Central, I think, to the feedback Joel recently received about white people owning up to our racial mistakes is the idea that white people today shouldn’t have to apologize for past racial injustices that they didn’t commit. After all, some whites–just like some blacks–don’t have family trees that even touch American slavery! This is a common argument, so I want to focus on it.
Factually, it’s not wrong. Lots of white immigrants came here after the Civil War was over, just as lots of black immigrants have come since. If what is being sought is an apology from those whose families fought for slavery to those whose families were enslaved, we’d have a real mess. Some of us had families on both sides of the war. Some of us have ancestors who were slave owners and ancestors who were enslaved–either at different points in history or at the same time, producing enslaved children from rape. If apologies were in order, lots of individuals would be apologizing to themselves.
Above, a Civil War cemetery for Union soldiers in Kentucky. To my family’s great pride, one of our ancestors fought for the Union. He was white, was willing to die to end slavery, and still benefited from white privilege. How do we know? Because he got $1o of pay per month for soldiering, compared to a black soldier’s $7 per month. The US government finally granted equal pay–and supplied it retroactively–after black soldiers refused to re-enlist.
White people have never had to fight to be equal to blacks. That’s white privilege and black punishment.
But it’s not apologies that are in order. It’s justice.
And it’s not just justice over the issue of slavery (though that needs to happen too). It’s the years of interest that have accrued since then. While some white people deflect by saying that “Slavery was so long ago!” it’s the very “long ago” of slavery that has allowed inequity to build.
Think of it this way: Would you be better off if your great-, great-, great-, great-, great-, great grandpa was a billionaire or if your father were a billionaire?
It depends on how well your family managed wealth. If your family had done a great job, over generations, of managing great-, great-, great-, great-, great-, great grandpa’s wealth, you’d be much better off than if that money had been around for only one generation.
So the issue isn’t (just) slavery: it’s the generations between slavery and now. Over time, systems that are overtly racist have been legally struck down: slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, rampant stop and frisk. But the benefits that white people collected during that time still collect interest. Whites who bought houses in neighborhoods where people of color couldn’t still own those houses, and they continue to rise in value at a rate higher than the houses that people of color were able to purchase. Redlining might be illegal now, but the generations of people it harmed still live with the consequences. And, as Joel says, it’s not just white privilege–it’s also black punishment. A century and a half after slavery, half a century after Jim Crow, it’s still being felt, too.
You don’t just “apologize and move on” because an apology doesn’t right this wrong. It’s a wrong that grows bigger over time, not smaller, because interest accrues one way (if you are white, in your favor, whether your family was here during slavery or Jim Crow or not) or another (if you are black, against you).
And everything I just said assumes that opportunities are equal now, that the deck isn’t stacked in the favor of white people, which just isn’t true.