- The 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.
The 100th anniversary of white racial violence in Tulsa, Oklahoma, provided the United States an opportunity to reflect.
Reflection is something the country does, and does often. Perhaps most famously, every January the country pauses to reflect on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Reflection is something that has become more common in the US. 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 acknowledgment of a horrifically violent past.
These stories need to be told in full detail to recount the horror of the event.
What is problematic is that people in the US 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 has been inflicted on the injured party.
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. Its 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 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 mythmaking.
It is the source for the common refrain of "this is not who we are" whenever something inhumane, violent, or exploitative happens in the US. That is what the country must tell itself 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 US to go beyond the milquetoast and pedestrian steps of reflection and acknowledgement in the name of mythmaking.
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 a 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.