For most of my fifty-plus years living in this country, I have thought that white Americans have not digested the facts of slavery beyond the most basic level. I think they have avoided emoting about them and also about the much nearer-in-time ninety years of segregation in some of the country, at least. (Reading the memoirs of traveling black Jazz musicians led me to believe that segregation was not just in the South. They tell how on arriving in a new town anywhere in the country, the first thing they did was inquire about lodging accepting blacks if arrangements had done been made in advance.)
It’s hard to tell what liberals know and feel about the country’s racial history broadly defined. First, since most of them vote Democrat, they have an internal conflict of interest that must stand in the way of both clarity of mind and of sincerity of expression. Historically, their party is the party of unfailing support for slavery and then, it morphed into the party of racial segregation. I don’t know how you deal with this on an individual level. Second, I find it personally hard to tell what really moves liberals because many are the kind of people who tear up at the violent spectacle of three puppies wrestling in their containment basket.
I am pretty familiar however with my fellow conservatives’ expressed views of the whole matter. (Of course, I don’t know what they feel their hearts of hearts.) Three responses keep coming up. The first is a reference to the hundreds of thousand dead of the Civil War, implying it was payment enough for the evils of slavery. No, I am sorry, the Civil War only stopped the evil of slavery. It did not make up for it. It did not stop the transmission of its perverse effects through the generations. I does not help that some conservatives include the Confederate dead who gave their lives in defense of slavery even if it was not always clear to them.
The second common response is a nonchalant: “Get over it; it was long time ago.” That’s not a reasonable response, I believe, as a conservative, specifically. I think many good things, and many bad things, come down through families, even from ancestors way back. My own narrow experience tells me that it’s so. My paternal grandfather was killed in WWI, in 1916, exactly, twenty-six years before I was born. That’s more than one hundred years ago. My mother was thus brought up in an all-female family. Had that not been the case, she would have raised her own children differently, I think. Note that I don’t say, “better” because, I don’t know. It’s just that she would have been a different person herself, a different woman. Again, I am only trying to make the point that family experiences reach far forward in time.
I knew my maternal grandmother well. Though there were merrier aspects to her personality (as I recount in my book, I Used to be French…..) she was a mostly silent presence for all the time I knew her. I don’t know that she may have a had a wealth of experience, or simply stories, she would otherwise have shared with me. I was brought up without a grandfather. (There was an other one but alcoholism had made him dysfunctional.) Had I had a grandpa, I am certain I would have been a different man, a nicer one. Incidentally, I only came to realize this clearly when I became a grandfather myself, a very distinctive and nurturing role. If the repercussions of the simple and common fact of not having a grandfather can be carried across a hundred-plus years, I tell myself, imagine the cumulative, tenacious effect of having had all slave predecessors for hundreds years. In my book, it’s not that consequences of slavery might live on today among African Americans, it’s that they surely do. It seems to me that this is hardly open for discussion. (Though w you should feel free to argue with me on this point.)
Another detour is in order here. I am only discussing the burden of the majority of black Americans who do have slave ancestors. The implied moral calculus is not relevant to the large and growing minority of black Americans who are immigrants and children of immigrants. (The fact that their numbers are increasing fast, in itself, speaks volumes.) Don’t like it here for whatever reason? Go back to Jamaica; go back to Nigeria; go back to Haiti. This calculus also does not concern the invented category “Hispanics.” Except for the special case of Puerto Ricans, they are also practically all immigrants and descendants of immigrants. They have no right to complain just because heir parents or other ancestors had the good sense to cross the border, often at great cost and at great risk, so they could enjoy a standard of living and a freedom vastly superior to those they left behind. In most cases, such American Hispanics are entitled to citizenship in their ancestral land or, they can regain it easily. Even Puerto Ricans, whose country the US annexed without consultation, have the latitude to go home where they are unlikely to be exposed to racism. All those so-called minorities can thus easily avoid current alleged white American racism and, to the extent that they carry a special burden, it’s because of choices their own antecedents made. It seems to me none has any right to blame America nor to expect favored treatment on this account.
Expecting the descendants of slaves to “get over it,” is not reasonable, as I said. The likelihood is quite high that the adverse consequences of slavery have followed their ancestors, their parents through the years like a pig moving through a python. There is not particular ground to believe that these negative effects must automatically become diluted over time. This assessment is possible (and, I think, only fair) irrespective of whether we know what to to about it. Recognizing that a problem exists does not require that one know its solution.
In the next and last installments of this three-part essay, I will look at resolutions after introducing the third common attitude of conservatives: “It wasn’t me.”