Saturday, April 18, 2009

Apologize for Segregation? Why Bring it Up? It's Not Happening Anymore.

For nearly 100 years Jim Crow laws mandated racial segregation. I described in a previous post, Larry Griffin's talk at Centenary on April 16, and his description of how other societies have recovered from eras of widespread and deliberate civil and human rights abuse.

In speaking of that time here, Griffin said: "Segregation was the law of the land, and most southern whites, politicians and ordinary citizens alike, resisted, too often with violence, any challenge to it. ...We in the region were very much a people divided, divide here by race. I need only allude to the horrors of African American life in the segregated South, the daily humiliations and degradations and fear; the systematic, routinized exclusions; the hint, or more than the hint, of violence to be unleashed at any time for any reason or for no reason at all. Unfortunately, death came all too frequently to the South: more than 4000 black folk—true figures will never be known--were lynched by white mobs during the time of Jim Crow. So, again, we were, in the mid-1960s, a people divided, a quarter to a third or so of the South’s own without much in the way of economic comfort, physical security, or political voice."

Griffin noted how other societies have healed from such pasts by installing into power those who'd been oppressed, by conducting trials, leading truth and reconciliation commissions, issuing apologies, or paying repatriations.

One thought people might have with regard to apologizing for slavery or segregation is this:
"Why should bring it up? There's no segregation anymore. Aren't we creating differences between people that don't exist? Why apologize for something that isn't affecting anyone?"

And it doesn't make sense to apologize for something that isn't affecting anyone in the first place. If I make a mistake, but correct it before it affects anyone, I wouldn't apologize.

So, if we're all treated equally now by race, why bring up the past?

First, we all behave differently towards people based on race (as well as on gender, attractiveness, age, etc.) even when we think we don't. It's common for whites to think racism doesn't exist anymore. And that's natural. It's impossible to see all the subtle differences in our behaviors towards others.

In fact the research is overwhelming that racism still exists today, though it's not necessarily not the kind of racism that any well-meaning white person would perceive. For example, am I conscious of how race affects who I'd hire for a job? No. But the evidence is indisputable that they do affect those choices, even for your average, well-meaning white person. In one experiment whites were much less likely to call someone with an who'd sent in job application if they had Afro-centric name, even when everything else on the resume was exactly the same. Would I do that? Odds are that I would, even if it's subconscious. Just as I treat people differently by their age, obesity, attractiveness, disabilities, status, even when I don't think I'm doing it.

So, racism is happening, and apologizing for the original inequalities that led to current prejudgements and assumptions, might help us be aware of them and reduce our racism.

The other reason we should apologize for segragation, even though happened decades ago is because it lives on today in terms of black and white differences in wealth. The endowments that old universities and colleges have built, the capital that long-standing companies have accumulated, the wealth, and even opportunities and advice that families have handed down over the generations, all amount to resources that African-Americans were systematically excluded from amassing themselves. Non-African Americans today are effectively sitting on a bigger pile of resources than African-Americans, and that difference began illegitimately.

The examples are right in front of us. In a city that is half black, for example, Centenary College's custodial staff is predominantly black, while it's faculty is all white. There's a tendency to think such patterns are the result of voluntary choices: we chose our career paths, don't we? how hard to try in school? or who we associate with? One of the people I associate with is my dad. I didn't chose him, and I ended up a lot like him. He's a sociologist and--what a coincidence--I happen to be one too. So our social networks aren't a result of choice, and they've got important consequences.

Neither I, nor my father would be exactly where we are today if the competition had been a little stiffer at any point along the way. When he was applying to colleges in 1953, his black counterparts in segregated schools in North Carolina couldn't hope to compete with him equally. Nor could my African-American counterparts in Massachusetts twenty five years later. For example, I got plenty of invaluable advice from my dad on how to navigate the course from high school to a professorship. That's advise you don't get if your dad was kept out of that same experience.

Do I feel guilty about it? No. I didn't design segregation. Neither did my dad, mom, granddad, or any of my ancestors. Could they have done more to work against it? Sure. Could I have done more? I now see that I sure could have. And I regret that. And that's what I'd apologizing for, personally. I'm sorry I've never admitted to myself how my own advantages were traceable, in part, to segregation. I just didn't see it. Now that I do, I'm going try to own up to it; to admit that I've achieved what I have only partly because of my smarts and effort. A lot of what I have is due to my race. (And for that matter, come to think of it, my gender, my sexual orientation, my looks, my height, my non-disability status, etc.)

But I don't feel guilty. I will feel guilty, though, if I don't apologize. And if I don't help guard against our society making the same kind of mistake we made in segregation.

When we make mistakes that hurt other people, we apologize for them. And we hope those people will accept our apology to mean we'll guard against making that mistake again in the future.

We know segregation was a mistake, and that it's still hurting people today. So let's be honest about that. It might help us be aware of similar mistakes we make in the future, and for those who've been hurt by our mistakes to trust our intentions to not repeat those mistakes.

A number of institutions have apologized for slavery--the University of North Carolina, the University of Alabama, and Wachovia Securities, to name three--but none have apologized for segregation.

Let's lead the way, here in Shreveport. For Shreveport to be the first city, or Centenary the first college, would be something to be proud about, wouldn't it?

In my next post, I'm going to suggest a paragraph that we'd presumably sign as an apology.

No comments: