Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. recently wrote an interesting piece for the New York Times called, “Ending the Slavery Blame Game.” In the piece, Gates effectively argues that the fight for reparations is convoluted and somewhat mitigated by the fact that African elites participated in the slave trade. While describing complex business deals made between some African leadership and the Europeans who brought Africans to the New World, it almost appears as though Gates is saying that this disturbing relationship somehow undermines the right of African-Americans to hold our government accountable for its involvement in crimes committed against our people.
At very least, I am under the assumption that by “ending the slavery blame game,” Gates is arguing that we should stop blaming the United States government and white America for the rape, murder, castration, lynching and beating of our ancestors.
Sorry Dr. Gates, but I must respectfully (or perhaps not so respectfully) disagree. If a young girl is sold into prostitution by her own parents, the pimp must still pay for the suffering he caused the young woman. He can’t simply say, “Her parents made a deal with me, so you should stop the blame game.”
In other words, the United States, as a broad and powerful industrial entity, benefited from slavery to the tune of several trillion dollars. Much of this wealth was passed down from one white man to another, and was always out of the grasp of the black men, women and children who gave their lives on American soil in order to earn it. As a result, the median net worth of the African-American family is roughly one-tenth that of white American families and we have consistently higher unemployment due to our inability to create jobs, since white Americans own most businesses.
These facts hold true without regard to how the African-American holocaust started in the first place. They also hold true because wealth and power are commodities that are passed down inter-generationally, and we missed out on all of this because we were slaves. What occurred after we left Africa can and must be considered independently from what happened while our forefathers were in the mother land.
Beyond the indisputable financial damage caused by slavery, there is also a price to be paid for pain, suffering and aggregate trauma. Even the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolishes slavery, has a clause stating that it’s still OK to enslave another American, as long as that person has been convicted of a crime. Given that the United States incarcerates 5.8 times more black men than South Africa did during the height of apartheid, it’s easy to argue that the human rights violations of American slavery continue to this day.
The arbitrary label of “convict” is used against black men in a disproportionate fashion as a loophole for American corporations to continue to profit from slave labor. I don’t want to play the “blame game.” But mainstream media must not play the “irresponsibility game,” by promoting apologist African-American scholars who are willing to write off 400 years of systemically oppressive behavior. While the Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?” approach makes some of us more comfortable, the truth is that America cannot become truly post-racial until it overcomes its past-racial influences.
I am not sure why Gates has gone out of his way to assuage white guilt in America. I hope that’s not the price a black man must pay in order to write an op-ed in the New York Times. Perhaps his PBS specials, in which he goes out of his way to prove that he is actually from Europe, is his way of fitting into the society that never embraced the little black boy from West Virginia (Gates writes extensively about being rejected by white women as a child). Henry Louis Gates seems to have spent his entire life proving to the world that he is a “big shot,” because simply being a black man may never have been quite good enough.
As Gates once wrote on his Yale University application, “As always, whitey now sits in judgment of me, preparing to cast my fate. It is your decision either to let me blow with the wind as a nonentity or to encourage the development of self. Allow me to prove myself.” Gates’ words remind us that the damage of oppression can be debilitating, and we can spend our entire lives overcompensating. When our spirit is torn apart by racial oppression, white acceptance and validation are sometimes necessary in order to make us whole.
Putting Henry Louis Gates to the side, a point must be clearly made. If there are African elites to be held responsible for the atrocities committed against Africans in America, then we can accept that. But while certain citizens of Africa can be found guilty for their contribution to the slave trade, America must also be held accountable for its decision to exploit slavery over the last 400 years. It’s really just that simple.