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The New York Sun


The Rest of the Sentence . . .

July 31, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

Big news on race relations Tuesday, and no, it wasn't something Barack Obama said or did. The House of Representatives has granted black America an apology for slavery. Oh yeah—and also for the hundred-odd years of Jim Crow segregation after that. You may have heard about assorted states passing measures like these of late, but this is supposed to be an especially big deal because it was a federal thing.

The question is how many times America is supposed to tell us it's sorry.

The problem with these apologies is the whole idea that America just outlawed Jim Crow and told black people "Good luck." This argument erases a whole complex of developments that have transformed the meaning of being black in America.

It would seem that, for example, Affirmative Action has been very much an apology for slavery and Jim Crow. Yes, Affirmative Action as wielded since the late '70s, as a crude quota program, is now on the wane. However, it reigned for a long time, and Affirmative Action in some guise will be with us for a long time coming. No apology?

Welfare was expanded from a temporary widow's fund into an open-ended dole in the late '60s at the behest of the National Welfare Rights Organization, based on an idea that it would eventually make middle-class homeowners out of poor black people. Yes, this really is what good-thinking people thought; old heads on the front lines back then remain proud of their work.

Today's more effective rendition of welfare, a five-year program focused on job training, is a descendant of those efforts. It continues a long-standing apology for the period when the best most black people could hope for was being laborers or maids.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., will constitute, in part, an apology. The fact that films and television shows are now so reluctant to cast criminals as black is an apology.

And it could be argued that part of the appeal of Barack Obama to the white electorate is, in itself, an apology. Whites these days are increasingly comfortable admitting that they would have a sense, in voting for Mr. Obama, of repudiating America's racist past. When (sorry, if) Mr. Obama becomes president, he and his family in the White House will stand as a result of a massive national apology.

What, then, is the use of Congress presenting a formal statement of regret? It's not something any critical mass of constituents were clamoring for, which makes the exercise even more hollow.

I can only suppose that these august figures suppose that this "apology" will satisfy black people aggrieved at America's having "never come to terms with its racist past" and so forth. This supposition is false.

It bears mentioning that this is not a distress shared by the mass of black people. The black car salesman in Cleveland, the black single mom working hard outside of L.A., the black grandmother serving on church committees in Houston—most of these people are not thinking about apologies or reparations.

And meanwhile, among those who are, the aggrievement in question cannot be assuaged. It is not a matter of a concrete request which, once granted, will occasion contentment. It is, rather, an outward manifestation of a mindset: namely, a psychology founded to its core on a conception of black people as victims of white injustice. There is a personality type, overrepresented in academia, journalism, and among older politicians, given to this kind of thinking.

Their mindset is not a conscious "hustle," although often mistaken as such. It is the way they process the world, the way they process the news, the way they process social interaction, the way they process humor—it is has been their window on the world for all of their mature lives. It is the configuration of their neural circuits.

It will not change—just as I am unlikely to ever change my basic way of seeing the world, and as you the reader are unlikely to.

Such people acknowledge change in a perfunctory way, but this is on the conscious level. In their guts, they can only process change as exceptional, trivial, or, if especially momentous, vaguely discomfitting. For example, a current fashion among some black writers is a studious worry that Mr. Obama's election would—you guessed it—distract white people from thinking about racism.

Sententious apology, then, will do nothing. Surely it will be courteously received. However, the aggrievement will live on. If Congress went as far as to grant reparations, no matter how bounteous, the usual suspects would be worried that white people would then lose interest in racism.

It's very simple. History book, 2050. "In 2008 the House of Representatives presented a formal apology for slavery and Jim Crow. As a result, ______." What would the rest of that sentence be? Think about it. The answer is: nothing.

Original Source:



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