The Past Is Present: Enabling Oppression

All of the census entries read in more or less the same way. The older ones only list numbers, but in later years, they started to add names of people in the household — unless they were slaves.

Free white persons — Males — Under 16: 3
Free white persons — Males — 16 and Over: 1
Free white persons — Females: 2
Number of slaves: 8
Number of household members: 14

So reads the census of one of my 5th great-grandfathers, and it is not the only one. His father came from Ireland, and along the way he acquired three slaves. Other branches of the family had slaves as well; some did not. The difference was likely wealth, not compassion.

The names of slaves are never included. It’s likely that they were given the surnames of my family, which was meant to convey ownership, not fondness. Their first names were probably given to them, too. What were they? In the year 1800, did they remember an African name? Were they born here and only knew of their English name? What were their names?

Genealogy sites now allow us to get our DNA tested and find probable cousins, who have also had their DNA tested. Sometimes, the cousins are descended from family slaves. I haven’t found such a cousin yet, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Blood ties are easier, but who are the descendants of the people my family once owned?

Many white people don’t like to talk about reparations for slavery, because — dear heavens — it might mean money out of their pockets, and at any rate, it wasn’t their fault that their ancestors were jerks. But the sins of our fathers do affect all of us. We cannot escape them. In fact, we are propagating those sins still today, and in doing so, are culpable.

Our ancestors created:

  • A social and economic system in which the black person is considered to be subhuman, and therefore inferior
  • A system in which the white person was due respect and deference from the black person, but in which none was due to him or her in return
  • A system of separation of the races, in which black people received inferior wages, resources, and goods
  • A system of incarceration with its origins in finding runaway slaves that now regularly prefers to target the black person, and in doing so, to extract free labor from the black person for corporations
  • A system that has worked to deny all basic civil rights to the black person, including the pursuance of happiness, freedom to marry whom they like, and the right to vote
  • A system that in every ways gives preference to the white race in all matters

Any white person who thinks this is no longer the case is in a state of severe denial, which in itself performs the function of oppressing the ancestors of those our ancestors have enslaved. Yes, some things have changed; but in many ways, a lot has remained the same. And that, my dear white friends, is all on us.

Monetary reparations would help the centuries of economic disadvantage we have inflicted on the black citizens of our nation, but it would be even nicer if we could finally stand up and say, “Our society has been built on racism and slavery, and that is no longer acceptable.” If we really believe we’re not the jerks our ancestors were, we will support changes to our criminal justice system. We will support Black Lives Matter because, wow, we recognize that they do. We would remove anyone in power who behaves otherwise, whether they are police officers, prosecuting attorneys, judges, or the Attorney General himself (*cough*). We would not summarily overlook resumes with “black-sounding” names, we would pay equivalent salaries, and we would (gasp) behave as though black people were deserving of the same benefit of the doubt and dignity that white people are.

As Yoda said, “We must unlearn what we have learned.”

The responsibility for this is not on black people. It’s not their job to educate us. It’s not their job to give us a trophy when we don’t behave like a racist jerk. It’s our job to behave like a decent human being and recognize other human beings as our equals, as people deserving of the same benefits we have long enjoyed. Now that would be a good start on some reparations.

Pictured are Isaac White and Rosina Downs. They both were slave children in New Orleans.

Writer, painter, cat fancier, troublemaker, democratic socialist, & antifascist.

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