[Inspired by two recent events about which I wrote on Monday, a series on the complex question of whether and how America should apologize for historic wrongs. Leading up to a special weekend post where I’ll share some broader thoughts and for which I’m not at all sorry to ask for your contributions as well!]
On the elephant in the ApologyStudying room, and how this week’s topics could be connected to it.
As I wrote back in this January post on 21st century civil rights, the debate over reparations has returned to our national conversations over issues of race and history, thanks in large part to the wonderful Ta-Nehisi Coates Atlantic cover story I referenced there. I mentioned in that post that I agree with Coates’ position, and most especially support his arguments that reparations for African Americans would not and could not be limited to slavery, but should instead be expanded to cover (and indeed should likely focus on, given how much more possible it would be to learn and quantify the effects for particular individuals and families) more 20th century histories such as Jim Crow laws, the lynching epidemic and racial violence/terrorism, housing discrimination and segregation, and the like. Shifting the reparations conversation in precisely those ways has been a major element of what Coates has contributed, and it’s hard to overstate the importance of that effect.
Yet at the same time, it’s even harder for me to imagine any national progress toward African American reparations. As far as I know, Barack Obama hasn’t addressed the issue directly during his time as president, but he did so at least twice in the years leading up to the 2008 election, and was opposed to reparations in those remarks. As that article notes, Obama’s position is substantively similar to those of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, neither of whom seem the slightest bit likely to push for reparations if elected president. If Donald Trump is elec—nope, can’t finish that sentence yet, but suffice to say that neither Trump nor anyone else in the 2016 Repbulican Party is ever going to be on board with reparations (I noted earlier in the week that many Republicans voted against reparations for Japanese internment, in a far less partisan or divided moment). And given how fully the #BlackLivesMatter movement seems to have polarized the American people, and how many Americans apparently take issue with that seemingly straightforward concept, the thought of any collective, unified support for reparations feels like imagining a utopian future more distant than one with personal jetpacks.
If we are to move toward that future, though, I wonder if another perspectival shift about reparations might not help us get there. As far as I know, the debate over reparations has to date largely taken place on its own terms, sometimes parallel to but often and in many ways outside of and separate from the other formal or official apologies about which I’ve written this week. But I don’t know why it should—each history and issue is of course specific and distinct, but they’re all linked by the fundamental similarity that these are dark and painful American histories, ones created and perpetuated by laws and policies, ones that continue to echo into the present and effect both these particular communities and our society and nation as a whole. If we can see them all as connected, as part of the pattern of American history and identity, then we can not only see our apologies and reparations as similarly shared responses and policies, but can also and just as importantly (like with the Japanese Internment Civil Liberties Public Education Fund) make collective the work of acknowledging and remembering these American histories. What could be more important to our future than that?
Special post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Responses to this topic and/or broader thoughts on American apologies for the weekend post are very welcome!
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