Racism: Past Failures, Present Responsibilities

Often I have heard discussions about the legacy of the period in the history of our nation when African people were enslaved. In those discussions I find few white people who evidence much of a concept of the ways in which the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who were enslaved may still bear the scars of that terrible institution. Some seem unwilling to even hear about that legacy. It may be too threatening, taking them too close to a reality of the past which is easier to dismiss than to accept. Whatever the motive for the denial, the argument is frequently made that what was done in the past is not something for which those of us who live in the present have any responsibility. When it revolves around “slavery,” the argument usually given is, “I never owned slaves… don’t hold me accountable for that!”

Of course it is true that today there is no one alive who is accountable for the period of enslavement in our history. Valid as that point of view may be, it becomes too quickly a way to deny any responsibility for the consequences of enslavement. A response that I and others have often made is to remind friends that while we cannot be held accountable for what others did in the past, we must accept responsibility for what we do in the present. That response raises for me another dimension of the discussion which I want to explore here.

To say that we who live in the 1990’s are not responsible for the actions of our forebears, or to argue that the past has little lasting effect in the present, is a denial of the fundamentally corporate nature of life. Just as we are bound together in the present, so are we in the present bound to those who have lived before us, sometimes bound to act in accordance with or as a legacy of their actions. To understand that intimate relation of past and present helps me at least to struggle with my responsibilities as a person who lives in a present which is in some ways defined by the past.

Here are some of the ways in which we are bonded to the past:

1. Theologically, there is a tradition which acknowledges that the “sins of the fathers set the children’s’ teeth on edge.” Many can identify some ways in their own lives in which that understanding makes sense. The genocide of native peoples in this land is a very present instance of my teeth “set on edge,” a sour taste in the mouth. I am not accountable for what past generations have done to native people, but the patterns they set in motion are a part of the present which I would like to change.

2. The national debt is clearly an example of the ways in which our present is circumscribed by decisions we have not made, but were often made long before we were in positions of influence. We try to ignore it, but it threatens our national economic health.

3. Some of us are beneficiaries of funds accumulated by forebears whose decisions and actions still provide us with money which expands our options today. Conversely, some find options limited because those who went before either did not or could not save.

4. Often treaties made in another day are still binding upon us in the present. That we sometimes trample them, instanced often in our treatment of Native Americans, is a testimony to their force upon us.

5. I have belonged to churches where previous mortgages, contracted for reasons I thought were not very good, still bound our members in the present. Bank officials simply would not buy any argument that we disagreed with the reasons for the mortgage, and therefore should not be held accountable to pay. In such a case the past climbs into my pocketbook, very present indeed.

6. The Constitution is a document which I did not write, but its principles affect me daily. Judicial decisions of decades ago frequently define what I can and cannot do. The Constitution can be changed and judicial decisions can be overturned, but until changed they are binding upon me, reaching from the past into my present.

7.Any psychiatrist will remind us that the past represented by many who have been dose to us, forms and sometimes deforms the reality in which we presently live.

8.National pride based in our heritage illustrates our bondedness to the past. I am very proud of the American Revolution, bringing a new form of freedom to the world, but I had nothing to do with it. I am daily grateful for that bonding.

9.The Declaration of Independence was not of my writing, and I was not around even to be consulted when it was written. I certainly cannot claim any responsibility for it, but I live every day grateful for its proclamation of self-evident truths, including the equality of all persons, and unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.[1] I look upon it still as a kind of “mission statement” for our nation, one which some generation will see fulfilled. From Jefferson, to my colleagues, to those next generations the corporate nature of our bonding is self-evident.

So the illustrations pile up, showing the connections of the present with the past. What was someone else’s present, we think of as “past;” yet the way they lived, the decisions they made affect us, sometimes blessing our lives, sometimes invading them with an unwelcome reality. The point is clear: we are inextricably bound to the past.

The past lives in us in myriad ways. We must learn from it, must appropriate the good it brings to us, must correct the evil it bequeaths us. The body politic today is an extension of what it was yesteryear, warp and woof woven together in a pattern of beauty or ugliness. To deny the corporate nature of life is to miss an important truth. Let’s not forget that as we work together to discard the racism of the past and to provide a present that will build a future without racism.

[1] I know well the terrible contradiction in Jefferson’s life, which shows clearly that behaviorally he did not exhibit a belief in the equality which he espoused. I will not excuse that failure, but do still want to acknowledge a profound sense of gratitude for the principle he held out for us to strive towards.