Are Reparations A Moral Imperative? Are Perpetrators Of Crimes Traumatized? Why Is Amherst A White Enclave?
We interviewed Reparations for Amherst (R4A) activists Michele Miller and Matthew Andrews via Zoom on May 12 to get a better understanding of the need for reparations, not only for Black residents but for White ones.
First, I’d like to know, who are you? You’re White! How is it going for you, trying to help move the issue of reparations here?
Michele: Would you go first, Matthew?
Matthew: Well, first, who am I, I’m a lot of different things simultaneously. My wife and I own the Yoga Center, which was on Kellogg Avenue, but we moved out of that space in December, so I’m an entrepreneur and a yoga teacher. I’m a writer, I run a non-profit and take people on trips to India [Note: https://www.yogacenteramherst.com/india/] , and I’m a musician and songwriter…
Did you grow up around here?
Matthew: No, in Baltimore, on the north end of the city. I went to fairly integrated schools all through elementary school and so I grew up around Black people. I spent a lot of time with my best friend and his family in a predominantly Black neighborhood. And then … I went to an all-boys Jesuit high school, so there was a juxtaposition, being as it was steeped in White supremacy.
Living here in Amherst isn’t like either of those at all. It’s a white enclave, and it’s very easy not to encounter people of color at all. Or not have close relationships, not visit in each other’s houses, not really have any idea of the life experience and daily struggles of a person of color here.
You came here as an adult?
Matthew: I came here in 1997 to go to college. Actually, Michele and I were at UMass at the same time, but we didn’t know each other.
Michele, you were at UMass too?
Michele: I started in 1998 and met Corinne, Matthew’s wife, when my daughter was born, more than 10 years ago.
I grew up outside of Philadelphia in a very White suburb — I come from a different experience than Matthew — in a Republican conservative family. In terms of who I am and what it’s like to be doing this work as a White person, those two questions actually intersect for me in that my work, the personal work I have to do in the face of my still very conservative White family, as I’m navigating this, is very challenging, intimidating, and painful. I learned about Black people on The Cosby Show and The Jeffersons, essentially. So I didn’t really have any experience until this process, and one of the greatest gifts to me is to get to know the wonderful Black members of our community and to partner in this reparative process with Black members of the community.
I appreciate that honesty! You were quoted in the Indy saying that as the dominant group in the U.S., White people must take full ownership of the racism that exists here. Not just “help” combat racism. You said it’s our responsibility to do so. That sounds kind of ethical, bordering, dare I say, on spiritual. Can one of you explain why combatting racism isn’t just something we White people “should” do. Why is it something we “must” do?
Michele: One of the realizations I’ve had that settled deep inside is that anti-Black racism is our problem as White people. It isn’t something that we are there to help with. It was created and perpetuated by White people.
[There’s a] narrative about White people coming in “as allies and helping Black people with the racism problem.” But it’s actually our problem to fix. Until we can fully grok that and fully understand the ways we continue to perpetuate that problem — our problem — it will continue to have an affect on us.
Matthew: We tend to think of reparations, like Michele said, as something we might do for somebody else, something we might do “to help Black people, and their plight.” But aside from the fact that the division between White people and Black people is completely arbitrary, when we talk about reparations we’re actually talking about supporting everybody, creating a better society for everybody. We’re not going to get to a better society for everybody without reparations.
I think James Baldwin is one of the great prophets of the 20th century (and he lived in Amherst and spent time teaching at UMass), and his compassion for White people was just staggering. He had an understanding that we were killing our souls. That White people were doing such damage to our own psyches, and our own souls, and our own hearts by perpetuating White supremacy. It’s not helping us, we’re not benefitting from it. We have more access to resources and more access to power — and I think you can just look at the opioid epidemic and any other indicator of mass depression on a societal scale to see that there are deep wounds in the White psyche that result from perpetrating and continuing to perpetuate oppression. Resmaa Menakem [My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies] paints a really powerful picture of the intergenerational trauma that White people carry … he talks about somatic abolitionism and about intergenerational trauma being in the body. It isn’t something we can think our way out of. We have to get into our bodies and feel that trauma, experience it and heal it.
A perpetrator of a violent crime is traumatized. The White people who perpetrated and witnessed lynchings were traumatized. And the White people who participated and supported the slave trade were traumatized by the violence and their enactment of violence. And that’s passed down through the generations. We inherit that and we inherit a system where we know (we can hide from it, we can obfuscate, but at the end of the day in our hearts we know) that we have what we have, on the backs of other people, that other people have been pushed down to create the kind of lives that we have. And so there’s a lack of peace, there’s an inability to achieve fulfilment and self-love, self-acceptance, that needs to be healed for a deep feeling of peace.
It’s like a child who hurts someone, punches someone in the face, knocks their tooth out, and that child is hurting and needs to reconcile, needs to apologize so that they can move through the process and get to the other side. It’s not just the victim who needs the apology, the healing; it’s the perpetrator as well.
I kind of see the collective White population of America like that child. You will be able to achieve an experience of so much more freedom and peace as a result of going through a process of healing and reconciliation, atonement, acknowledgement, and then actual material reparations. What is it going to take to create racial equity when it comes to housing? When it comes to income? When it comes to employment? And when it comes to education? And really saying, “OK, we’re going to do whatever it’s going to take. We’re not going to make excuses and say, ‘Don’t take anything from me.'”
But isn’t that a place where most people stop, when they’re afraid they themselves might suffer, have to give some things up?
Everybody has their unique relationship to that, and there’s no usefulness to judging. I don’t have an ostentatious lifestyle but I’m afraid of that, too, when the rubber hits the road what that looks like. But the possibilities that lie on the the other side, and there is an abundance of relational connections in a society where we can speak truth to each other and we don’t have to be walking on eggshells, a collective community where everybody is bringing their strength in and sharing them…. Peace and self-acceptance are much more valuable than whatever an individual person might lose along the way.
It takes courage to believe that repairing these relationships is the right thing and that it’s our responsibility to do so.
Michele: Yes, it takes the willingness to give something else, it’s like alchemy. We’ve been witnessing a lot of activism in our community and we’re involved in various groups working towards similar goals, and we’re seeing a spectrum that goes from dialogue that is not necessarily effective all the way to chaotic dialogue that’s perpetuating more harm. One of the things we’ve wanted to express is that reparations is not an afterthought, it’s not the icing on the cake, it’s the primary thing we need to do so that we have trusting relationships and can have these conversations about equity.
There are some pretty serious debates happening in our community right now, and even in debates that don’t have a racial matter tied to them, you can feel the distrust in the air, it’s in everything we’re doing. We need to do this reparative process and then we can get to other things that are needed. What our community is really grappling with is acknowledging that the origin of this distrust comes from a White supremacist society that was built by White people.
We have very well-meaning people here, yet the White supremacy [foundation] is still here, very much alive, and I think what we’re hoping to do is help our community see the insidious ways that it is working, and the grappling, the reckoning that people faced with — “That’s not me, I’m not racist.” They aren’t seeing that it isn’t necessarily about being an overt racist, it’s subtle and seeps into everything. And it has a history, as we’ve tried to demonstrate through our research. I think being able to help White people see, “Oh, that’s White supremacy, when I come into a meeting and feel like I need to talk the entire time, and I don’t give a moment for another person to speak because I’m White and I have that power and privilege to do that.” There are so many ways it’s operating and it’s so unconscious. It’s deep inside.
There’s also a call-out culture happening, and instead of being honest and saying, “Hey, I come from a Republican family and a conservative family, and I was conditioned with racist beliefs, and the only Black peple I’ve known have been on TV shows,” we want to hold onto the identity that we’re better than that, we’re upstanding White non-racist people here in Amherst. That lack of vulnerability, that unwillingness to talk openly about our experiences prevents us from being able to heal those things.
You’ve been building an archive of Black people’s experiences here…
Matthew: The research we’ve done has intentionally involved trying to collect, as much as possible, information that hasn’t been asking Black people to be retraumatized. We’ve been looking at what’s already out there, things in the public domain, newspaper articles, books, information requests to the Town. We are in the process of working out requesting funding from the Town Manager that would allow us to compensate Black people for their participation in this work.
What’s going to be in the report you’ll present this Monday night to the Town Council?
Michele: We only have 10 minutes before the Council. So we’ll put the 40-page report into their packet so they can read it in advance, and we’ll use our 10 minutes to make the case for why the Town Council needs to move on the commitment they made in their December 7 resolution to engage in a path of remedy. We’re doing that alongside two members of the Black Stakeholders Group, Amilcar Shabazz and Barbara Love, who will read a statement from the full Black Stakeholders Group, and we’ll be talking specifically about prioritizing funding, asking the Town to put cannabis tax money towards racial equity and racial justice, and explaining why that makes sense, why they’re connected. And we’re going to really try to help the Council see that this process is necessary for all the other things that need to happen for us to truly be an anti-racist community. [Some of the groundwork was laid at the symposium in April.] We had a great turnout at the symposium, with the Town Manager and many of the Town Councilors there.
Matthew: It’s clear that the Town is committed to racial equity, at least intellectually, and they’ve made that evident in many ways. There is a desire to do something for racial equity. Our argument is that nothing you do is going to be as effective as it would be if we take care to move through a process [of exploring reparations], that everything is going to be compromised by the lack of a reparative process.
This is not just this town, it is the whole country. There are so many efforts by so many well-meaning White people to do something about racial equity — without actually facing or understanding the reality, and a lot of things are blowing up in people’s faces right now. That’s part of the process, but it could be avoided or lessened by squarely facing this thing right now, together, and making a real deterination to repair.
But you aren’t just talking about attidues and awareness, you’re talking about something more concrete….
Yes! Ultimately, we’re talking about money. Material, emotional, and intellectual reparations. Intellectual reparation is doing the research and acknowledging what has happened. Emotional reparation is atonement and apology.
So many apologies or acknowledgments are fake or unsatisfactory, like, “I’m sorry if you were offended by what I said.”
My son is doing a research project for school and got a book called Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me. Mistakes were made, but repair and peace require sincerity. It can’t happen without sincerity, it can’t be faked.And the degree of success or utility will be completely determined by the sincerity.
Michele: In our particular municipality, the material [aspect] is going to be very challenging and important. We can do a lot of things outside of the material pretty easily — many people here want to do the emotional and intellectual pieces. But asking the Town Council to put their money where their mouths are is the challenging part. I do think we’ve made some progress, but what hasn’t happened yet is that the Town hasn’t prioritized racial equity and justice. From a budget standpoint, it just hasn’t.
And this last decision, with the Community Safety Working Group not getting the funding they were looking for … isn’t because Mr. Bockelman didn’t want to give it to them. It’s because the Town Council, as the policy makers, have not committed to prioritizing racial equity. The way they can prioritize it is through the budget.
The Town Council meeting on Monday is an opportunity to finally have a discussion. We’ve been pushing this since July, and this is the first time that the Council will actually have a conversation about reparations and whether they want to make it a priority.
Our hope is that they will take actions as steps to move us forward as a community. They might feel that what they need to do, as a step forward, is establish a town committee, and we’ll be very happy with that oucome. It would be sort of an Amherst version of HR 40, a committee to study and make recommendations or proposals.
The other part is getting the Town Council to think critically about how we’re prioritizing our various issues here and getting the Councilors to see that until you actually shift a significant, meaningful amount of money into this, we’ll just be playing catch-up, chasing something constantly. We have to make it a priority. Put the money there. Then we can take a breath and work together to figure out what is needed and how we can work through this together.
Would that be a symbolic act to show that it’s a priority?
Matthew: No, because allocating money isn’t a symbolic act, it’s a material act.
Could it be considered a health issue, a public health crisis here? Everyone cares about public health.
Matthew: Yes, it iterally is a public health crisis. Last year, when COVID kicked in and it was clear that we were in a public health crisis, resources were mobilized quickly, whatever we needed to bail out local businesses, to make sure that we as a town could handle the crisis. We need to mobilize resources with the same sense of urgency.
I still have the thought, excuse me, that Amherst is a fairly “welcoming” place and is mostly White because people of color don’t want to move here, they just prefer other places. How do you counter that kind of thinking?
Michele: Yes, there are so many levels to feeling “welcome.” Sure, Black people are “welcome” here, but are they really welcomed, or are they getting a message that they aren’t welcome? One small example is that Black people don’t have the same access to intergenerational wealth, here and elsewhere, so why is it so difficult for us to require developers to include 20 percent affordable housing units in the large new developments they’re building? We’re sending a message — you aren’t welcome here, even if we say you are.
Are you hoping that residents will communicate to the Town Council about making reparations a priority?
We are asking people to write letters to the Council or to come to the [Zoom] meeting on Monday and speak at public comment, requesting that the Town Council take action on the resolution they passed on December 7 to engage in a path of remedy. We’re asking the community to say, “It’s time to move beyond the symbolism, it’s time to move on the resolution, to take action and work with the community to discover and explore what repairs need to happen!”
Last question, you have a book group. Is it ongoing?
Yes, and a new series is starting soon, so people who want to sign up should contact us.
Thank you so much!
Thank you! This was a great talk.
To be part of the R4A mailing list or to join their next book group series, send an email to reparationsforamherst@aaronbrmn88gmail-com
A Few Questions For… is an occasional feature of the Indy, aimed at helping our readers get to know the people who make things happen in our town and our Valley. We feature members of town government and key town employees, along with civic leaders, activists, local educators, prominent volunteers, and residents who are not necessarily well-known. If there is someone you would like us to interview, please send your suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org