Sometimes when you screw up, it’s hard to know what to do to make things right. (I am well versed). The ultimate solution – undoing what was done – is generally not an option. Unless you happen to have a DeLorean, a working flux capacitor, and some plutonium. There are different levels of screw-ups, too. It can be accidental, it can be deliberate. The damage may be to stuff, or it may be to people. It may be transient, it may be permanent. It may affect just one person, it may affect a whole bunch of people.
If you do something horrible, and you are sorry, then – at minimum – you say so. You apologize. And you mean it.
Slavery was (and still is) a horrible thing. It’s a bit like genocide in that I can’t even wrap my head around how someone can be so distorted and deranged to even get near to the consideration that this might be something acceptable for any reason whatsoever. To keep another person as a thing. It’s unconscionable.
We Americans have this history that we are all struggling to deal with, a swirling stew of past injustice, and the pot has boiled for decades – sometimes over – distilling down to a simmering residual that is racism.
The discussion of what to do now is not new; it has been going on for the life of our nation, well before the legal end to slavery. And during that time, it is fair to say that the social environment has slowly evolved. But even as we have made inexorable progress, no one can say that we have reached a state in which we are truly equal, where all traces of the past divisions between whites and blacks in our nation have faded beyond recognition. Far from it. We can still see those effects, and we can even measure them. They are the basis for unequal distributions in education, in employment, in income, even in healthcare. (All of these metrics are proxies for the true disparity: poverty. But that’s for another time).
On one side of the discussion are those who call for reparations. There are many reasons why I don’t believe this is a valid solution, but even if I don’t support the concept, I can at least empathize with someone who feels that slavery was so egregious that compensation on a similar scale is the only fair response.
Moving along a continuum, we get to various forms of affirmative action. My resistance to this concept is very similar to that of reparations: at this stage in the game, these responses only serve to perpetuate racial divide, and I would like to see it continue to tail off into non-existence. But again, that’s my position, and I can fully understand the opposing view.
I hold to a different philosophy, but it is certainly not mine alone: if we are to truly eradicate racism – which means going beyond the tangible acts and measurable divides and eliminating the mentality itself – we must have laws that treat us as equals, and we must have a society that does not tolerate racial bias. And we must have time. Unfortunately, we cannot legislate racism out of the heads of the idiots who harbor it. We just have to be intolerant of their tendencies, and wait for them and their arcane ideology to fade into insignificance.
But no matter where you fall on this spectrum, a horrible thing happened. To a lot of people. For a long time. So if we are sorry, we say so. And we mean it.
If you are incapable of recognizing that something might be a reminder of past atrocities, then it’s hard to say you are sorry and have your apology accepted at face value.
Look, I just said I am not for reparations or even affirmative action. But let’s be realistic here: when people living in a country which still has measurable racial disparities ask to remove symbols and monuments that are reminders of a century-long systematic atrocity, it’s not a big ask. It’s a very reasonable ask. In fact, it’s really something that shouldn’t have to be asked. And the response, “But it’s part of our history!” That’s lost on me. Seriously?
First, you can’t do this one favor? It’s that bad, giving up public display of the confederate flag, taking down some statues? Doesn’t it bother you that these things may deeply offend someone else? That it reminds them of that very same history, the part of our nation’s past that I hope you find reprehensible? Does it not worry you that someone else would interpret your support of these displays as evidence of your own persistent racism?
Being called a racist is so offensive to me that I voted for Donald Trump. (It was the last straw).
But if these things don’t bother you, if you are unconcerned for the feelings of others who still struggle with the aftereffects more than 150 years later, if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable that you might – I mean that there is even a shred of a possibility – that someone views you as a racist, then you are part of the problem.
Because it’s not all about you. We can’t ignore the past. People were enslaved. Now people are in poverty. And we are past due moving forward. We are way past due putting this to rest and extending our hands collectively to our fellow Americans, treating them with the respect they deserve. And sometimes that means going out of your way or giving something up, because it’s the right thing to do.
I have been told that I can’t do anything about racism because I am white. Bullshit. Black people can’t do anything about racism. In the past, absolutely. But today, the more the black community fights for equality, the more it perpetuates the residual divide. The only people who can eliminate racism are white people who refuse to allow this to be a persistent stigma in our society. It is up to us to stand up en masse and say, “This happened in our past. It was unconscionable. We were not there; we cannot make up for the harm that was done. But we refuse to allow the mindset to persist, and we will not tolerate those who would treat people differently because of the color of their skin.”
At the very least, we have to say we are sorry. And we damn well have to mean it.