EDITORIAL | Backing up beliefs

A little more than two weeks ago, on July 18, conceptual artist Natasha Marin launched reparations.me, a website (which began days earlier as a Facebook group) that can be succinctly described as an online community for the exchange of favors between whites and persons of color.

Persons of color make requests for miscellaneous things they need. Requests can be big -- like assistance with medical bills -- or small -- like groceries. Conversely, white participants make open offers of services they can provide.

In all cases, what’s being requested or offered is concrete, if not necessarily material.

“What if you actually did something meaningful for someone before the end of the year?” Marin asks in the About section of her website. “What if a stranger restored your belief in humanity, if only for a moment, by supporting you and allowing you to claim something you need in a material way?”

The concept of reparations goes back to January 1965 and the closing months of the Civil War, when Union General William Tecumseh Sherman granted freed slave families 40 acres each from seized farmland properties in Georgia and South Carolina -- 400,000 acres in all, plus some untold number of surplus Army mules.

President Andrew Johnson reversed Sherman’s order inside the year, but the debate over reparations for slavery -- which would now benefit its victims’ descendants -- has persisted to this day.

Unless some big news breaks between the writing of this column and its publication, continued discussions of reparations have gone nowhere. Not materially, at least.

It isn’t hard to see why: some estimates on the cost of free slave labor, plus interest, have placed the U.S. government’s financial liability for slavery at $40 trillion -- more than twice the national debt. Even if every person in the country were onboard with the idea, the word “daunting” doesn’t even touch the size of the figures involved. That’s to say nothing of the genealogical obstacles to sorting between slavery’s descendants and the minority of more recent, voluntary, West African immigrants.

With reparations.me, Marin has leveraged the sharing economy of the Internet age to divide the problem into bite-sized portions. A $200 grocery request for one person is easier to digest than $40 trillion for 42 million.

A handful of whites have already bought in, offering everything from a coffee to assistance applying for academic grants.

Overall participation in the project has been small. As of this writing, listed offerings on the website numbered just north of five dozen. Requests were half that. Fourteen reparations had been completed.

That being said, perhaps the true genius of the project is its voluntary nature.

It’s unlikely the site will do anything to change the minds of critics who think reparations or Kickstarter-esque contributions are just a sophisticated form of handouts. Marin knows that and has even created a “Troll Fund,” inviting people to pledge donations for every negative comment received on the site.

The real conundrum is posed to whites who have identified themselves as sympathetic to the black community through recent events such as the shooting of Philando Castile. Marin’s presented us (for the record, the author of this column is white) a chance to move beyond bleeding heart Facebook sentiments and put up or shut up.

The book of James stated that “faith without works is dead.”

In 2013, comedian Louis CK offered an updated philosophical counterweight: "I have a lot of beliefs, and I live by none of them. They're just my beliefs … they make me feel good about who I am. But if they get in the way of a thing I want … I just do that [thing]."

True to her artistic roots, Marin has given us all a platform to examine our beliefs, and whether we’re willing to back them up with action. That’s a hard thing to do, indeed.