“Why should I have to pay for slavery or what was done to Native Americans hundreds of years ago? It isn’t fair. I shouldn’t be punished for something I didn’t do.”
I have to admit this frequent complaint from white people has a certain ring to it. It seems almost obvious. But the more I think about it, the more dubious it gets. I am not suggesting that white people should be punished. But I do take issue with the idea that it isn’t fair to be on the receiving end of bad things that happened a long time ago, before we were born, that the past is past and our lives are in the present and the two are not connected. I take issue because we need to consider all of this in the context of things that happened in the past that white people routinely claim for themselves today, as if we have a right to them, as if they belong to us, going so far as to use them to define what makes us who we are.
Ask those same white people who complain about feeling punished if they are proud to call themselves ‘American,’ and they will invariably say yes. And then ask what in particular they are most proud of, and sooner or later they’re going to talk about their ‘heritage,’ things that by definition happened a long time ago, maybe the Declaration of Independence or the fight for liberty or the flag or the courage and self-reliance of early pioneers or the innovative spirit of inventors or the faith of immigrants leaving everything behind to build a better life, or the brave soldiers of “the Greatest Generation” in World War II – all things that they themselves had nothing whatsoever to do with. Nothing.
We were all born into (or emigrated to) a country that we ourselves did not build. Not the roads or the buildings or the waterworks or the ideas and principles and laws or anything else. And yet, even so, we get the benefit of it. We inherit it as a legacy that we think we deserve simply from the fact that we are here. That’s all it takes.
And then we grow up to become citizens who, also just because we happen to be here, are responsible for taking care of things, because now they belong to us.
When we say, “America is my country,” just what does ‘America’ include? Why would we think we get to pick and choose? By what special right do we get to claim for our own good things from the past that we did not do, but then disown any responsibility for the bad?
Whether we like it or not, as moral beings we do not get to choose. If this country that we did not create nonetheless belongs to us, then it belongs to us whole, all of it, credits and debts alike. The current levels of deprivation and oppression not only of black and brown people but of Native Americans are direct consequences of a national history, as is the corresponding prosperity of the white population. They cannot be separated, neither group-to-group nor present-to-past. People of color must live every day with the consequences of a long history of white privilege, which neither they nor their ancestors did anything to deserve. For whites to claim immunity from this, from having to deal with the current manifestations of what is a common history, is in itself an assertion of white privilege.
None of this is some kind of punishment. It is just the nature of things, the way the wheel turns one generation after another. And then we will decide what we’re going to do with what’s been handed to us, whether we’re going to choose differently than was chosen in the past, whether we’re going to pass on something better than was passed to us, and to generations that also will not get to choose.
That’s how it is and has always been. And all of it is entirely fair.
Copyright © 2013 by Allan G. Johnson. This article may be quoted, reprinted, or distributed for noncommercial purposes only and with an attribution to Allan G. Johnson, www.agjohnson.com, and this copyright notice.