The New York Times article "Ending the Slavery Blame Game" started:
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. [emphasis added]
The article was written by a Harvard scholar, and not just any Harvard scholar. The author was Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Dr. Gates is not only one of our most widely-known American authors on racial issues, he erupted to national notoriety the day he lost his temper during an encounter with a white Cambridge policeman. He had arrived home from an international trip and found he'd lost the key to his house. Someone called the police as he and his driver were ramming their way through the door. Their actions looked like a burglary in process, an event which is not particularly rare in Cambridge, Mass.
When the police appeared, Prof. Gates refused to show his ID, screamed, was arrested for disorderly conduct, and made the usual accusations of race-based police misconduct. The rest is history.
Early in his administration, President Obama said:
"I've got to own up to my mistake, which is that ultimately it's important for this administration to send a message that there aren't two sets of rules. You know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes." [emphasis added]
- President Barack Hussein Obama, New York Times quote of the day, Feb 4, 2009
In spite of his statement that all Americans should be equal before the law and before politicians, President Obama called the white cop's actions "Stupid." So did the black mayor of Cambridge and the black governor of Massachusetts before any of them had any idea what had happened. This rush to judgment by politicians and hatemongers before the facts were known is all too typical of our racially-polluted society.
The President later invited the two parties to the White House to share a beer and hoped we'd have a national "teaching moment."
Mr. Obama's "beer summit" offers us an opportunity for a teaching moment of the utmost importance.
Consider what happened. Prof. Gates was incensed at the policeman's demand that he show his ID to verify his right to be inside the house after he'd smashed his door in; the rhetoric got worse and worse as they squared off in the newspapers. President Obama invited the prof and the cop to the White House to share some beer and conversation. Lo and behold, Prof. Gates becomes the first high-level establishment black whom we've ever heard admit that black leaders in Africa made the American slave trade possible.
Africa was home to so many diseases - malaria, sleeping sickness, and dengue fever to name but a few - that white men were unable to enter the inner "Dark Continent" until the late 1800's and the advent of effective medicine. Throughout the slave trade era, black tribes enslaved other tribes, transported them to seaports, and sold their victims to the Americans, Europeans, Muslim Arabs, or anybody else who'd pay cash on the nail. Dr. Gates introduces the issue:
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. [emphasis added]
First of all, he points out that slavery was immensely profitable, most particularly for the black African tribes who captured slaves at essentially no cost. The tribes they'd raid produced more potential captives as no cost to the slave traders so their "cost of goods sold" was low. This led to such favorable trading margins that it was profitable to travel 500 miles through the jungle to capture slaves and drag them to the coast to sell to the highest bidder.
Slaves were the main export of the kingdom of Kongo; the Asante Empire in Ghana exported slaves and used the profits to import gold. Queen Njinga, the brilliant 17th-century monarch of the Mbundu, waged wars of resistance against the Portuguese but also conquered polities as far as 500 miles inland and sold her captives to the Portuguese. When Njinga converted to Christianity, she sold African traditional religious leaders into slavery, claiming they had violated her new Christian precepts. [emphasis added]
Prof. Gates reports that American slaves were well aware of black complicity in their having been enslaved:
The African role in the slave trade was fully understood and openly acknowledged by many African-Americans even before the Civil War. For Frederick Douglass, it was an argument against repatriation schemes for the freed slaves. "The savage chiefs of the western coasts of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily accept our moral and economical ideas than the slave traders of Maryland and Virginia," he warned. "We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave trade than to stay here to work against it." [emphasis added]
Frederick Douglass understood full well that it would be easier to end slavery in the United States - a Civil War which claimed a mere 1,100,000 casualties and 620,000 deaths took care of it - than to end slavery in Africa, where slavery continues to this day. The unpalatable truth that black African leaders made black slavery possible goes down hard among today's American black leaders who prefer to blame whites for anything and everything that has ever gone wrong for any black person anywhere. With Prof. Gates' and President Obama's leadership, however, they might be able to choke down this inconvenient fact of history.
White folk have generally expressed regret that their ancestors brought so many Africans to America against their will, so for them, the issue of reparations, if any, hinges on the amount.
Given this remarkably messy history, the problem with reparations may not be so much whether they are a good idea or deciding who would get them; the larger question just might be from whom they would be extracted. [emphasis added]
We at Scraggged are convinced that Prof. Gates offered a solution to this knotty problem when he called for "a judicious (if symbolic) gesture." Let's consider the facts:
We believe that Prof. Gates and the remarkable amity which resulted from the President's beer summit contain the seeds of a solution.
In keeping with President Obama's imaginative and effective solution to the conflict between Sgt. James Crowley and Dr. Gates, we propose that every person who listed themselves as "Black" on the 2010 census be given a coupon good for 2 beers at taxpayer expense. As taxpayers, we'd be happy to pay for these beers just as we were happy to pay for the beer that Mr. Obama shared with the prof and the cop.
Here's the fine print. The certificate has to be signed when it's turned in. Right above the signature, there's a paragraph that says:
No signature, no drinks, and the recipient has to read the certificate aloud to the store clerk who witnesses the signature.
What about people who don't like beer? What about people who're at risk of getting drunk? What if a black person knows that the white person they want to reach shouldn't drink beer? Then the certificate is good for two soft drinks.
Either way, these aren't just any drinks. Lawyers permitting, these drinks will carry the Presidential seal.
These beverages are offered by the President of the United States in the spirit of reparation, in the spirit of reconciliation, in the spirit of getting multitudes of people to sit down two at a time and sincerely try to understand what the other one's saying. There is harmony in sharing beverages while sharing talk, that's why men and women tend to offer each other food when they want to get something going.
2,000 years ago, Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers" and called them "Sons of God." Making peace is difficult; peacemakers generally catch flack from both sides which is why it carries such a strong blessing.
Perhaps people of good will can follow the President's example and sit down in harmony. Who knows? From millions of small, individual reconciliations, national reconciliation may grow.
Professional race-baiters like the Rev. Wright, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton will never seek reconciliation no matter what. The reaction to this "judicious and not entirely symbolic" gesture will tell us whether ordinary black people are willing to try to rub along peaceably with whites or whether they plan to ride the victim train forever.
As the President and the prof struggle with their own prejudices and human shortcomings, they can set an example of peacemaking that will live through the ages. We'll help to the best of our ability.
If they do it, if the prof creates the first post-racial black studies department at Harvard and Mr. Obama becomes our first post-racial President, we'll be the first to honor them for it, but we won't be the last.
Our profound thanks to Prof. Gates for the idea.