[freedomtowernight_edited.jpg] 26th Parallel: A Race Editorial With Substance

Monday, April 07, 2008

A Race Editorial With Substance

In keeping with the race relations theme of last two posts, here's an interesting and thought-provoking editorial by Marvin Dunn, former chair of the psychology department at Florida International University. His ideas on what Florida should do about its history of slavery and exactly what should any reparations consist of are concise and quite logical. Unlike Barack Obama's recent sweeping race speech which was long on "feel good" words but short on substance, Dunn's editorial actually attempts to get to the heart of the issue of how to solve our complex racial issues. Dunn doesn't point fingers or pound on the pulpit about today's American white man who mostly had nothing to do whatsoever with slavery, but instead looks to ways to make sure that the sad history of slavery is not forgotten while ensuring that African-Americans are given opportunities to succeed just as anyone else.
Make the apology meaningful

t last, Florida apologized for the enslavement of African Americans within its borders. My grandmother's father was a slave in Gadsden County; so, why don't I feel better?

Maybe it's because the apology is a meaningless act that only a dolt or outright racist would oppose. It cost the state nothing and of course, there was not a word about the thorny question of reparations. As one of the African Americans to whom the apology was aimed, it was not enough. Frankly, I would love to get a reparations check but how is the state to determine who gets paid and who does not? The complexity of the issue is sufficient grounds for the state to recoil at the very thought of reparations. Beyond the messiness of it, any white legislator who voted for reparations would be road kill back at home. Florida whites today are unwilling to pay for the sins of their fathers, especially since they may not even have been the sins of their fathers, given that so many whites have migrated to Florida from some place else.

In light of these obstacles, not to mention the cost of reparations, what Florida and other states of the Old South should be considering is how to pay reparations to African Americans as a whole, rather than to individuals. Gov. Charlie Crist says he is open to reasonable ideas regarding reparations. Here are some suggestions:

First, help us to find out about our slave ancestry in Florida. Since the state and the various counties have detailed records of who was owned by whom those records should be digitized and made available to anyone who wishes to research his or her ancestral history in Florida during the time of slavery. These records exist in great detail in tax records, wills, estate records, probate court records, etc. In order to accomplish this, the state should fund a permanent position for an archivist at Florida A&M University whose sole duty would be to digitize and make those records available to the public.

Second, Florida should erect a monument in Tallahassee commemorating and honoring enslaved African Americans who contributed, albeit under the whip, mightily to the early growth of the state. Most people in the state may prefer to bury slavery rather than memorialize it but monuments are erected to many horrible things including the Holocaust, wars and epidemics. Why not to slavery?

Third, Florida should ensure that this uncomfortable past of its history is not lost nor the contributions of those who suffered under it forgotten. The state should sponsor the making of a broadcast-quality documentary film such as those done by noted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns on the history of slavery in the state. The film in DVD form should be placed in every public school in Florida.

Finally, education is the great equalizer. Given that it was illegal in Florida to teach slaves to read, 1,000 fully-paid college scholarships to Florida colleges and universities should be made available each year to African-American students who can establish that their ancestry was enslaved in Florida. Those students would be required to meet the same admissions criteria as other applicants.

We African Americans have some emotional work to do, too. Bury the anger. Don't hold whites who had nothing to do with slavery responsible for happened to our ancestors. I know the counter argument, ''They may not have owned slaves but they are the direct beneficiaries of those who did.'' True, but to quote Vice-President Dick Cheney: ''So?'' Meaning, what are they to do about that? Change color? The open wound on Florida's soul that was slavery can never be excised by any means other than exposure to the clear light of day. The apology provides a whiff of fresh air but like most deep infections, true healing requires a continuous breeze.


Blogger Srcohiba said...

All but the last one are reasonable. The one is unconstitutional as it is a violation of the 14th amendment for the government to make scholarships to which only those of a particular ancestry are eligible.

9:25 AM, April 08, 2008  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Constitutional questions aside, I agree that these are reasonable suggestions. Slavery is a great blot on this country's history, and while Americans today are not responsible for slavery and cannot compensate ex-slaves who are no longer alive, we can do a better job of remembering them. The problem with most such proposals is that they seek to punish whites, which is a non-starter politically, for good reason. Something like Dunn's proposals, by avoiding the penalization of whites who had nothing to do with slavery, stands a chance of being enacted.

11:59 PM, April 08, 2008  
Blogger James said...

I agree that this is an excellent set of suggestions, focusing on practical solutions without seeking to punish whites.

However, I think that Srcohiba's comment is important, and not just because of the constitutional issue. When you get right down to it, there's no way to address some of the effects of slavery and discrimination without "punishing whites," at least in the limited sense of spending taxpayer money or offering programs which benefit blacks more than whites.

Education, of course, can help, as it would help whites to see that while they may have done nothing wrong, they do benefit from the legacy of slavery, and the playing field is by no means level today.

It's also possible to tailor programs so that the effects are more fair -- or, as you suggest, Jonathan, more politically acceptable.

Instead of setting aside scholarships for the descendants of slaves, for instance, we could target many more scholarships to those from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds. This program would assist many of the same deserving students, but not on the basis of race; black students would disproportionately benefit, but because of the fact that blacks have not benefitted equally from economic opportunity over the years. Such a program would also provide plenty of scholarships for whites and others who deserve assistance.

10:05 AM, April 20, 2008  

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