Lyric You in Lilacs

May 24, 2010

The Blame-Game over Slavery (revised)

Filed under: Uncategorized — lyricyouinlilacs @ 5:45 am

A few weeks ago, Henry Louis Gates published an op-ed in the New York Times called “Ending the Slavery Blame-Game.”  The piece was clearly designed to instigate a thoughtful discussion about the issue of reparations, but instead it provoked a firestorm of criticism, due at least in part to Gates’s own lack of clarity.

The gist of Gates’s argument is that both blacks and whites were responsible for the enslavement of African Americans, because Africans themselves participated in the sale of slaves to white merchants.  As Gates put it:

[It is important] to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. And reaching that understanding is a vital precursor to any just and lasting agreement on the divisive issue of slavery reparations.

Some people have interpreted Gates’s views as an attempt to negate, or at the very least downplay, the importance or longevity of slavery in the United States.  Others, like Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic, have noted that Gates doesn’t want to “end the slavery blame-game” so much as “he’s interested in fiddling with the foul-count. The vocabulary of blame is key—instead of speciously blaming white Americans for the crimes of their presumed ancestors, Gates speciously blames Africans.”

Coates makes a good point, but it’s not clear that even he got Gates right.  Over at The Root, where Gates is editor-in-chief, one contributor quoted an e-mail exchange he had with the author, in which the latter tried to clarify his argument:

We should get some sort of symbolic reparations from the African governments from whence most of our ancestors were captured, and then use that to get concessions (affirmative action, etc.) from the U.S. government. If African governments can do it, then there would be no excuse for the American government not to. And I am thinking of things like symbolic citizenship, opportunities to buy land, long-term tourist visas, etc., whatever!

It’s too bad that Gates didn’t just come out and make this point in his op-ed.  The clarification could have spared a lot of anger.  But even if he had been more explicit, his piece would still have suffered from some painful lapses in logic—lapses that are truly bizarre coming from a scholar so familiar with African history.  Why, for example, should today’s African governments be held responsible for the behavior of the pre-colonial kingdoms and tribes that were involved in the slave trade?  The Kongo Kingdom of Central Africa (which Gates mentions, and to which he assigns some blame) no longer exists, at least not as a political entity.  Why should the Democratic Republic of Congo be held responsible for the decisions of an institution that once flourished in its territory, but never became part of the modern state (due to the pernicious effects of colonialism)?  Unlike the Kongo Kingdom, the United States still does exist, with its political and economic institutions intact—which is precisely why the debate over reparations has focused so heavily on the U.S. government.

But beyond points like these—which, again, should have been obvious to a scholar of Gates’s stature—the lack of political savvy that permeates this op-ed is worrisome.  The tenor of his entire article, beginning with its unfortunate title, risks giving credence to those individuals who might try to avert their gaze from the historical legacies of slavery on U.S. soil.  Remember that Gates published this piece just three weeks after the Bob McDonnell controversy over Confederate History Month in Virginia.  Given that Gates’s fame derives from the fact that he writes and think about race for a living, I expected better.  Much better.

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