Enough Talk about Race
Chief Justice Roger Taney’s 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case shifted the national discussion from slavery to race, and we’ve been talking about race ever since. Group therapy to deal with our personal discriminations can never do what needs to be done. It’s time white Americans stopped talking and started doing.
Father Sundborg’s essay in Sunday’s paper is constructive, but his initial characterization is badly flawed. He writes: “I have come to view white privilege as the unconscious mindset and behavior of white people.” This statement locates the problem in peoples’ minds. How can we remain so unconscious? We can be unconscious of our privileges because they are so thoroughly institutionalized that they are simply the nature of our reality.
Two things need to be done by we white folks: 1) acknowledge fully that slavery and Jim Crow together with the treatment of Indians constitute crimes against humanity that dwarf the crimes of Nazi Germany, and 2) deal seriously with the economic deficits that still cripple black Americans as a group.
American blacks remain enslaved by the imputation of inferiority embodied in slavery. Every Civil War statue, every show of the Confederate flag, renews that stigma. It cannot be erased until we, as a nation, confess that crimes against humanity were committed. That confession needs to take the form of a formal Congressional apology passed as a standalone bill, signed by the President in an elaborate public ceremony, and actively pursued in school curricula from kindergarten through high school. There are no living former slaves, but there still should be a monetary acknowledgement granted to every American of African ancestry, excluding immigrants who have arrived since the Civil War. The estimated average value of a slave at the start of the Civil War was about $1,000, and that would be a symbolically meaningful amount for each black American. (American Indians have been granted a Congressional apology, as have the Hawaiian people, to whom we apologized for our government’s complicity in the coup that brought annexation. and the Japanese who were interned during World War II.)
That would give us a running start. The heavy lifting would follow: The apology should also contain a commitment to a settlement for the economic damages suffered by blacks as a group as the result of actions by all levels of American government, from the local to the national (see R. Rothstein, Under Color of Law). Black families possess on average about one-tenth of the assets possessed by white families. That is not an accident. The foundation of American capital was the land taken from Indians, and blacks were totally shut out of that windfall. During Reconstruction many of the freedpeople managed to acquire some property, but by the end of the century almost all had been destroyed or lost to whites through various forms of fraud or terrorism. Since then black accumulation of capital has been frustrated by the Jim Crow regime, which became national as blacks moved out of the South. What we have called de facto segregation was actually de jure segregation—unconstitutional practices tolerated for decades in housing, labor unions, schools, colleges and universities, government programs such as Social Security, the FHA, and the GI Bill. Time and again blacks have been blocked from prosperity.
Settling for economic (not punitive) damages will require a commitment on an altogether different scale. Closing the gap in mean asset value between white households and black households—$130,000-$150,000—would require $2-3 trillion. (The total 2018 budget for the U.S. Government stands at a bit over $4 trillion.) A program on that scale would have to be longitudinal, and it would consist of many in kind services as well as direct cash payments.
Having a few black friends has done nothing to end the privileges that I have enjoyed.