not politically correct but what about it

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I want to bring up a rather "sticky" subject. For many years when the subject of reparations was brought up this was my standard reply. It was generally some black person who would ask me if I was in favor of reparations and I would reply, "Yes, I most certainly am in favor of reparations, how much do you want to pay me?" This of course brought a rather startled look on the face of the person who was asking me about reparations. They would ask me to explain and I would say this. "Slavery, was wrong, it was terrible, it should never have happened". "However, slavery was the best thing that ever happened for today's blacks." "If their ancestors had not been brought over here as slaves then they would still be in Africa which would mean 1) if they were over fifty they would probably be dead 2) they would not own a house 3) they would not own a car 4) they would not have a TV 5) they would not have a telephone 6) they would have a 25% chance of having AIDS 7) they would have virtually no health care system and finally 8) they would probably be unemployed." "Thus slavery was a very good thing for blacks living in the US today, so how much do you want to pay me?"

I know this is not a "politically correct" position, but I do think it has some merit. Would you please ask some of your members to respond to this position as I would be quite curious as to their viewpoints. I have convinced several people that this viewpoint has merit, but I have also alienated several people with this viewpoint. Now I want to help heal the racial divide in this country and not contribute to creating a wider gap, but I need a good rebuttal to my argument, which I have not been able to do on my own. C.M.

Comments

I guess he misunderstood the relative position of Africans in Africa and African 000-071 in the United States. Africans in Africa are facing poverty because of the millions of Africans healthiest and most experts have kidnapped several generations and because of 646-588, Africa was reorganized to benefit the European economy. (Most African countries have not organized to feed their own population, but in production. Products for certain foreign earnings.) In addition, while the descendants of African 646-003 in the United States if they could be rich. He does not live in Africa. They live in a country that despised remains mutually beneficial, such as home ownership and fair system. Law is very difficult for them to be.

You write that you “want to help heal the racial divide in this country.” I applaud that desire. So many white people don’t even see the divide or the need to heal it, let alone set out to help with that healing. I fear, however, that your “slavery was the best thing that ever happened to blacks” argument may only widen the divide. I hope you will reconsider what you argue and the tone in which you argue it. It is good to talk about your ideas with other white people and in a forum like this. That’s the proper place to express them and allow them to evolve. So, thanks for the chance to discuss this with you, and for your willingness to seek out rebuttals.

There may indeed be some merit in your arguments, but I do not see it. I can’t see any merit, I think, because two tall mountains block the view. These mountains are generalization and assumption. In addition, your tone is off-putting. Honestly, I think if I were standing beside you and you had said what you wrote here to a black person, in that same tone, I’d be embarrassed to be associated with you. But perhaps I have misread the tone and you really are well intentioned and open-minded. So I will go on to those two mountains.

The facts. You make gigantic generalizations about the United States and about Africa. I don’t know which set of generalizations is more off base. Africa is a very big place, with many different countries and economies. Some countries have national health care that affords the working people and the poor (so often one in the same) far better care than we have here, while other countries are so impoverished or corrupt (often one in the same) that children are dying daily of treatable diseases. So your generalization, “if they were over fifty [and in Africa] they would probably be dead” is just too big. It shows an ignorance of Africa and also of the African-American experience in the U.S. Many African Americans, men especially, are not over fifty because they didn’t make it, killed by chronic hypertension, diabetes, cops who mistook a wallet for a handgun, and other conditions from which they suffer at much higher rates than white people. There’s a lot of evidence indicating that this country has been, and continues to be—with some laudable progress—an unhealthy place for black people; emotionally, physically, psychically dangerous. That evidence comes from the eloquent testimony of black artists, especially, I think, writers and musicians, who have revealed the torment of growing up in a culture that sees you as less than human. If you haven’t yet, you should read Toni Morisson The Bluest Eye and Beloved, Richard Wright’s Native Son, James Baldwin’s essays about growing up in Harlem. I’ll give you a longer list if you’re interested. That evidence comes also from economists, who show in numbers the marked disparity between black wealth and white wealth. Maybe black people in the U.S. have more televisions, phones, cars and other stuff than people in the poorest African countires, but should Africans be the point of comparison? Shouldn’t it be white Americans? It’s white Americans, after all, that they have to compete with. And in the U.S., having a TV and a phone won’t get you far if you don’t have a high school diploma, or something inherited from your parents—an acre of and, a little trust fund to start a business with.

And then there is the larger question—and this leads me to your assumptions—of whether having more consumer goods makes up for having lost one’s culture, one’s native land, and for the strain of always being in the minority in a white dominated culture. And the fact that it is a strain, a physical one, is attested to by many studies. In many areas—infant mortality, lifespan, mental illness, heart disease, diabetes, glaucoma—there is evidence that America has made black people sick. For example, the fastest growing group of AIDS sufferers in the U.S. is black women. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the mortality rate from cardiovascular diseases is “29 percent higher among African Americans than among Whites.” That’s a big gap, you’ll admit. In addition, the Center for the Advancement of Health found that, in 1998, 13 percent of African American babies were low birth weight. This rate showed a slight decline, but was still twice that of whites. And, as you may know, low birth weight brings with it many other problems. So many black kids are playing catch up from birth, as their ancestors had to from the get-go in this country. So many more black children are orphaned by AIDS and early heart attacks. Then there is the prison system. Have you seen those stats--one in three black men within the prison system? Have you wondered about and looked into the causes? Have you lain awake nights worrying about the children of the men and women in prisons, so many of them for non-violent crimes? Have you considered the argument that prisons are a new form of slavery, because they target black men, profit from their labor, and undermine the black family? Or are you one of those white people who immediately blames the victim, who goes blindly along with the rationalizations and justifications for slavery, without really looking into and listening to other perspectives?

The fact that some black Americans, indeed many, have done well—over 50% are in the middle and upper classes—does not mean slavery was a net plus. It means some people survived, and even managed to thrive, despite slavery, Jim Crow, racism and the daily stress of living among white people who can actually say “How much do you want to pay me?” for four-plus centuries of labor theft, torture, rape, unending and perfectly legal terror, and continuing exploitation. Maybe if you consider this analogy you’ll see the shaky foundation of your assumptions. My own ancestors, Scottish and Irish, emigrated to Nova Scotia and New York City, respectively, several generations ago. They fled religious-ethnic cleansing. They fled for their lives, having had their land and, in Ireland, their very language stolen from them. They fled famine, and they left many dead behind, cairns dotting the rocky coastline, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters who would never grow old, never pass on the old stories and traditions. They came here as refugees—penniless, hungry, terrorized, stunned, insane, some of them, but they did what they had to do to survive. And some of them did survive to bear children, and some of those children, despite the legacy of alcoholism, depression, self-loathing, are thriving.

Now here is the important question: Does the fact that some of the survivors do indeed thrive justify the oppression the Irish and the Scottish experienced at the hands of the English? Do the ends justify the means? Well, not for the Irish who died on the coffin ships coming over, nor for the millions of captured Africans who died during the middle passage (same ships in some cases, because the old slave galleys were refitted for famine emigrants). Okay, then, you may ask, does the end justify the means for the survivors who did thrive?

Great Britain does not think so. They have apologized to the Irish for their role in causing the Great Famine. They do not say—oh if it hadn’t been for the famine you wouldn’t have a Joseph Kennedy and the Kennedy dynasty. They say, admit, that stealing land and evicting poor people from their homes into death by starvation is and always will be a crime against humanity. How much more so, then, is it a crime to steal someone’s physical body and lifetime’s work; and, more than that, to steal their future, their children and grandchildren, and to attempt to steal their very humanity in order to justify and perpetuate the theft and the tremendous, nation-building profit from that theft?

The fact that the enslaved Africans refused to relinquish that humanity is the greatest testament to the strength and courage of the human spirit that this planet has yet produced, and has ennobled our country far more than we can know. When you use that fact, D. Chapman, to argue that slavery was “the best thing that ever happened for today’s blacks” you move us backward, and you embarrass me. Get you facts straight. Do the needed research and the heart-opening reading. And examine your assumptions. I accept that I am an American, but when I look back three and four generations at my family I see much suffering because of the forced emigration, and I wish we had been left to develop in our own land in our own way, not as indentured servants in a society that stigmatized us as inferior. I would like to have had the choice to come to America, or to stay home. Probably many Africans, like the Asians and Eastern Europeans, would have emigrated here on their own, drawn by our great natural wealth and the promise of equality and freedom. But that’s not what happened. Slavery happened, and any discussion of it must begin with the assumption, and the honest avowal, that it was a great crime without justification.

We don’t know what the many and diverse countries of Africa would be like had they not endured the theft of people and other resources, and centuries of violent colonization. We don’t know what the U.S. would be like had its young economy not been built upon a vast, unpaid agricultural work force. We do know, the facts tell us, that relative to the white population, black Americans have poorer health, less wealth, less opportunity, and experience racism that they would not be experiencing in Africa. See for example (and there are many examples) Susan Gooden’s article, “All Things Not Being Equal: Differences in Caseworker Support toward Black and White Welfare Clients,” published in the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy (1998. 4: 23-33). In this study, Gooden found that welfare caseworkers did not offer similar levels of support to black and white welfare recipients. Specifically, black welfare recipients received less transportation assistance, and, Gooden found, less support for pursuing education. And yet, some of those black welfare recipients will make it and do well. Not because of this country and its policies, but despite them.

So in the end, while I appreciate your expressed willingness “to help heal the racial divide” I can not see the merit of your argument because I disagree with several key assumptions underlying it. First, you assume that the wealth that makes this country a materialistically rich place was not itself generated, in part, by the labor of black Americans. Of course they should benefit from it. You speak as if those phones, TV’s and cars which you see as the measure of well-being were given by the Unites States, and not earned within it. Where does that assumption come from? Have you bought into the stereotype about black people as lazy, all on welfare, living on handouts?

Second, I disagree that material wealth, relative to developing countries, is a measure of well-being. Many feel that community and a sense of belonging to a tradition are what create happiness, and that the U.S. is, in that sense, a poor country indeed. Talk to some recent immigrants. Ask what they miss about home and what they find lacking here. Look at the depression rates among white folks, the materialism and widespread addiction to alcohol, food, prescription drugs, etc. Are we so happy? I ask these questions as a grandchild of immigrants. We lost something when we left home, and we have not found it here in America. Indeed, the closest I have come to finding it was when I lived in a black and Latino inner city community.

Thirdly, you assume that the ends justify the means. While disagreeing with you on the facts, on what the ends for the descendants of the Africans actually are, I also disagree with that premise. Ends never justify the means. If you’ll allow me one more analogy. . . . Imagine a woman being kidnapped out of her livingroom by a strange man. He is stronger and armed. He forces her into his car and drives her across the country to, say, Seattle. (Nice city, I’d like to live there if I could afford to.) In Seattle, he locks her in a hotel room and, as he did during the drive across country, rapes her repeatedly. He then holds her captive and forces her to wait on him hand and foot. Now, let’s say that one day she escapes. Or perhaps a clerk in the hotel catches on and intervenes, risking his own safety. Somehow, though, she gets away. After a period of recuperation, and helped by agencies for battered women and perhaps a religious charity in town, she decides to stay where she is. She gets an apartment, finds a job, and within five years of the abduction, with the help of counseling, is actually doing pretty well for herself, maybe even better than she was doing back in, say, Richmond. She meets a nice man, and now and then she thinks how, if that terrible thing hadn’t happened, she might never have met him. Strange how life is, she thinks.

Now, honestly, do you think she feels indebted to her abductor? Where is he, anyway? He’s in prison serving a ten-year sentence for abduction and rape. Do you think the fact that his victim has managed to salvage her life would convince any judge in any court that his sentence should be commuted? Should he get 2 years taken off because she found a good job in Seattle? Six months off because her apartment has a nice view of the ocean? Three years off because she met a nice guy? If we follow that logic, she could end up actually in debt to her rapist/abductor. But that logic, you must see, is haywire. As is yours when you say blacks owe the US money for the abduction and enslavement of their ancestors. It was wrong. Society has to say it was wrong by keeping the man in prison for his full sentence. He has to pay his debt. And we base clemency, a lessening of a criminal sentence, always on the behavior of the criminal, never on that of the victim. Should the criminal show remorse, and do well in prison, and prove himself no threat to society, he may get, as we say, time off for good behavior. It matters not one whit how well his victim is doing (although we might imagine that it would comfort him, if he has reformed, to learn that he did not destroy her life entirely).

Even if the lives of some descendants of the enslaved Africans are materially better than they would have been had their ancestors never been captured—a huge if, you’ll agree, and very hard to measure—the crimes and thefts committed during slavery and in the years that followed are still crimes and thefts, and the sooner we admit that, with our hearts, and mourn the past, and pay the debts owed, the sooner the rift will be healed and we can begin to create a future of true equality, freedom and community. James Baldwin said it in his essay “My Dungeon Shook” (published in his book The Fire Next Time), “[Whites] are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they don't understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

You should be working for your own release. In the meantime, please stop bludgeoning people with this cold-hearted, morally immature argument.

Sometimes I have found myself thinking of something in a way that most people usually don't think of it, and gotten quite proud of myself. For example, when I was an atheist in my teens and early 20s, I was quite impressed with my own contrarian thinking about religion. In the first flush of my thinking, I was not able to see any rebuttal to my ideas. Later on, I found out that while atheism is a viable position, many theists very clearly understood all the critiques that I made of various forms of theism. I found that I was not really going as deep as I thought I was.

This writer strikes me as being in a similar place. He has come up with an interesting idea, and has become very attached to it. As a result, some very strong critiques of his ideas are simply invisible to him. However, that doesn’t mean those critiques aren't valid.

The first point that the writer ignores is the right every human being to self-determination. I don't know the details of this individual's life, but I am sure I could come up with a "better life" for his descendants, by moving him to some other country or other part of the United States, or by changing his profession or religious choice. Perhaps it would be a choice that would involve terrible misery for him. Would he allow me to do that to him? I doubt it.

The Africans who were brought to North America as slaves were human beings who had the right to self-determination, the right to choose their own lives. Every one of their descendants has lived with the results of a choice that was made for their ancestors against their will. Whether that choice was an improvement or not, it was still an injustice.

The second point is that vast numbers of Africans were killed, raped, and tortured in the Middle Passage and during slavery and Jim Crow, in truly horrible conditions. No supposed modern advantage can justify that, any more than the current relatively comfortable position of Jews in the US can justify the Holocaust, or take away the responsibility of Nazism for that horror. Some historians of Europe argue that the Black Death was a critical pre-condition to the rise of capitalism and the modern world, because it made labor scarce and thus empowered workers and urban people. Does this mean that, if some person had "caused" the Black Death by spreading the bubonic plague and killing millions, we would consider that person to be a benefactor to Europeans? Looking only at outcomes is not historically or morally valid.

The third point is that he misunderstands the relative position of Africans in Africa and African descendants in the US. Africans in Africa are facing poverty in part because millions of the healthiest and most skilled Africans were kidnapped for centuries, and because colonialism then reorganized the African economy to benefit Europeans. (Most African economies are still organized not to feed their own populations but to produce some commodity for foreign profit.) In addition, while descendants of African slaves in the US might be wealthy if they lived in Africa, they don't. They live in a country where they are still despised, where common benefits such as home ownership and fair treatment by the legal system are much more difficult for them to obtain.

Fourth, the writer's position assumes that he, as a white person, is responsible for slavery, and thus deserves reparations from African descendants of those held in slavery. I think he will find that the vast majority of white US citizens would not accept such responsibility. The reason for this, I think, is that most whites understand that, on the whole, slavery was a terrible crime, even if there were some good outcomes for some people. In other words, even those who would seem to have reasons to agree with the writer don't.

All of these points are logical arguments. As such, they may or may not be convincing to the writer. At the deepest level, we choose what we believe based on our moral stance. Part of my moral stance is that I tend to trust those who are oppressed to describe their own situation more accurately than their oppressors do. I have also learned to be wary of my own cleverness, and to double check what I think with others I trust.

The writer will believe what he chooses to believe. I write only to let him know that there are answers - intellectually and morally -- to his position, and to suggest that his position is not as logical or impervious to argument as he thinks.