Us and Them

The controversy over lawsuits demanding reparations for descendants of black slaves in America is growing every day, but it seems that the subject is currently too hot to touch, at least in print. Is that a bit odd? For a nation that values freedom of expression, we have become awfully handcuffed by our values. I’m not going to take a stab at the reparations question from either side: rather, I am interested in the problem with debating these issues in public.

It’s very simple, really: the reason we can’t tackle these kinds of questions is because our nation is still woefully unable to raise its head above racism. Yes, racism, which is so prominent in our multifarious society that we have even found a place for nonsense neologisms like “reverse racism.” Let’s think about this for a second: racism can be loosely defined as a general hatred of another race. So what the heck is reverse racism? I doubt anyone would define it as the general love of a race. What we have in American society is a stigma: racism is assumed to be something enacted by the white (former) majority upon smaller racial and ethnic groups. Looking at American history, it’s not hard to see where this stigma came from, but does that excuse it?

Let’s put it this way: a general trend of prejudice, hatred, and oppression has been observed historically on the part of white Americans against minorities, so if we generalize, we can draw the abstraction that whites Americans are racist. Whoa, that’s a bit of a jump. It’s one of those examples of a group of people being generalized and stereotyped — you know, like racism. So we have the problem that opponents of racism can, themselves, be racist. It’s an all-too-easy pitfall to get trapped in, but one we must rise above. It is wrong to assume that racism originates from whites and is only practiced upon whites in “reverse,” despite the history of atrocities committed by whites, and despite the fact that it’s considerably worse for non-whites. Racism is racism, and racism is bad (there’s my brilliant quote for the day).

What worries me about the reparations issue is that it’s tied to a multiracial and very American culture of blame. No one will deny that as Americans, we’re all quick to point a finger in another direction. Blame is attractive. Blame is too easy. I’m not saying all blame is unwarranted, of course, but sometimes it gets confusing, and it can cause big problems. I’m scared of this reparations issue coming to a head, and not because of the economics of it, but because it’s going to get complicated figuring out who deserves what. In reality, no amount of money can compensate for the atrocities relating to slavery, but if money is to be given, a few questions must be answered.

First, who owes money? The government? That just means the American taxpayers. American taxpayers include wealthy blacks who’d pay more for reparations than they’d likely receive. American taxpayers include other oppressed minorities, many of whom didn’t live in the United States during the slavery era. American taxpayers include multiracial people who may or may not qualify for reparations, depending upon where the line is drawn. American taxpayers are very sensitive about where their money goes, and giving one race reparations rather than others at this point might start a lot of finger-pointing, as could drawing a line between multiracial people. This issue is going to require a level of sensitivity between races that I doubt this country’s ready to handle.

A second dangerous consequence of the reparations debate is the problem of blame. At this point, it’s hard to tell who’s of direct descent from slave owners and who from more recent immigrants; it’s much easier to call all whites white, and attribute the blame to whites. It’s the unnamed “they” in the “they did this to us” statements we see again and again, as we saw Pamela Hairston’s April 2nd letter to the editor. Before this issue can really be tackled, we have to break down the “us and them” mentality to which racism is so insidiously tied.

And the third problem we’ll face is the response to blame: self-defense. Honestly, it’s as useless to defend whites as a race as to condemn us all. Claims like David Horowitz makes in his controversial ad (pick up your copy of the Dartmouth Review at oh wait, it’s already at your door), that because whites gave their lives to free the slaves, that fact excuses the atrocities, are misguided and immature, because they fall into the same trapped mindset of “us and them.” This mentality is the easiest answer, but not the right one. And it’s so easy to fall into because it’s hard to see the line between cultural and racial pride, things which we consider good, and factionalism, a level of group mentality that is currently deadly in parts of former Yugoslavia and the Middle East.

Fortunately, the racial tension in America isn’t as bad as it is elsewhere in the world. But there is a lot more than there seems. It lurks in the shadow of political correctness, this country’s beleaguered nostrum. Political correctness prevents us from dealing with these problems because we know that if we spoke our minds, we would offend each other. Political correctness is not enough if it forces us to just stop talking about these issues. In order to discuss these issues without being offensive, we have to take the difficult step of changing how we think — just a little — so that we learn to think about ourselves, other races, and these issues sensitively. For starters, we shouldn’t ask ourselves the question “should white people be made to pay for racism’s harm against blacks?” Instead we should be asking “has America done enough to remedy the inequality of races resulting from past injustices?” and “is protection of civil rights the answer to the problem or something that we can somewhat make up for not having had from the start?”

As unacceptable as the facts of history may be, they cannot be changed. We have all become Americans, in one way or another, and the best we can hope for is equality and harmony among Americans. The reparations debate has the potential to further divide us along racial lines, and it will if we don’t break out of this “us/them” mentality. Racial divisions could be as intractable in the U.S. as they are in former Yugoslavia and Israel/Palestine. But, as always, there is at least the hope that America can show the way to deal with such divisions fairly and sensitively, and maybe give “reverse racism” a whole new meaning.

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