A reckoning means a settling of accounts. I’ve heard the word numerous times in the past week, since the insurrection in Washington, D.C.: “a day of reckoning”, “a racial reckoning”, “reckoning with our history”. It seems that we need to account for what has been taken in and paid out over the four centuries since we white people colonized this land. 

During those 400 years, we white people have exterminated most of the Indigenous people who called this land their home for thousands of years. We enslaved Africans to provide ourselves with guaranteed, free labor. When that system of permanent servitude was disrupted through abolition, we did whatever it took to import the labor of Latin American, Asian, Middle Eastern, and other peoples, to whom we assigned second-class status as soon as they arrived. And at the same time, we kept those who had been enslaved in a quasi-slavery, zero-class status. 

Of course, others view the balance of accounts very differently. They say that we did a favor for African people by enslaving them and bringing them here. They say that slavery was not as bad as people say — that it actually helped improve the character of Black people. The real damage was done by the North to white Southerners during the Civil War, they say, and we need to hold on to that damage and pay it back.

Still others say that was all so long ago anyway. There may have been some bad things that happened back then, but any damage that was done is so far in the past, we need to forget about it and move on, they say. People all have the same opportunities now, they say, and look, we had a Black president! 

So when everyone looks at the same set of accounts and sees different balances, how do we settle those accounts? How do we figure out what is just? How do we engage in that necessary reckoning? 

I don’t know what the answer is. 

I know the answer must hold empathy. It must hold emotion. It must hold taking others’ perspectives. As a middle-class, cis-gendered, heterosexual white man, I must build my empathy, emotion, and perspective-taking towards those people whose ancestors were enslaved and who continue to suffer oppression in today’s American culture. I must own the difference between how the would-be white insurrectionists were treated last week in Washington, D.C. and how Black Lives Matter protesters were treated all across this country this summer. 

I know the answer must hold my admission of the limits of my empathy, emotion, and perspective-taking, acknowledging freely that my ancestors never suffered and endured what enslaved Black people did, and that my ancestors have been granted privilege in this nation ever since they identified themselves as white. And that so I will never truly understand what that oppression feels like.

I know the answer must hold me speaking out against white supremacy in the nation’s capital and in the streets of my village. It must hold me identifying racism in others and in myself. 

Perhaps each of these small actions constitutes a payment on these imbalanced accounts. Not a full payment. Not even a down payment. Maybe a micro-payment, in which a lifetime of work by accomplices in racial justice will make some difference. But these accounts can never be balanced in the traditional sense. Black people and other people of color continue to pay forward their part by believing in the in democratic systems of this country and showing us again and again what it looks like to support those who need the support the most. Perhaps if they are gracious creditors and we white people continue to show our good faith by taking actions to bridge the racial divides in this nation, then one day we can get to a place where the accounts are no longer needed. 

If we work toward accountability and justice, and demonstrate that we white people are willing to sacrifice to achieve those goals, then maybe one day the accounts will be wiped clean. Until that day, we must make it our life’s work to repay this debt.

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