Thursday, May 26, 2016

                           Slavery and the Holocaust

Twenty-four states in the US have Holocaust museums. In many of these 24 states there is more than one Holocaust Memorial. A Museum of American slavery is just about to open in Louisiana. It is the first one.

It is tempting to respond to this fact by comparing the suffering of slaves and the death toll of slavery to the suffering and deaths of the victims of Nazi genocide. But it is inhumane to enter into a debate as to which  group has suffered more.

Instead we need to recognize why memorials to slavery are so rare and of recent origin even though the parallels between slavery, between genocide of Native Americans and the Holocaust have been a familiar trope for quite a while. Book titles such as  American Holocaust are familiar.

But Americans are understandably reluctant to explore the terrific suffering imposed on slaves because white Americans imposed those sufferings. Whites alive today often refuse to have anything to do with slavery. They complain about affirmative action programs by saying that they, after all, did not own slaves. Slavery has nothing to do with them and, by implication, the aftermath of slavery, which is still very much with us, has nothing to do with them either.

Others, a large majority, simply do not pay any attention to slavery and to the centuries-old struggle of African-Americans for recognition of their humanity--a struggle that is still very much ongoing.

Liberals often acknowledge that slavery did exist for 300 years (if we include, as we should, the regime of Jim Crow between the end of the Civil War and the 1960s, 100 years later.) and propose some wildly inappropriate remedy. Harvard University has placed a plaque on one of its buildings with the names of four slaves owned by a previous president of the University. Names or images referring to slavery and oppression are being changed.

But such acts have more to do with public relations than anything else. The incredible suffering imposed on slaves when they were sold away from their families, from wives,  from husbands and children, from fathers and mothers, the blatant brutality of enforcing quotas of pounds of cotton picked per day, the merciless flogging of those who did not meet their quotas, the rape of slave women by their owners or their families, the shame of being examined naked in the slave market, the denigration as savage when law prohibited teaching slaves to read and write--none of those are addressed by plaques and changed logos. Such public relation moves only trivialize the suffering of slaves.

This orgy of brutality produced immense wealth from the triangular trade to the cotton plantations in southern states. American wealth, the astonishing productivity of American capitalism owe their origin to the misery, to the ceaseless hard physical labor of generations of African-American slaves.

After centuries of repeated resistance in slave uprisings and in small acts of sabotage, in  national demonstrations and in quiet assertions of their dignity, some African Americans have gained good work and a middle-class incomes. But the majority is still struggling to get a decent education, to get decent work and to be accorded respect as human beings.
We probably need more museums of slavery. More importantly, we need a widespread recognition on the part of Whites in America that they are indebted for their high standard of living to the African-Americans who often do not share that standard of living. Whites in America owe a great debt. That debt is not paid by installing a plaque on a Harvard University building or by changing the logo of a university.

It is true that the present generation of white Americans does not own slaves. But it is also true that they are inheriting the wealth produced by slavery and are  for that reason under a heavy obligation to repay the descendants of slaves.

Reparations have been discussed for a long time. Obviously it involves money. One suggestion is that the gap in property ownership between whites and blacks--prominently the gap in home ownership-- be removed through payments to Blacks. There are many other proposals. For a number of years, Rep. Conyers has tried to introduce a bill in Congress to appoint a commission to study  reparations. Congress has never taken up that bill. The predominantly white Congress does not even want to think about reparations.

Congress does not want to consider reparations, even to study and debate, because they understand that “more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe . . .  [reparations involve] . . . a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history. (