In 1954, before many readers of this paper were born, I hailed the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned almost 100 years of Jim Crow laws as long overdue justice.
This was in the days before even a moderate stance on racial issues was considered cool in the South, even for Chattanooga, where as many people have Union roots as Confederate. My own roots are Confederate, by the way.
I have always been basically a redneck who loves bluegrass music, SEC football, pickup trucks and turnip greens. Consequently, my ahead-of-their-time feelings on race did not always sit well with friends and associates.
But I stood my ground because I knew I was right. My feelings have not changed over the years, and I have lived to see mainstream Southern thought, albeit grudgingly at times, come to accept racial equality.
I was even in favor, with some reservations, of such radical departures from conventional Southern thinking as Affirmative Action. Since black people had been the victims of laws denying them rights and opportunities for almost 100 years, I theorized, why not enact laws to help them catch up?
My misgivings included the nagging suspicion that using one injustice to atone for another might not be true justice in the balance of things. Nevertheless, I went along with it from a belief in the greater good or the lesser evil. If this smacks of moral relativism, it is unintentional.
Attitudes on social change progress in a pendulum-like fashion, swinging back and forth between the extremes as peoples’ perspectives change. But when the pendulum occasionally veers a bit too far off course, it must be corrected.
I think this is the case with the current trend among some African-American leaders to demand financial reparations for the injustices of 250 years’ slavery.
Slavery, like the formerly routine practice of large nations seizing the territory of smaller ones and a host of other injustices, is wrong by any accepted moral standard today. But the Bible, our standard for ethics for almost 2,000 years, nowhere speaks out against slavery.
In fact, if taken literally, the Bible actually appears to condone it in many places. It was in that kind of world that slavery thrived until comparatively recent times.
In categorically condemning past evils, one must guard against “presentism,” the tendency to view the past through the prism of today’s moral standards. Past things should be judged in the context in which they existed. Presentism can be an exercise in sophistic futility.
To sensibly redress social wrongs, we must proceed from how things are today and operate in that context, and we are already doing that in the area of race, albeit imperfectly at times. We all suffer from a terminal disease called humanity.
But assuming approval of financial reparations for slavery for just a moment, how are we going to administrate this monster?
We mostly avoid this touchy subject for obvious reasons in the South, but African-Americans are anything but a pure race. In fact, many have been absorbed into white society over the years through a phenomenon known as “passing.”
So are we going to award restitution proportionately by degree of African blood? This would seem an entirely equitable way to go about it. But how would we determine the degree, through DNA testing or mostly nonexistent birth records?
How about means testing, another attempt at fairness? Should a Michael Jordan or an Oprah Winfrey, for instance, get the same compensation as a Lateesha Washington, a single mother who was reared in a sharecropper’s shack near Valdosta?
Come on, now; let’s get real. Whoever thought up this reparations thing needs to have his or her smoking habits checked out.
Dr. Walter A. Williams, economics professor at James Madison University and a nationally-syndicated columnist, takes a refreshingly novel approach to this question of reparations. He says that African Americans should thank the white race for slavery.
Though evil in the short run, slavery transplanted their ancestors from a continent where nobody in their right mind would want to live today to a land offering opportunities available nowhere else.
Dr. Williams concludes by making this significant point: If all other ethnic groups suddenly left the U.S., taking their wealth with them and leaving only the African-Americans, who comprise just 12 percent of the population, roughly 35 million, they would still have the 10th-largest economy in the world. Think about it.
Dr. Williams, by the way, is an African American — glad and proud of it.George Reed lives in Fort Oglethorpe, holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and taught foreign language and history in the Hamilton County school system after retiring from BellSouth in 1987.