, is an unconscious defensive act employed to evade horrific truth (Layton, 2019). The mental obstacle to white America’s guarantee of non-repeat is disavowal of the truth about slavery and its residual racialized terrorism. Disavowal helps my mind contort the truth rather than deny it (the psychoanalytic concept, repression). This contortion fertilizes the myths of my white goodness, while at the same time knowing that white people enslaved, tortured, and raped African-descended people. My disavowal of the truth about racial injustice relegates slavery to the past and attributes it to other people. Disavowal led a white participant in Ryan Parker’s study (2019, p.88) about Slavery in the White Psyche to anxiously remark, “We learned about pilgrims and Indians and Thanksgiving and slavery … and then in middle school we learned that slavery was a bad thing, but it’s a thing of the past. … I mean, why would you even talk about slavery rather than to say it ended?
Repetition compulsion, another foundational psychoanalytic concept, produces mental and somatic eruptions of anxiety from unconscious efforts to disavow traumatic reality (Freud, 2014). As my white mind unconsciously battles awareness of the ongoing truth about slavery, the myths about my white goodness are unconsciously repeated and repeated, saturating my white body with anxiety. The repetitious disavowal is compulsive and relentless, in an effort to protect my mind from the truth (Bhabha, 1983). It’s a kind of suffering I unwittingly bring upon my white self.
Working through the myths of my whiteness is full of resistance. Besides employing psychological defenses to disavow reality, my desire to avoid racial discomfort is omnipresent. My white fragility (DiAngelo, 2018), a psychological defense against racial discomfort is different from my white guilt – a somewhat timeworn term that contains my capacity for empathy. Psychoanalysis explains guilt as a necessary step towards making reparations. According to Klein (1948, p 119), guilt is “the feeling that the harm done to the loved object is caused by the subject’s aggressive impulses….The reparative tendency can, therefore, be considered as a consequence of the sense of guilt.” The capacity to see the humanity of the other person is an acknowledgement of their complete subjectivity. Fallenbaum (2018, p 186) writes, “The impulse to make reparations, therefore, begins with an experience of anxiety and guilt related to a belief of not having lived up to one’s ideals and of having hurt another person.” When I cease disavowing the human damage committed by my white racial group, my guilt brings me a step closer to reparations.
This year on Juneteenth, the day that commemorates emancipation from slavery, HR 40 received its first full hearing by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. While this was a historic achievement, it also reflects the enduring power of white resistance to public discourse about reparations. I have no hope that my current government will make reparations. However, I am encouraged that nearly all of the Democratic presidential candidates have discussed reparations for slavery and an increasing number of educational and cultural institutions are exposing their financial foundations rooted in slavery. This is a new kind of institutional accountability.
As a white psychotherapist, I personally and professionally strive to be accountable for historic and on-going harm to African-descended people. I try to know when to use my white self to speak out and when my white self needs to step back. My unconscious white tendency to be in charge can be oppressive in cross-racial work. I become reluctant to draw attention to myself until I feel clear that I’m not enacting racial dominance. In small but conscious ways, I contribute to reparations. A mentor in the Peoples’ Institute for Survival and Beyond reminds me that white people should share what we’re doing to promote racial justice. He and other colleagues have encouraged me to describe my efforts to increase racial equity within another psychotherapy organization and in my private practice. In the following, I describe racial equity work by committee, development of a scholarship for African-descended candidates, contributions to a clinical training program, and fee re-structuring in my racial literacy groups. It is my hope that these efforts will inspire adaptations in other programs and practices.
- As a member of the Board of Directors in a group psychotherapy organization, I collaboratively developed and have co-led the Work Group for Racial Equity (WG4RE) in 2015. Developing a mission statement engaged the entire membership in dialogue about racial equity in general and our organization in particular. The WG4RE hosts an annual event about racial justice. In January 2019 the WG4RE took 35 group therapists and families to the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery and on a guided Civil Rights Tour. The WG4RE hosts monthly discussion groups (eleven per year) about a film, article, or podcast that addresses racial equity and reparations. The WG4RE sponsors multiple workshops for each the annual conference. In 2019, the WG4RE received Executive Committee endorsement to develop a statement about Reparations that will be brought into discussion with the BOD and membership.
- I am one of four founding donors of the WG4RE scholarship fund for candidates of African-descent in the one-year EGPS group psychotherapy training program. Recipients are granted a $2000 (about 2/3 of the tuition) scholarship that “aims to offer reparation by enhancing access to educational opportunities that have been historically denied.
- In the EGPS training program, I co-taught a course about racial dynamics, coach faculty about racial literacy, and successfully advocated for adding faculty of African-descent.
- In my private practice I co-lead racial literacy groups and I lead whiteness learning groups. Our approach is grounded in modern psychoanalytic group work. Unconscious fears, anxiety, guilt and reactive behaviors connected to our racialized history are examined in group experiences. This year the literacy groups implemented a fee structure that reflects our commitment to address historical racial inequity to access of services (African-descendants pay half the fee of white-identified participants) and half of the fees from my whiteness groups are contributed to grassroots community programs identified by the FOR Truth and Reparations Campaign.
In addition to these discrete acts to learn the unsanitized history of slavery in the United States and contribute to material, and emotional reparations, I seek opportunities to speak about white responsibility for reparations. Like many white-identified Americans who are troubled by the polarization in this country, New York Times commentator David Brooks (2019) has come to accept that only by an honest reckoning with slavery, “the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as a model and fuel for other injustices” can we heal the divide. White America must offer African-descended people in the United States compensation for stolen labor from slavery to mass incarceration, destroyed ancestral lives, stolen homes, denial of opportunities and emotional repair. In their list of demands, Movement for Black Lives states, “Reparations are owed to the descendants of enslaved Africans, in a manner and form to be determined by them. Reparations must take as many forms as necessary to equitably address the many forms of injury caused by the transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery.” Adequate restitution needs to be determined by African-descended people. Not by my white self and not by white America.
Please share your thoughts about white responsibility for Reparations. I welcome a public dialogue as well as private comments. My hope is to inspire actions by individual psychotherapists and professional organizations as we continue to pressure for governmental and corporate reparations.
Alexander, M. (2011). The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press: New York.
Bhabha, H. (1983). The Other Question: the stereotype and colonial discourse. In The Politics of Theory. (Francis Barker, ed. Pp 18-36). Cholchester, England
Brooks, D. (3/7/19). The Case for Reparations: A slow convert to the cause. New York Times.
Coates, T. (2014). The Case for Reparations. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
Cohen, P. (5/23/19). What Reparations for Slavery Might Look Like in 2019. New York Times.
Di Angelo, R. (2018)White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. New York: Beacon Press.
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, Harper and Row, 1988,
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Higginbotham & Higginbotham (1978). In the matter of color: the colonial period. New York: OxfordUniv Press
Hunter, Tera (4/16/19). When Slaveowners Got Reparations. New York Times
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Layton, L. (2019). Transgenerational Hauntings. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 29(2).
Movement for Black Lives, Reparations Now Toolkit https://policy.m4bl.org/downloads/
Parker, R. (2019). Slavery in the White Psyche. Psychoanalytic Social Work 26(1).
Schmidt, C, (2010). “Practicing White Anti-racism in Public Schools” in Accountability and white anti-racist organizing: stories from our work.( Cushing, B., ed. Pp44-61). Crandall, Dostie & Douglass Books.
Wynn, J. (2002). Inside Rikers: stories from the world’s largest penal colony. St. Martin’s Press: New York.