View From Here: Henry Louis Gates and His Sad Sense of History

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What a strange history lesson Henry Louis Gates gives in an April 23 New York Times Op Ed.  He begins “Thanks to an unlikely confluence of history and genetics – the fact that he is African-American and president – Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to reshape the debate over one of the most contentious issues of America’s racial legacy: reparations, the idea that the descendants of American slaves should receive compensation for their ancestors’ unpaid labor and bondage.”

First of all, Barack Obama is not an African-American in the sense that it is being used here, as a descendant of people held as slaves.  His family history and his genetics did not pass through the physical and emotional trauma sustained for several hundred years.

Secondly, Gates says “There are many thorny issues to resolve before we can arrive at a judicious (if symbolic) gesture to match such a sustained, heinous crime. Perhaps the most vexing is how to parcel out blame to those directly involved in the capture and sale of human beings for immense economic gain.”

And for the rest of the long piece, he spends his time making the argument that it was Africans who sold other Africans to the slavers and therefore the blame for slavery cannot be attributed only to the Europeans which makes the question of who to go to for reparations such a problem for Gates.   What nonsense is this?  When there is a civil lawsuit for compensation, no one goes after the perp with no money.  The Africans may have been paid with some golden trinkets, and maybe African-Americans could make a case for dual citizenship and special trade opportunities, but the true wealth of the slave trade was made here, stateside.  This is where the human capital of Africans working as slaves was invested.

Before electricity and oil, it was the slave who supplied the energy to clear the land, build the roads and load the ships.  and perform all other things necessary to bring a nation into being on land that had been stolen from a decimated indigenous people in their first encounter with the Europeans.

Never mentioned in Gates’ piece are the 60% of the nation’s exports that were slave-produced or the banks, still existing, that handled that money and profited on those deals. He doesn’t speak of how the money made from slavery and the taxes on that money nursed this nation through the agricultural age and into the age of industry.  That’s the debt that’s owed.

It is unfortunate that Dr. Gates chose this time in the nation’s history for his musings.  There is an ugly part of the American nature showing itself, carrying guns to political rallies that bear an eerie resemblance to the pictures of the crowds at the lynching parties from a time not all that long ago.  In Arizona, a new law  says if a law enforcement officer thinks someone is not a citizen, that person can be stopped and asked to show identification papers, like in the old movies with the Nazi street patrols.  This is not the time to forget or excuse what evil ordinary people are capable of.  It is a time to hold them accountable, lest they do it again.

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