And to see slavery as original sin, as The 1619 Project does, is to have only one answer for the question, posed in a recent Times magazine cover story, of “What Is Owed” to today’s African-Americans. The solution, Hannah-Jones said in this piece, a companion to her article of the year before, is financial reparations. Cash payments “would go to any person who has documentation that he or she identified as a black person for at least 10 years before the beginning of any reparations process and can trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery,” she proposed.
As Hannah-Jones noted in a conversation about her cover piece on NBC News’ “Into America” podcast, “the model that everyone talks about is Germany, where Holocaust survivors and their family members received reparations.” But Hitler’s Germany was vanquished by foreign armies. In America, at least 360,000 Union soldiers died in a war that was caused by the South’s insistence on keeping slavery and that became, as the fighting ground on, largely about the emancipation of the slaves. This expended blood represents a kind of reparations, America’s cemeteries stocked with the bones of the fallen payers. Then, too, while some white citizens of today can trace ancestors back to the Confederates, twenty-first-century America is largely the product of waves of immigration which mounted in the years after the war was fought and which came from virtually every corner of the planet. The Jews seeking refuge in the United States from the Tsar’s Russia and later the Soviet Union, the boat people fleeing Communist Vietnam, the migrants coming across the southern border from crime-plagued Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—none of these peoples, and many others like them, has any moral or historical tie to the practice or institution of slavery in America.
The preaching from the mountaintop approach to our past invites questions of hypocrisy on the part of the Times, our nation’s most influential media institution. Perhaps the Times is suffering from its own sense of historical guilt. As Michael Goodwin, an opinion columnist at The New York Post, points out, the modern Times dates to its purchase in 1896 by Adolph S. Ochs, owner of the Chattanooga Times. Twelve years later, his paper published a glowing profile of Jefferson Davis on the anniversary of the death of the president of the Confederate States of America: “it is meet that the remnant of the people he wrought and struggled for should teach their children what manner of man he really was,” the Times piece from December, 1908, began. And what manner was that? “Today,” the profile concluded, “the verdict of the world is that here is a just man who has gone to sleep.” It is perhaps because of this sort of maudlin treatment, suffused with false notes even at the time this remembrance was written, that America took so long to have its Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung moment.
Yet where the Times leads, others in American elites follow. Or perhaps, in the case of universities, the reverse is true, the Times taking its cue from the prevailing consensus of the academy. Racist ideas are Stamped From The Beginning, according to the title of the bestselling 2016 book by Ibram X. Kendi, a professor in the humanities at Boston University and the founding director of its Center for Antiracist Research. “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America,” Princeton faculty members in the hundreds wrote the university’s president in a letter dated July 4, 2020. This is overstatement: the Puritans made their “errand into the wilderness” in the early seventeenth century, not to undertake the business of chattel slavery, but to escape religious persecution in Europe. And to insist on “anti-Blackness” as the essential element of America’s story is to diminish the encounter between Native Americans and European settlers as a fateful aspect of our national experience.
THE GOOD news is that Americans, broadly speaking, appear to be rejecting efforts to recast the very founding of the nation as, in effect, a criminal act. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll thus found that eighty percent of Americans stood opposed to the idea of using “taxpayer money to pay damages to descendants of enslaved people in the United States.” The public correctly senses that the reparations debate represents a precipitous descent, in Bruckner’s terms, into masochism.
At the very same time, Americans also are embracing constructive remedies to blights of the past. A model example is the approach of the city of Charleston, SC, to its monument of John C. Calhoun. The monument began as a civic project undertaken in the 1850s, after the death of Calhoun, by the Ladies’ Calhoun Monument Association. White Charleston worshipped Calhoun, who glorified slavery as “a positive good” and advocated the right of states to nullify any federal law deemed unconstitutional. A bronze statue finally was put up in the 1890s, and there it stood, towering over downtown Charleston, a symbol of Southern defiance on civil rights—until this past June, when a construction crew, enforcing a unanimous vote by the city council, carted Calhoun away. Dozens of bystanders exchanged hugs to honor the moment. Here was the functioning, not of a mob, but of orderly, small “d” democracy. The lesson, perhaps, is that the past is best worked off one piece at a time.
Nor is this task limited to symbolic rituals like civic removals of discredited monuments. Even as Americans overwhelmingly reject reparations, Reuters/Ipsos pollsters also found that seventy-two percent said they understood “why Black Americans do not trust the police.” In the first instance, that number undoubtedly reflects national horror at seeing on videotape a white Minneapolis policeman press a knee onto the neck of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, for nearly nine minutes as the victim repeatedly cried out he could not breathe. The county medical examiner ruled Floyd’s death a homicide. In a broader context, Americans are showing they can locate this episode as part of a historical pattern of police brutality towards African Americans, a pattern that dates back to white mobs lynching black men as police stood by. This grasp of chronic injustices is propelling a drive in Washington and at the state and local levels for needed policing reforms, as in removing legal barriers that keep victims of police brutality from filing civil lawsuits against the offenders.
In turn, the Black Lives Matter movement, which began in the Obama era with a sharp focus on harsh police conduct, is spawning a wider conversation about racism in America. That discussion threatens to become confusing and unanchored, as school districts anxiously purchase copies of White Fragility, the best-selling advice book that Columbia University professor John McWhorter, an African-American and a language specialist, has labelled a “racist tract”—a book that “diminishes Black people in the name of dignifying us.”
There is a better way: To work off the past—study it. Americans of high school age on up can profit from a book like historian Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States, a wide-angled survey, published in 2018, that opens with a full-page photograph of Americans gathered on the National Mall for the 1963 March on Washington, the occasion for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In a textured treatment of John Locke, she notes, as historians of America have observed for centuries, that his theory of “the natural liberty of man” is at the heart of American ideals. But she proceeds to point out, as many historians have neglected to do, that in Locke’s Constitution for the British colony of Carolina in the seventeenth century, he decreed that “Every freeman of Carolina, shall have absolute power and Authority over his Negro slaves.” That’s the sort of rounded history that Americans should ponder.
SO VERGANGENHEITSAUFARBEITUNG can be educational for the American mind, healing for the American soul—and potentially life-saving for African Americans and indeed all Americans. Is there also a case for working-off-the-past as a means of bolstering the standing, the influence, of America in the global arena?
“German efforts to confront its own crimes,” have made the nation “far more trusted, even occasionally admired, by the rest of the world,” Neiman concludes in Learning from the Germans. “Now many other nations ask Germany to play a more powerful role in world affairs, a request that would have seemed incredible just thirty years earlier.” Survey data collected over the last decade confirm Neiman’s observation of Germany as having arrived in the ranks of globally-esteemed nations—in fact, better liked than America even during the years of Obama, a popular president, unlike Trump, in many parts of the world. In a 2012–2013 BBC survey of 26,000 people in twenty-five countries, for example, 59 percent expressed a “mainly positive” view of Germany, higher than for any other nation, and well ahead of the United States, in eighth place with a 45 percent “mainly positive” score. Germany earns respect as an economic powerhouse, surely, but it is reasonable to think that its working-off-the-past effort also has something to do with the nation’s enhanced global prestige.