Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Flashback 2002: Fighting slavery's legacy—Reparations reconsidered

Family of freed slaves, Crawfordsville, Georgia, 1866 (G. Gable; Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Sometimes my wife will say, "Good column today..." then pause, pondering, "...what was it about?" And I will tell her, if I remember—I sometimes also forget and I wrote the damn thing. The day before.
     So it's a great compliment, when a reader remembers a column, not just for a few hours, but, in the case of the column below, for 18 years. She noticed I mentioned "reparations" in Monday's column and sent me a column I wrote, sharing her reaction to the one below. 
     So I thought today I would post the original column, which I believe holds up well to the grind of nearly 20 years, and Thursday post her reaction. 
     The sad part, of course, hardly needs to be mentioned, but I think I will: since this ran in 2002 our nation has backslid, has lost sight of its purpose and its goal, certainly on a national level, and no doubt among individuals, who are so used to operating as scattered shards of party and region, race and class, that the idea of our belong to a cohesive nation with common goals can seem breathtakingly radical. But I believe that figuring out how things can be better is particularly important during times when they're growing worse.

     Most people never change their minds. Blame ego for this, probably. Reversing your opinion is an act of humility. It suggests that, previously, you were wrong. Wrong! Nobody wants to be wrong. We'd rather be consistent. Changing your mind takes effort, too. It almost hurts.
     So we cling to our beliefs. To make this easier, we limit our intake of information to stuff we agree with. Whatever might rock the boat is screened out. Thus keeping up with the news becomes more an act of comfort, like eating ice cream, than an intellectual exercise.
     I try not to be that way. Not being an especially smart person, I've developed a bag of tricks to make myself seem brainier than I really am. One of those tricks is to ask, if only occasionally, "Am I wrong here?" It's an enormously helpful tool. I can't tell you how many times it has saved me: in arguments with my wife, in discussions at work.
     And it helps when trying to make sense of the pulsing chaos of the world. For instance, when the idea of reparations to black Americans for slavery in this country was recently raised--again--I prepared myself, as I did two years ago, to return to the ramparts to defend patriotism and historical truth. Demanding reparations for slavery seemed to paint black Americans, inaccurately, as victims, while their middle class was actually growing year by year. It was unpatriotic--a slap at all those abolitionists and Union soldiers. A slap at Harriet Beecher Stowe.
     My thinking went like this: History is a rough place, filled with bad things, and to try to cash in on your misfortune now is extortion, the same lunging after a sliver of pie that Rainbow/PUSH is famous for. Blacks were taking their inspiration from Jews, ironically enough, using the Jews' unseemly success at prying a few billion dollars out of the Germans due to the 20th century Holocaust as an excuse to try to right this dusty 19th century wrong … an impossible task that would only lead to further dissension and fragmentation. Next Mexico would demand Texas back and, having caved in on the slavery issue, we'd end up forced to pay them off.
     That was my thinking. I had it all worked out, down to the pithy ending, and had flopped my fingers on the keyboard and started to write, when an objection occurred to me that I just couldn't bat away.
     What about the big black slums on the South and West sides of Chicago, and in every city in America? What about Detroit? What about South Central L.A.? What about the entrenched poverty and pervasive dysfunction which, despite gains, is such a problem for black America? What created that, and why is it still here?
     Remember, all manner of national and ethnic groups were once dirt poor in this nation. The Irish who arrived were penniless and hated. The Jews, no strangers to hate, sold rags on Maxwell Street. You could pass it off to skin color. Those Colleens and Cohens could melt into society in a way black people couldn't. But now we are seeing groups of other ethnicities--Asians, Hispanics--arrive in this country and scramble up the ladder in a way that black Americans haven't. Why?
     What is it about black people? If you believe, as all rational people do, that everyone is the same at the start, human beings, equal in their potentials and abilities, that we all have the same capacity to grow, live, learn, love, then where did this mass of black poverty and generation-to-generation dysfunction come from?
     At first it seemed ludicrous to me to write it off to slavery. That ended 140 years ago. A long time. But slavery really didn't end with the Civil War. In the South, it continued on with an additional century of repression that, if not actual chattel slavery, was very close. In the North, it continued as 100 years of bigotry and segregation.
     Could the 200 years of institutional slavery (unlike reparationists, who don't help their cause by exaggerating, I trace slavery, not back to 1492, but to the 1600s, when slaves actually appeared) plus 100 years of repression that have not ended to this day, somehow have a role in the widespread poverty we barely recognize, never mind deal with?
     Well, to quote young people: duh.
     This does not mean I believe the United States should cut a check.
     Frankly, I'm not sure what the nation should do. Apology isn't it. Apologies are symbolic and don't help people. But I do know--now--that we need to commence a process that begins with the thought: How did this group of Americans, who happen to be black and poor, get to this position in life? And what can their country, the United States, do to make sure that the promise of America is as true for them as it is for others? What can be done now that hasn't been done?
     I am beginning to suspect that it is the people demanding the issue of slavery be addressed who are the patriotic ones, the ones who believe in the grandeur of the United States and the sweep of history.
     History is what brought us to today. I have no trouble believing one reason I'm a bookish kind of guy is my great-grandfather studied the Talmud. So why is it so hard to accept that one reason, perhaps the main reason, a certain segment of America is poor and dysfunctional is its great-great-grandparents were separated in chains on a slaver's dock?
     And to accept that idea--and really, what other explanation is there--is to be on the road to believing that the same nation that fractured a group of citizens at one point in history can, 150 years later, do more to set matters right.

      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 10, 2002


  1. West Germany & now unified Germany, paid reparation money to Jews that survived the Holocaust & to some children of the victims for their stolen property. But many have never received anything from the life insurance their murdered parents paid out for, especially from German & Italian insurance companies. A few descendants have managed to sue to get some stolen art works returned, but tens of thousands of art works stolen by the Nazis from Jews illegally remain in either public museums or private hands, throughout Europe, Asia & even some in the United States.

    But no reparation money has gone to children, grandchildren & great grandchildren of those murdered.

    The US Government paid out $20,000 each to all the surviving Japanese Americans who were put in relocation camps about 30 years ago. But again, it only went to those that had been in those camps, not to the children of any who died prior to that time.

    If this country were to pay out cash to the descendants of slaves, it would tear this country apart in a new Civil War! There isn't a single former slave alive today & I don't believe there is a single person alive who was the child of a slave.

    I honestly don't know what can be done to improve the lives of black Americans other than more jobs, which would lead to better housing & healthcare, but Wall Street conspired with both the Republicans & Democrats to move millions of manufacturing jobs out of our cities & into China, in the insane search for higher & higher profits for a few billionaires.

    But with the murder of Martin Luther King, the black community has been cursed with the alleged leadership of anti-Semitic scum, such as Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan & Al Sharpton. And worse locally, the various black aldermen, county board members, legislators & other government office holders, have decided that they are going to be as corrupt as their white predecessors, but have been thoroughly incompetent at it, as so many have been caught by the feds & gone to prison. If I recall correctly, Chicago has managed to have two, father/son sets of aldermen get caught taking bribes for some of the most absurdly small things, but also one alderman took bribes to allow a massive fly dumping site at Roosevelt & Kostner, that was an incredible 70 feet tall, before the city finally spent millions to haul all that construction debris away!

    It amazes & disgusts me, that when they finally got into the halls of power, instead of helping their own people, they decided to line their own pockets!

    As far as I can tell, the last actual honest alderman Chicago had was Paul Douglas & that was in the 1940s & he left the city council at the age of 54 to join the Marines to fight in WWII. All of them since then, even & especially the good government types, has turned out to be corrupt in some way or another.

    Chicago is easily, the single most corrupt place in the United States! And Chicago is the most incompetently run city in the country!
    That definitely goes for Lightfoot, who is totally lost at sea as mayor. She got rolled by the rotten teachers union last fall & now with massively reduced tax receipts, there's no money to pay for their obscenely high pensions!

    1. Wow. I won't even attempt to deal with the remarkably incendiary, wide-ranging broad-brushism you've cobbled together there, Clark St.

      I will note, however, that I was on pins and needles reading it. You were so restrained in the first several paragraphs that I spied no exclamation points at all. How could you ever hit your quota? I almost lost hope. But that last paragraph -- Hallelujah! 3 in 4 sentences to get you to the half-dozen that I consider the sweet spot.

      Neil's column was excellent, of course. The fact that it's as timely now as it must have been then, and would have been in 1970 or 1870 is plenty depressing, though.

      "We limit our intake of information to stuff we agree with" is largely how we got to the point where a 21st-Century superpower could even conceive of electing a reality-TV star and lifelong racist, sexist grifter as president. Interesting to see the notion addressed from the perspective of 2002, though Paul Simon pretty much had nailed it in "The Boxer" in 1969. "Still, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

    2. Is there anything in the last paragraph that's incorrect?
      The answer is no!

    3. The incorrect part is your general philippic against black leadership as corrupt and anti-Semitic. "It amazes & disgusts me, that when they finally got into the halls of power, instead of helping their own people, they decided to line their own pockets!" As opposed to whites? I would hate to see a contest between who's more of an anti-Semite, Jesse Jackson or Richard Nixon, but it'd be close. I didn't read your initial message before I posted it, Clark St., because you are a regular and trusted reader. But it is nothing to be proud of.

    4. I wrote that the last honest alderman was Paul Douglas, which means I called the all the white ones corrupt, or didn't that get through to anyone. I also wrote that Chicago is the most corrupt place in the United States & that includes crooks like Burke & the Daleys! As for Jakash & his obsession with exclamation points, what a goof!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    5. As for Nixon's anti-Semitism, he's been dead for 26 years, so I don't care, while Jackson, Farrakhan & Sharpton are all still alive & spreading their hate. Now we have a couple of black football players spreading anti-Semitic bullshit, along with Nick Cannon spouting bizarre anti-Semitic crap.

    6. "his obsession with exclamation points, what a goof"

      True. Though I don't actually partake of Mr. Prine's reality-adjuster, "I'm just tryin' to have me some fun."


  2. I always look forward to your emphatic and seemingly knowledgeable comments, Clark St.
    With the moniker you chose, am I right to assume you work (or worked) in one of the Cook County buildings downtown ? :)

    1. I've never worked for any government, ever!

    2. Not sure, but I believe the homage is to the section of Clark St. in Rogers Park, not downtown, Sandy. I could be wrong.

      Thumbs up to "seemingly," though!

      If it weren't for that "lost at sea" Lightfoot, all the city's pension problems would have certainly been cleared up by now, I think we can all agree. Hell, she's had (checks notes) 14 months to get this dump back on track, and it's not like we've got any other problems she's been dealing with. Given that Clark St. refers to her opponent in the general election as Taxwinkle, I've a hunch that he wouldn't be expecting any better from her, however. ; )

  3. Jakash — Was that East Rogers Park?🤣


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