One of the central ideas in our work at Living Cities is that systems aren’t broken, rather they are set up to create the results that they produce. And as Donella Meadows wrote in her classic essay Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, “The only way to fix a system that is laid out wrong is to rebuild it, if you can.”
Meadows’ ideas about systems change have kept coming up for me as I’ve read and re-read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations. In his piece, Coates creates a powerful ethnography of how the formation and evolution of the United States’ democratic and capitalist systems are inextricably linked to producing oppression and economic exclusion for African-Americans.
Before turning his focus to the example of how reparations worked following WWII between West Germany and Jewish Holocaust survivors, Coates writes:
What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal…Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.
But the question I keep coming back to is this: how (if at all) do reparations change systems that continue to produce inequitable outcomes for African-Americans in the US? Or said another way, can racial inequality (for African-Americans) be ended through reparations?
I don’t believe so, and here’s why.
In her work, Meadows offers that there are four types of leverage points in systems—infrastructure, information flows, laws, and mindsets—where changes to infrastructure have the least leverage in changing the behavior of a system, and changes to mindsets have the most.
When I heard him speak in person, Coates asserted that the money matters. And given the history he recounts of sharecropping families’ possessions being stolen, and redlining policies that excluded African-Americans from the benefits of one of the greatest wealth generators of the last century (real estate), I’m not arguing with that notion.
But, the approaches that Coates lays out—a government study and monetary payments – aren’t enough to change how regulated industries operate, let alone to transform systems that implicitly and explicitly prevent an entire population of people from achieving equitable outcomes. These systems are products of people. And government and money don’t change people’s mindsets, movements do.
Reckoning happens when the systems change to produce equitable results. Our greatest leverage in changing systems is not government studies or reparations, but the ability to change hearts and minds. (Need an example? How about LGBTQ rights and equality.)
Coates says that he’s heartened that so many people, especially white people, have approached him to say, “I didn’t know,” about the history his article recounts. It’s an indicator of the great chasm between those who experience its legacy, and those who have never had to think about it, or assert that we live in a color-blind or post-racial society. It is also an opportunity to expose people to the history and the current reality, to help them see the inequitable systems, and their own roles within them and in changing them. Because when our hearts and minds change, we shift our behaviors, and the behaviors of our families, communities, and the institutions with which we are affiliated.
So while I’m deeply skeptical that reparations will ever happen, or that they can ever produce equitable outcomes for African-Americans, I’m hopeful that a high-profile article like this one can lead to more articles, and conversations, understanding, and action. That it can help reinvigorate our country’s commitment and urgency to achieving racial equity, a goal, which like the history Coates recounts, seems increasingly to be forgotten.
This blog is part of a series in which Living Cities staff have reflected on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.” Read the first blog in the series on *Reparations and America’s National Identity and look out for upcoming blogs this month.*