'Never forget' the terror of Tulsa. But for Black Americans, reflection without reparations is American myth-making

The 100th anniversary of white racial violence in Tulsa, Oklahoma provided the country an opportunity to reflect.

  • Columnist Ray Baker says political speeches honoring Tulsa or Juneteenth are self-aggrandizing.

  • Commemorations honor the past without making amends for transgressions that benefited institutions.

  • Baker says justice requires accountability and restitution.

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Reflection is something the United States does and does often. Perhaps most famously, every January the country pauses to reflect on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Reflection is something that's become more common in the United States. People of all political parties, religions and ethnicities come together to vow never again. Acknowledgment is all reflection asks of the guilty party.

What justice seekers must demand is restitution.

While sadly acknowledgment is just the first step, for Tulsans, it has taken a herculean effort to even get there. The problem with reflective commemorations like the one that took place in Tulsa or as we'll soon see this week with celebratory acknowledgments known as Juneteenth, is not the acknowledgement of a horrifically violent past.

These stories need to be told in full detail to recount the horror of the event.

What's problematic is that people in the United States don't bother making amends for their transgressions - particularly when those transgressions have materially benefited a people, institution, or government.

Justice isn't merely a sitting US President giving a speech in the community that was terrorized by a white mob. It's the effort to correct the harm that's been inflicted on the injured party.

Justice demands accountability and restitution. Quite simply, justice costs. To paraphrase Dr. King, when Black people go to cash the check of justice, it has come back marked insufficient funds.

biden tulsa greenwood survivors Getty
Tulsa race massacre survivors Viola Fletcher (R) and Hughes Van Ellis (2nd R) watch as US President Joe Biden speaks during a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

There's a current, ongoing effort to provide restitution for the surviving victims of the Tulsa Massacre. It is not the first effort and previous lawsuits have been dismissed for not being timely enough. These efforts follow the creation of a state commission in 1997 to study the history of the night of terror. That panel recommended reparations to the people of the Greenwood community, but the mere suggestion was met with pushback from legislators and citizens alike.

How has the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma made right, what they have wronged? If the commemorative activities compared to their support for restitution were any indication, they haven't.

Tulsa isn't alone. Their mayor's comments on the question of reparations is a useful study in how leaders all over the country respond to calls for restitution.

Modern political leaders like Mayor G.T. Bynum, distinguish between the good (white) people of today and their ancestors years ago and claim restitution is "punishing this generation of Tulsans for something that criminals did a hundred years ago."

That absolves the benefactors of a racist public massacre and any responsibility to right the wrongs of the past.

Reflection and acknowledgement allow Americans across the country to feel good about maintaining systems of injustice, inequality and harm. Not paying restitution, however, means that the perpetrator's morality has its limits. For America,the limit is money.

Governments and institutions willingly acknowledge wealth gotten through harmful and exploitative means. Without restitution to support that acknowledgement, the reflection on harm is nothing but self-aggrandizing myth making.

It is the source for the common refrain of "this is not who we are" whenever something inhumane, violent, or exploitative happens in the United States. That is what the country must tell itself to continue to maintain a status quo that was built on violence, exploitation, and terror; while also seeing itself as a just and morally good society.

The time has come for the United States to go beyond the milquetoast and pedestrian steps of reflection and acknowledgement in the name of myth making.

The time is now for justice.

Tulsa can and must lead the way. Justice should also be top of mind for every locale that engages in an upcoming Juneteenth celebration. States must remember they once enslaved the ancestors of the people they now call citizens.

The question remains, what does the US owe those citizens? Anything less than restitution is a check returned marked insufficient funds.

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