Posted by patrick Saunders on August 04, 1998 at 14:39:50:
MAKING AMENDS FOR A NATION'S IGNOMINIOUS PAST
In a recent edition of John Kennedy Jr.'s glitzy George magazine, columnist
Naomi Wolf argues that America should officially apologize for slavery. Her
piece has raised a storm of controversy and triggered, for some, thoughts of
Wolf notes that while we've constructed a vast museum devoted to a
holocaust that took place in Europe and a moving monument to the carnage in
Southeast Asia, we've never come to grips with our indigenous holocaust, "the
250 years during which up to one American in five was held, scourged, and bred
Our inability as a nation to fess up to this horrendous history, she
argues, has stymied race relations in this country. "White America wants to
forget," she writes, and she cites how varied attempts to atone for our
slavery-stained past have met intense opposition. As a recent example, she
cites Rep. Tony P. Hall, a white Democrat from Ohio whose mild suggestion that
the U.S. Congress apologize for slavery prompted an outpouring of enraged
Wolf writes that whites often respond to attempts to memorialize our slave
past with such comments as: "I didn't own any slaves. Why should I apologize?"
But, she argues, such reactions are misguided and part of a larger cultural
denial of slavery. "Memorializing our slave past and apologizing for its
matters because without them both sides remain stuck."
I applaud Wolf's courage for penning such a column. This is an issue of
utmost importance, and many white Americans--even progressives like
Wolf--often downplay its significance. But, like her, I believe our nation's
denial of its slave history is an important barrier to the American dream of
pluralist democracy. Even more, I believe the historical forces put in motion
by this ignominious past contain the seeds of our destruction unless we
confront them more forthrightly.
Wolf attributes white America's reluctance to apologize to matters
psychological and cultural, and to some extent I agree. But there also are
other issues involved.
Wealth and cultural capital were coercively and wrongfully diverted from
blacks to whites through slavery and discrimination for more than 15
generations to produce lopsided income- and wealth-distribution by race.
Common resource pools, produced by everyone's labor (especially the non-
compensated labor of enslaved Africans and their African-American progeny)
were maldistributed by white decision-makers, overwhelmingly to other whites.
Both advantages and disadvantages have been transferred
intergenerationally, compounded and bequeathed to us today. For blacks who
were deprived of those resources the result has been inferior social status
and poor quality employment, education, health care, etc. Our refusal to
acknowledge this historical context leaves many Americans bewildered by
blacks' disproportionate miseries.
The apology Wolf urges would definitely be good for our collective souls.
But more than that, it would necessitate some serious action to reduce those
miseries. And that, I believe, is one of the primary reasons such an apology
is so strenuously resisted. Once the government admits complicity in the
historical atrocity that was chattel slavery, it is compelled to address the
unjust enrichment it facilitated. A simple system of reparations would be the
most logical way to redress that imbalance.
It would be best affected by a compensatory
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