Racism, Reparations and My Shameful Naivety

Pritpal S Tamber

January 22, 2017

Sometimes you read something that makes you realise just how little you understand aspects of modern life

Yesterday I read an article about racism in America. I have to admit that I was shocked by how institutionalised it was – and seemingly is – which made me feel naive. I tweeted a lot of lines from it and embedding many of the tweets throughout this post. 

I’m drawn to the US. I know people who just love everything about it but it’s different for me. I’m drawn to it because it’s open to new ideas. In England, the culture seems to be that ideas come from specific people – usually people considered smart who are ‘allowed’ to have ideas. It also helps to have a southern accent; being from the midlands or the north counts against you. Being ethnic is even worse. All in all, there seems to be a very locked down understanding of where ideas come from. 

Not so, in the US. Anyone can have an idea. Anyone can sell their idea. And (the race issue withstanding) anyone can get funded to have a go at their idea. This openness is why the country has given birth to fora for ideas, such as TED. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that the leaning towards ideas means that the culture tends to fall for well-packaged nonsense. There is undoubtedly a lot of that, and much of it hides in plain sight by virtue of its funding. People find it hard to say the emperor is naked when someone has put a few million dollars into his tailoring. But, as a cynical Brit, I think I see through a lot of that (and makes me impolite company at the best of times). 

The article made me sad. Racism is, of course, a horrid, horrid thing but institutionalised racism is a whole other level. When your country actively works against you, where do you call home? What must it feel like to live in a world where the odds are openly and unashamedly stacked against you? 

Some of the intentionally racist policies were in place as late as 1965. That’s only nine years before I was born! When I think about racism in America – even though it’s clearly going on all the time, given the shooting of unarmed black men by police – I still tend to think of it as an ‘old’ problem. Something that got sorted years ago when Martin Luther King went on that march. While reading the article, I was shocked by my own naivety.

I was moved to read the article off the back of an excellent post in Stanford Social Innovation Review on how US philanthropy needs to stop thinking in terms of ‘charity’ and embrace a framing of ‘justice’. It goes on to suggest seven questions philanthropy needs to ask itself when it makes funding decisions. It’s an excellent piece and I really like what the authors are seeking to do through their start-up, TandemED, which is to return education to being something driven by a community not be an education system that is lost in its own web of significance, failing to connect with the people it says it serves. 

(Which is the same issue that health care has, but I digress.)

The article is titled, The Case for Reparations. I have unclear feelings about reparations. Populist politicians in India are asking for the same thing from the UK, given what the country experienced as part of the British Empire. As a British Asian, the ask leaves me with mixed feelings, as mixed as my identity, I guess. However, the way the author frames it is compelling: 

Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie.

Framed that way, I can see the value more clearly. 

My real reflection, however, is just how naive I am. I’ve endured a steady dose of racism most of my adult life so it’s not that I did not think that it existed. It’s the extent to which it existed (exists?) that surprised me. The article ends by talking about some clearly racist banking policies by Wells Fargo that were only halted in 2011. That’s insane.  

I feel ashamed for understanding it all so poorly. 

Pritpal S Tamber

I’m a doctor who trained as a medical editor and publisher and now researches and consults on the link between community power and health equity. My interest in community power started when I was the Physician Editor of TEDMED and is explained in My Perspective. I also work as a freelance medical editor and publisher for organisations that want to write high-quality articles and a strategy for their publishing and promotion. Find out more on my About page.

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