A modest proposal for reparative action

A modest proposal for reparative action: That predominantly white congregations across the US would unexempt themselves from property taxes, setting aside what they would owe annually, dispersing the funds to Black and Indigenous led organizations.

Why reparative action?  In her book Dear White Christians, Jennifer Harvey illustrates how the reconciliation model of confronting racism has failed to address power inequities and repair harms.  She proposes a reparative model, challenging white people to investigate our history and actively repair injustices borne by communities of color.        

Why religious congregations?  People of faith are believers that a better way of being human is possible.  We are grounded in rich traditions of moral vision that compel us to right injustice, to love our neighbors near and far.  We often fall far short of this.  An example: In 1969 James Forman interrupted Sunday worship at Riverside Church in New York to proclaim the Black Manifesto.  He called on white congregations across the country to pay reparations for persistent injustices endured by Black Americans, a call that was never heeded anywhere near the scale required.  This current proposal is a hope-filled contemporary response to the spirit of the Black Manifesto.

Why property taxes?  Non-profit organizations in the US are exempt from property taxes.  Such taxes support organizations that provide vital services to local communities such as schools, children’s services, drug and alcohol treatment, and libraries.  The property taxes we owe, or would owe, are also bound together with our complicated and racialized histories of land acquisition, neighborhood segregation, and wealth accumulation.  By unexempting ourselves from property taxes we are unexempting our minds and hearts from learning the troubling stories of our land and communities.  We are releasing our claim to these funds and committing them to our Black and Indigenous neighbors to do with as they see fit for the good of their people.  There will never be any amount of money capable of repairing racial terror.  Unexempting from property tax provides an annual measure that is neither arbitrary nor out of reach.        

Why Black and Indigenous led organizations?  The story of our nation cannot be told without recounting the violent conquest of Indigenous land and exploitation of Black labor.  If white people of faith are committed to monetary reparative action it is incumbent that we not only release our claim to these funds, but release power over how the funds are spent.  Giving to Black and Indigenous led organizations, with no strings attached, empowers these leaders to pursue the mission to which they are accountable within their own communities.  

How do we get from where we are to there?* 

A study group or religious education class can be an important beginning.  Read and discuss Dear White Christians, the Black Manifesto, or other related writings.  Study your state, local, and family histories with attention to how Indigenous and Black communities were impacted by policies that created opportunity for white Americans. 

Bring the idea of this proposal to your church board and encourage them to bring it before the congregation for consideration.

If the congregation is ready to make the commitment, consider a period of several years to scale up to reaching your annual property tax amount.  If your total will be $20,000 per year, perhaps begin with $5000 and add that same amount over the course of four years.  Because this likely involves extra giving, encourage individual members to think of their additional contributions as voluntary additions to their own property taxes or rent, making the connection to property and land as personal as possible.  The lack of ability to reach the full property tax equivalent should not preclude starting somewhere.     

Appoint a committee to research organizations toward which to direct the funds.  While you will naturally want to choose organizations whose values match your own, care must be given to release these funds without expectations or demands placed on the receiving organizations.

Continue to study, pray, and creatively engage in reparative action, including advocating for HR 40, the bill that will establish a commission to study and develop reparation proposals on the federal level.            

*These are the steps our congregation, Columbus Mennonite Church, has found helpful in our own process