America is unworthy of black forgiveness

Roundup
tags: racism, reparations



Mark Santow is an associate professor and chair of history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, and a member of the Providence School Board. The opinions stated here are his alone.

After Dylann Roof's alleged racial terrorism in Charleston, S.C., many were profoundly touched by the willingness of the victims' families to forgive. Anthony Thompson, whose grandmother Myra was killed, told the accused “I forgive you, my family forgives you.” Others made sure Roof knew of their pain but extended the same forgiveness.

Historically, black forgiveness of white violence has been a form of protest as well as an act of self-preservation -- a soul-shout against victimhood, an expunging of anger, and a demonstration to the oppressor that they remain unbowed. Is such forgiveness deserved? I am white, I am not a Christian, and I have no faith to test in this circumstance, save perhaps the one I hold in the basic goodness of human beings. As a historian, though, I am painfully aware of the forgiveness that blacks have repeatedly been asked to give to a nation that has rarely been worthy of it -- one that has stolen and devalued black labor and lives in return, even into the present. Truth telling, atonement, and reparation must come before absolution.

White America’s undeserved sense of racial innocence has moral and material consequences. “These white folks, they think the world belongs to them," black writer Kiese Laymon's grandmother lamented after the shootings. Blacks live their daily lives under the heavy weight of history. Whites try desperately to escape that history, to deny its very existence, and puzzle over why blacks continue to emphasize the past as an explanation for the present.

The white demand for forgiveness, thus, is really a demand for black amnesia, the better to enable whites' own. It is this denial, as much as the centuries of white violence against black people, that has inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. Whites refuse to see the enormity and continuing relevance of slavery, Jim Crow, and government-fostered segregation (North and South). By doing so, they deny the validity of black experience, while misunderstanding their own. The redlining maps published in The Providence Journal recently were far more than an antiquarian curiosity. They show us the contours of the world we live in today, if we care to look.

“Love reckons with the past,” Laymon writes. But evil “loves tomorrow… I know that I’ve wanted the people that I’ve hurt to look forward, imagining all that I can be and forgetting the contours of who I have been to them." To be worthy of forgiveness whites must look backward, and then walk forward again, understanding that much of who we are (and are not) is constituted by the past. To do otherwise is, as Laymon notes, to act like an abuser.

As Claudia Rankin put it recently, "history’s authority over us is not broken by maintaining a silence about its continued effects." Claiming "color-blindness" is a uniquely white privilege, rooted in a refusal to shoulder the burdens of history. White frustration with the unwillingness of blacks to recognize that claim to racial innocence constitutes a search for cheap grace.

White atonement must have its own movement, its own logic. And then, if black forgiveness comes, so be it. With Abraham Lincoln, we might hope and pray that this "mighty scourge" of slavery and its poisonous legacy will "speedily pass away," even as that legacy continues to benefit most white families and communities. But nothing disappears when we close our eyes. Other than our ability to see.

“White people,” wrote James Baldwin, “are trapped in a history they don’t understand.” Instead, perhaps we can choose to walk the path that so many white crusaders for racial justice have trod over the centuries, and embed social justice in the very meaning of whiteness, thereby in some way redeeming it.

In the words of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, “we have to find some way … to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” To be "radical" means to get to the root of things. We need to do that. Even if there is, as Billie Holiday once lamented, “blood at the root.” Especially if there is.




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