Tom Finneran: Race—The Great American Debate

Friday, July 12, 2013


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Five full years after America elected its first black President and several months after re-electing him, the question of race relations in America continues to haunt the nation. I cannot pretend to understand all the historic dynamics that permeate this issue. Nor can I pretend to utter a soothing conclusion that all will be well, for both white America and black America have an awful lot to consider.

For white America, an ugly past cannot be simply shrugged away. America’s treatment of its black citizens was beyond shameful. It was vicious and it was violent. That treatment included the deliberate tearing apart of families and the denial of even the most basic forms of education. For a curious child, or for parents who wanted to instill a hunger for literacy in their children, could there be anything more degrading than being told that such pursuits were not allowed? For a man who sought work with a fair wage, could there be anything more humiliating than being laughed at and ridiculed by prospective employers or more humbling than returning home, day after day, jobless, to a desperate wife and hungry children? Wounds such as these do not heal. Rather, they become family and cultural lore, to be repeated and shared, so that they are not forgotten.

Fat chance that they will be forgotten. The Irish don’t forget their ghettoes or their grudges. The Jews don’t forget the pogroms. Virtually every immigrant group to America has its own cultural lore of shabby treatment at the hands of others. And it does America very little good to point out that such treatment was often much worse in the countries from which these immigrants came. Some other nation’s scandal and shame does not excuse America’s scandal and shame. To forget is also, in some way, to forgive and what was done, to the Irish, to the Jews, to black Americans, and to others is unforgiveable. Historically, such has been man’s inhumanity to man and America has not escaped that damning reality.

A searing image from the days of the civil rights marches was that of a long line of black men simply carrying placards that read, “I AM A MAN”. What seems so obvious and inescapable to us today–the precious humanity of every person, skin color be damned–required statement, restatement, marches, arrests, laws, lawsuits, boycotts, and riots to begin to sink in to white American consciousness. I suppose that its obviousness today, in the America of 2013, is a sign of some progress but is it any wonder that black America remains suspicious of white America’s soul? Such were the foul deeds, perpetrated for many many years on a proud race.

Three particularly vivid examples crowd my mind. One is the image of Southern black women attempting to register to vote as memorably described by Robert Caro in his books on Lyndon Johnson. To read of their treatment is to hang your head and cry over such cruelty. And this, in America in the 20th century, was over the RIGHT TO VOTE, the most essential right of our republic. This was repulsive, inexcusable, and vicious treatment of fellow human beings. The second image is of America’s pastime, the great game of baseball, which for many years stayed a racist and pristine white sport while vastly superior black players were consigned to barnstorming buses in inferior leagues. A final example, from a very deep well of shame, would be the second-class treatment of black American soldiers guarding German prisoners of war, with the German prisoners entering through the front doors of the mess halls and black American troops, wearing the uniform of a nation for which they were prepared to die, ordered by that nation to enter such mess halls through the back doors. In voting, baseball, and war, three activities which are about as American as apple pie, the record is embarrassingly clear. These were indeed foul crimes against a proud race.

Yet what could be the national penance that begins to heal this peculiar American wound? Once upon a time it was thought that “forty acres and a mule” or the reservation of several of the States for black Americans would solve the problem. But let’s get real. Such reparations will simply not happen. Nor should they, for the black baby and the white baby born today bear neither injury nor guilt from the odious acts of others generations ago. Academics now cite “privilege” as a justification for diversity and affirmative action programs, as if a white kid born in Worcester today is the heir to some advantage carried forward from Southern slave plantations. They should be wary of planting such racial seeds for the harvest can be bitter–white Americans with no racial bias whatsoever can become understandably resentful when their legitimate efforts and achievements are ignored in order to satisfy some vague diversity quota. I don’t think that any honest American citizen can or should gripe about losing out to a more qualified applicant for college admission, a job opportunity, or a promotion. I also think that it’s possible to be reasonably objective on these matters while conceding that there will always be some close judgement calls. Consider Asian-American students who seem to outperform every other sub-group in America, including so-called white Americans. Why should they be told that their consistently superior academic performance is to be ignored so that a university can cobble together a phony human rainbow for its brochures?

Maybe Al Sharpton thinks it’s just fine to ignore such effort and achievement in the name of a never-ending racial hustle. I don’t.


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