May 26, 2011
Equality and Absolution Cannot be Gained with Reparations
First off, let me say that I do not have even the slightest bit of racial or other prejudice. I make no judgments on people based on their race, religion, citizenship, gender, sexual orientation, mental or physical limitations, age, weight, or ability to never have a bad hair day (well, okay, I might resent that last bunch just a wee little bit). Whether I like you, love you, connect with you, or am repulsed by you, rest assured that it has nothing at all to do with the color of your skin.
Okay, so if my opposition to providing financial reparations to the descendents of slaves does not stem from bigotry, what is the reason? Clearly, the fact that some of our citizens once held human beings as possessions is a deep and shameful scar on our country. It’s a wrong so repugnant that we need to never forget it; we should and will wear the scarlet S of slavery always, its existence a reminder that the life and the country we have today was built on both admirable and evil platforms.
When candidates start talking reparations, though, it gets my goat. First of all, handing someone a check would not repair anything. It couldn’t undo what has been done and it would restore dignity to neither the wrong nor the wronged. If anything, it is an insult to assume that a couple of bucks could compensate for such unspeakable abuse. Tossing money at a bad situation doesn’t clean up anything.
Additionally—and this is where people sometimes get their hackles up—I haven’t, nor have any people currently living, held a slave, so the debt isn’t ours to pay. Now hear me out on this one, please. I don’t believe that any of us have the right or the obligation to take either the credit or the blame for anyone else’s life. This applies even to those living right now, let alone those who are long gone. If my spouse, children, parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors are wonderful, kind, responsible people, the accolades are theirs, not mine. Equally, if they turn out to be complete jackasses, the blame lies with them. My sins are mine, but yours belong to you.
Finally, I believe that providing financial reparations to current citizens who are descended from slaves would open the floodgates for additional groups requesting similar payments, and to be quite frank, we simply couldn’t afford that. While I doubt that many would argue that any other single group has suffered as much at the hands of others as slaves, there is no question that oppression was not limited to only them. Immigrants from all around the world have been ostracized and oppressed. Members of various religious groups have and continue to suffer the wrongs of intolerance, and women in this country, while having come a long way baby, are still not on an equal footing with men.
I am descended from women, how about you? Does this mean that we should expect to get a payment in the mail as a form of apology for how our great-grandmothers were treated? And even if we did, would that check somehow restore her right to vote, to hold the same job as her husband, to speak her mind?
Of course not. The best that we can do to right some of the wrongs of the past is to learn from them. My guess is that if we were somehow able to sit down with a council of past slaves and ask them what we could do, as a people, to gain absolution, they wouldn’t ask for money. What they would want, I believe, is for their descendents to be treated fairly, equally, justly. For them to be afforded the same rights and responsibilities as their paler brothers and sisters. For simple human decency.
And that is exactly what we should be doing. What we should have been doing all along. We cannot change the past, but we are writing history right now, and it’s up to us how we do it.