In his New York Times column today, Nicholas Kristof gets it right about how hard it is for white folks in America to admit how the abuses of the ancestors of people who look different than we do bestowed enormous advantages on us. He is generous to mention my book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, in company of superb work by Orlando Patterson, Charles Blow and others.
As I’ve said and written thousands of times, it’s not about all of us alive today with paler complexions being made to feel guilty, or other people being given a big check. Instead, it’s about what kind of society we’d like our children and grandchildren to live in. It’s not unlike the flawed but brilliant Founders of our country, who recognized many of the failures and tyrannies of the system that nonetheless had created them and in many ways was the envy of all humanity at the time. They imagined a yet better future, confronted the failures of the status quo at great personal risk, and then invented the kind of government and institutions that they believed could achieve their visions. We have the responsibility in our time to do the same–to recognize the flaws in a system that is still the envy of the world, and be willing to imagine a future that improves upon it, and what resources and mechanisms must be in place for the most creative society in history to build that world. If there is any kind of American exceptionalism, it is our capacity to do that as a diverse and varied single nation.
In the days ahead, the news from Ferguson, Missouri and other places is going to be upsetting. People of similar minds and hearts are going to be in conflict over the decision of the grand jury there–whatever that decision is. Almost certainly, the news is going to be neither a sweeping criminal indictment of the policeman in question, nor an exoneration of the police–or of the young man whose life was lost. No one is going to be satisfied–because we have become a country where these questions cannot be sorted out in clean or satisfactory ways. How American citizens react to that conclusion is unpredictable, contradictory and worrisome.
No matter what happens, we must ask why we continue to find ourselves in this paralyzed and tortured place of uncertainty so often, and for reasons we almost always cannot untangle. We must be open to designing a future in which these things are no longer a fact of American life.
If nothing else, back to Kristoff’s column, white people must bring an end to this cross-generational behavior of denial regarding the consequences of our ancestors’ racially motivated behavior, and cease–dear god, please cease–the decades of whining whenever we are asked to face reality.
[Cross-posted at Slavery By Another Name]