Thu 16 Oct, 2008
Tags: History, Racial inequality, Reparations, Slavery
Jerry Large of the Seattle Times has an insightful column today about the annual Seattle Race Conference held on Saturday. This year’s conference, marking the 20th anniversary of reparations to Japanese-Americans held in U.S. concentration camps in World War II, was devoted to reparations and other forms of redress and racial healing.
The conference was not devoted solely to considering reparations for slavery or other forms of financial compensation for our nation’s checkered history on race. For instance, the keynote speaker, Ray Winbush of Morgan State University and editor of a volume on reparations, was careful to note that a critical element in healing across racial lines would be more open discussion of the racism in our history and society. This is, of course, one of my core beliefs and a central element of the mission of Traces of the Trade.
Large pursues this thought further, and I think this is well worth reading:
The historian James Horton says our problem today is not the problem of slavery, it is the lingering problem of the distortion of reality that was necessary to justify slavery in a nation of high ideals and Christian faith.
America created an image of the enslaved that is still embedded in people’s minds — lazy, dumb, dangerous, inferior; and made whiteness the residence of most good qualities.
That’s why people can tolerate disparities in education, criminal justice, poverty. What else would we expect?
Different assumptions wouldn’t let us rest while that kind of injustice continued.
This is a powerful argument for viewing reparations, or any form of remedy, as being not about slavery or the past at all, but about today’s society. This is, I think, one effective answer to the typical response to talk of healing the wounds of the past: “Why don’t blacks just get over it?”
I do think it’s fair to say that since the 1960s, we’ve begun to move more decisively away from this traditional image of black Americans, driven originally by the interests of slave owners. In fact, while I wouldn’t suggest that any Americans are free of these attitudes, the growing differences across demographic groups (generational, geographic, educational, and so on) in the prevalence of these lingering stereotypes may help to explain the stark differences in the willingness of Americans to tolerate racial disparities (or racialized thinking itself, at least for those whose views on race resonate with Obama’s approach). Far from undermining Large’s argument, I think this shows precisely the power of the phenomenon which he describes.