“Disease is cured by the right use of remedies,” Frederick Douglass wrote in “The Color Line.” To heal a disease, we must study its causes, symptoms, and possible treatments. It is necessary to speak of racial inequality and injustice in the language of pathology because racism is a disease; a malignant, hereditary cancer that has metastasized, for centuries, within the backbone of the American body politic.
For all of history, our society has recognized an essential precept of justice: if you wrongly harm somebody, you must pay for the damage you caused. That’s just. American law recognizes that those who are treated unjustly deserve compensatory redress. Yet, despite this, America has persistently denied justice to the victims of racism – a disease that first infected this nation 401 years ago.
Intergenerational trauma is a disease, and the lived experience of generations of black Americans whose ancestors first arrived, enslaved, in 1619. Slavery is the cancer-causing mutation in the American DNA, and the genetic determinant of the nation’s racist psychology: a poisonous, psychotic disorder borne out of violence that imagined a race of people as contagion. Like any cancer, there have been moments in American history when racism seemed to go into remission. But it always returned, and with the recurrence of an aging sickness older than the nation itself came amnesia.
Structural racism is a disease. A biopsy of the fraying safety net we call “healthcare” for black Americans reveals this. Right now, a disproportionate toll of COVID-19 is suffered by black communities. Normally, there are longstanding racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality. According to Brookings, black women die in childbirth at three to four times the rate of white women. Another symptom of America’s illness is the difference in the risk of black and white people to develop diabetes. As Roxane Gay writes, “Eventually, doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine, but black people will continue to wait for a cure for racism.”
The nation’s “moral disorder,” as Douglass diagnosed it, cannot be healed with placebos or homeopathy. Nor can the American government continue to triage the pressure points and gaping wounds of racial injustice while mistreating the festering sores and flesh wounds on the underbelly of America. Every racial inequality and injury is too severe, too critical, for the country’s vital organs to heal themself. Doctors know that after diagnosis, treatment is necessary for recovery from a disease like cancer. The trauma of black American life must be cured.
The antidote to what ails America? Reparations. Reparations can help heal the deep wounds hurting our country. Of course, reparations are not a panacea for racism. But they are therapy, a mechanism to achieve justice by remedying injustice. Reparations need not take the form of payments to individuals. Instead, reparations can constitute a program of interacting economic policies for large-scale investment in formerly redlined black neighborhoods and communities. They can serve as a framework for innovative public policy and the implementation of new social programs that are reparative and race-conscious by design.
If racism is an invisible, deadly virus that has corrupted the operating system of American society, then it’s time to update our software, so that our response to infection is not autoimmune erasure. We must commit to a process of truth, reconciliation, and atonement. To begin this process of racial healing we must have a serious conversation about corrective, restorative justice. A bill introduced in 2019, H.R. 40, would establish a commission to study our history and develop clinical reparations proposals. The first step in finding a vaccine is understanding the disease.
Earnest prescriptions for reparations inevitably cause jaundiced reactions among those who, disordered by simple prejudice or ignorance of the history that plagues black people, yearn to kill surviving patients by cutting off their treatment. A blighted, dysfunctional country without “the disposition to pay a just debt does not feel at ease in the presence of his creditor … He would rather find fault with the bill than pay the debt,” Douglass declared. But it is malpractice to stop a life-saving medical treatment because of adverse side effects. Chemotherapy isn’t a spoonful of sugar.
“The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote. George Floyd’s brutal murder awakened an intoxicated country, yet again, to the reality that black people are suffocating under the stranglehold of racial oppression. Reparations will let them breathe, freely. But if America doesn’t take its medicine, the cause of premature death in our collective autopsy will report what black people have always known. The fatal weapon will be racism. A preventable, if not someday curable, cancer; meaning the manner of our death was suicide.