Monday, July 10, 2006

The Mess that is History

I wonder how far the reparations debate will go before it tears this country apart. As concerned I am about Justice, I cannot see a logical conclusion to the reparations debate that ends up being anything other than a disaster.

The greatest reparation would be to recommit ourselves to the American dream for all people, restore Civil Rights and rescue public education; to heal our own hearts and change our own minds. I do not beleive the effects of slavery or Jim Crow have been erased from our society, I do not believe that there is anything like a level playing field in education or the freedom of opportunity for all those who want to work hard. But I do not think that the medicine for what ails us as a nation can be found in assigning blame to the living for the crimes of the dead.


ruby booth said...

Inequality, injustice, and lack of accessible opportunities are the enemies of a free nation. The slow diminution of the middle classes is something to be feared, taken seriously, and averted. The fact that "our" culture -- perhaps I should say "my" culture, knowing so little about some of you -- that of a middle-class white Southerner cannot but be formed in part by our history of torture and enslavement.

However, while I support reparations for example to the victims of Japanese P.O.W. camps in WWII and even to their immediate descendants, I support it, because there is a clear and well-documented guilty party and an equally clear and well-documented innocent and entitled beneficiary. Slavery was surely unjust, as were the broken promises that followed it. However, no reparations plan that I have seen or heard of turns it from an emotional issue to a financial one. (Never mind the effects to the economy that dumping big buckets of cash onto every real or imagined "victim" would have. Nor where exactly that money would come from.) We do place a financial value on human life in this country. But I do not believe you can pay people back for that kind of injustice. I don't think most black people think you can either.

I think Pat is right, what most people on all sides want is a way to free ourselves of guilt or anger by working hard today. One of the problems though is the “slavery was a long time ago” attitude. It’s true; it was, but it and the hundred years of institutional and legal injustice that follow it still shape quite a lot about or society today, both in race relations and wealth distribution. If people felt less threatened and less defensive acknowledging that and acknowledging the advantages (be they completely unasked for) that some of get because of our skin color, or accent, or gender, then grappling with what to do now might be easier and less acrimonious.

Fishplate said...

1. Slavery in Georgia has been illegal for a longer period (1865 - 2006) that the time that it was legal (1785 - 1865). James Oglethorpe was anti-slavery, and it was forbidden in the colonial charter. Only when Oglethorpe was ousted was slavery allowed. So at least for we Georgians, the window of damages is very small.

2. Slavery existed for thousands of years before blacks were imported to the New World. At that, blacks were chosen simply because they were available, and the price was right. My people (white Europeans, primarily of English descent) were enslaved for years by North Africans for the same reasons: we were convenient, and unable to defend ourselves. So, where's my reparations?

3. Slavery in the United States ended more or less at the same time as slavery in most of the rest of the world, though in the U.S. a particularly hard-headed group of individuals made that process much more costly that it needed to be. Could the blood that was shed on both sides be considered payment enough? Or maybe even punishment enough? Are the family members I lost fighting for the Union enough of a reparation? If not, shouldn't I profit in the same proportion as former slaves?

4. Slavery still exists in some parts of the world, notably Mauritania. Would not our energy be better spent in eliminating the problems of slavery today than in trying to partition blame among a population, many of whom never condoned or profited from slavery?