Benign Neglect Revisited(Reprinted from the issue of July 17, 2003)
Bill Clinton never apologized for slavery, though he came mighty close in one of his spontaneous monologs in Africa. President George W. Bush, visiting a former site of slave exportation in Senegal the other day, read a prepared speech denouncing slavery.
At this place, he said, liberty and life were stolen and sold. Human beings were delivered and sorted and weighed, and branded with the marks of commercial enterprise and loaded as cargo on a voyage without return. One of the largest migrations of history was also one of the greatest crimes of history.
All this sort of talk makes me uneasy. Is it confession, apology, historical observation, or domestic politics? Where does it lead? It tends to inflame demands among American blacks for reparations, or at least preferential treatment, as talk radio after the speech bore witness. If a man denounces original sin, you may agree one hundred percent while wondering just exactly what hes leading up to, especially if that man is a politician.
Everyone now agrees that chattel slavery is wrong, and the worst part of it was the trans-Atlantic slave trade. A fair portion of every shipload of slaves died in the filthy conditions on nearly every voyage, so that to be involved in the slave trade was to be a party to murder. Such intellectual heroes of the Enlightenment as John Locke and Voltaire (who proudly allowed a slave ship to be named in his honor) made money by investing in the business, though it had long been condemned by, among others, the Popes.
A recent stereotyped history has it that slavery was an American invention based on race, with whites enslaving blacks. Actually, of course, slaves are mentioned often in the Scriptures, and it was nothing new even in Old Testament days. Most of the human race have taken it for granted, and many people couldnt imagine a world without it. In the Classical world, for example, poor men often sold themselves into slavery, even though this meant their children and descendants would be slaves too.
America got into the business when its end was already foreseeable. Despite the national mythology of the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln was only a partial opponent of slavery, and the Civil War was fought over secession, not freeing blacks. Lincoln issued the famous Proclamation only reluctantly, as a war measure against seceding states, and under heavy pressure from more radical Republicans. He privately doubted his own constitutional authority to do it.
Elsewhere in the Americas, except for Haiti, slavery was abolished peacefully. Opinion against it was crystallizing throughout the Christian world.
Slavery still exists in a few pockets of Africa, where it has thrived since prehistoric times. It seems odd for Americans to apologize to Africans for it, since the trade depended on Africans selling other Africans without compunction. The captives who couldnt be sold to European traders were usually put to death with extreme cruelty. The luckiest captives were those who finally made it to America, where life as a slave was better than many of the alternatives and where slavery was relatively humane.
Bush also visited Liberia, which, the American press noted, was founded by freed American slaves. Not quite true. It was actually founded by whites of the American Colonization Society, which included many distinguished Americans. Six presidents, from Jefferson to Lincoln, were members. While opposing slavery, the society believed that only repatriating freedmen to Africa would spare this country perpetual racial problems. They may have had a point, but blacks were reproducing far more rapidly than they could be deported, and most of them didnt want to go back to countries they no longer remembered. America was their home. English was their only language. Few of them had any precise idea where their forefathers had come from.
The Father-Son Connection
The tragic story has been compounded by the welfare state, as a result of which many American blacks today know neither their forefathers nor their actual fathers. Calling them African Americans and proclaiming Black History Month have been feeble attempts to give them a heritage.
Lincoln habitually spoke of the American Negro as the African. For him the Negro could never be a real American, enjoying social and political equality. He fully supported the rigorous black code of his own state, Illinois, and even after the Emancipation Proclamation he was still trying to colonize freedmen outside the United States.
In his 1862 State of the Union message, he asked for a constitutional amendment to promote this project.
Eventually Lincoln gave it up, not because he had embraced the ideal of a color-blind society, but because of a fatalistic streak that had learned the futility of trying to control events. (Events have controlled me, he confessed.) The great American racial problem was here to stay, and he had no solutions.
Americans are still trying to find solutions, even though many well-meaning attempts have not only failed but backfired. One of the great emblematic successes of black American history was Jackie Robinsons arrival as a major-league baseball player; yet today, Sports Illustrated reports, blacks are vanishing from baseball again, not at all because they are excluded, but for other reasons: because they cant afford baseball equipment, and they overwhelmingly prefer other sports, like basketball and football.
And for another, sadder reason: because baseball, far more than most sports, has always thrived on traditional father-and-son connections, which are ceasing to exist among blacks. Like so many boys, I learned to play by having my father pitch to me in the back yard; I pitched to my own kids and my grandsons, all of whom became avid ballplayers. But few black boys now enjoy such basic, once-normal experiences. They used to enjoy them even in the segregated South.
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was among the first to perceive the destruction of the black family, was often held up for ridicule and reproach for suggesting that blacks might profit from a period of benign neglect by the government.
Its as if America has done everything possible to make the race problem worse, from enslaving blacks to helping them. One way and another, they have been kept in abnormal positions, until our racial problem seems to have become well-nigh insoluble.
Informal (and sometimes official) taboos against free discussion of the problem have helped aggravate it. Few outside the Ku Klux Klan dare to suggest that the problem may be, in part, not racism but race itself. Race goes deeper than skin color and maybe deeper than genetics. Maybe it should be thought of as a matter less of heredity than of a total inheritance the whole complex of blood and tradition, including religion, that makes us what we are.
Solutions that address only one isolated part of this complex slavery, color, genes, formal education, income level, even the family will always end in frustration.
|Copyright © 2003 by The
Reprinted with permission.
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