That “Serious National Conversation” About Race

Over the past ten days of GatesGate, since Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was briefly arrested by Cambridge policeman James Crowley, three phrases seem to pop up more than others: Racial profiling, beer, and “serious national conversation about race,” the latter of which appears once more in Bob Herbert’s column in today’s NY Times.

It’s clear that there was no “racial profiling” in this case. Whatever went wrong, profiling wasn’t the problem.

The guys have  had their beer, and lo and behold, it looks like Skip n’ Jimbo will be getting together for more chats down the road.

That leaves the “serious national conversation about race” which is called for every time we have one of these racial uproars, going all the way back to the riots following the arrest of the man the media always called “Los Angeles motorist” Rodney King, which always conjured up the image of some scarf-and-goggles-wearing dandy  puttering along in his 1922 Model T.  The call went out after the O. J. Simpson verdict, after the  dragging death of James Byrd in Texas,  after the Tawana Brawley incident, and so on.

After each of these incidents, as with GatesGate, we witness hundreds of serious conversations about having that serious conversation. The newspapers and blogs and cable news shows  have been filled with serious conversers of late. You might think that so many people seriously conversing about the need to seriously converse about race  would itself amount to some kind of serious national conversation about race, but after each notorious racial incident fades away, some important voices always tell us that no, we have not had that serious national  conversation about race, hereinafter SNCAR.

I am not against a SNCAR. I just wish we could get our minds around what a SNCAR would look like,  define it, so we could know if we ever happened to blunder into one.

I do not have a succinct definition of a SNCAR. I do, however, have an idea as to why it is so hard to get one going and sustain it.

It’s because the different racial groups react differently to the central fact of slavery and its awful impact on African-Americans.

All white people except for a few benighted racists agree that slavery was a terrible moral wrong. There is no defending it. If the stolen lives of African-Americans had produced 100 times the economic benefit that was actually produced, slavery would still be an indefensible horror.

All black people know this as well.  So far, we’re almost all agreed.

The all-but-universal consensus starts to break up when we begin to focus on the aftermath of slavery and its consequences for African-Americans. Again, almost nobody would deny that blacks in America were held back for generations by slavery, and that has impeded their ability to compete and rise to prosperity. As Lyndon Johnson put it in one of his civil-rights speeches:

You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.

There are really two big questions here in terms of creating a society in which blacks and whites can live together in relative equality and harmony.

The first is ethical and moral. What was done to blacks who were brought here in slavery was a gigantic crime, one of history’s most awful chapters. It seems clear that for many black people, the crime was so enormous that it can never be forgiven, just as many people today, Jewish and non-Jewish, refuse to forgive the Nazis for the Holocaust, just as my late father-in-law never fully forgave the Japanese for trying to kill him in the Pacific in World War II.

The usual and understandable response of many white people to this moral problem is to say:  “I never owned a slave. Neither did my parents or grandparents or. . . (extend genealogy here). All the people who were enslaved and all the people who enslaved them have been dead for decades. It is insane to extend guilt beyond the lifetimes of the people who committed these crimes.”

As so often happens with truly difficult problems, both sides are right. Those who see slavery as the Never-Ending Wrong have a piece of the truth. Those who believe in Limited Liability have a piece of the truth.

Is there a way out of this moral dilemma? One way, of course, would be for black people to forgive white people for the crime of slavery, to extend an undeserved grace to those they see as perpetrators of this horror. I think many black people actually have done this. But the decision to forgive is theirs; forgiveness cannot be demanded.

If the first question is moral and existential, the second question is practical and political: What, at this point in our history,  should the American government be doing in order to bring blacks up to LBJ’s starting line, to make them better  able to compete and prosper?

Here we are talking about jobs and training and preferential hiring, nuts-and-bolts stuff;  government cannot deal with existential and spiritual matters of guilt and forgiveness. Those who believe in the Never-Ending Wrong  may believe that the descendants of slaves should have a permanent  claim on government resources, but in a practical sense, this cannot be. Resources are finite. Viewed in one way, every life is priceless, and it is beyond the power of even the wealthiest nation on earth to pay adequate reparations for every life that was stolen and blighted by slavery . Government cannot make up for the Never-Ending Wrong. The Commerce Department and Health and Human Services cannot bandage  souls.

At some point in our history, regardless of the Never-Ending Wrong, blacks will have to stand at the starting line with whites, enjoying no more government help than anyone else gets.  At some point, forgive the cliche, we will Move On from slavery. A consensus will develop that government has done all it can do to mitigate the effects of slavery. The real question that vexes us is:  When? When is enough?

That’s the question that underlies today’s GatesGate and the next racial flap that will hit us in the next few months.  If we really want to have that  serious national conversation about race, this is where we must start.


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