photo courtesy of mangee via Flickr

NYTimes guest columnist Stanley Fish is deserving of a big time shoutout for his recent piece “But I Didn’t Do It!” (sorry, it’s TimesSelect aka pay only)

Fish addresses the Georgia legislature’s consideration of an apology for slavery. Many in the legislature refuse on the principal that they did not personally own slaves, therefore are not personally responsible, therefore don’t need to apologize because “they didn’t do it.”

Fish’s basic argument:

But this is very bad reasoning, and you can see why if you read just a few recent Supreme Court cases on any subject. Invariably, the justice delivering the court’s opinion will cite a precedent from a case decided 50 or 100 years ago, and say something like, “In Smith v. Jones, we ruled that …” But of course he or she didn’t actually — that is, personally — rule on anything in 1940 or 1840, so what’s with the “we”?

The answer is that by using “we” to refer to an action taken before any present member of the court had reached the age of reason or was even alive, the justices acknowledge that they are part of an ongoing enterprise, and as such are responsible for its history; not as individuals, but as persons charged with the duty of carrying on a project that precedes them and will survive them.

Well played, and I really appreciate the use of the Supreme Court to dramatize the point. In using the Court, Fish is making clear that our entire system of government depends on ownership of actions we didn’t actually do. It’s impractical to accept the responsibilities and privileges of your current position without regard to the past.

Yes, that would be both responsibilities and privileges. This is what always disturbs me when issues of slavery’s impact come up. No one ever wants to take responsibility for what happened, not even rhetorical responsibility in the form of an apology. But those same people are more than willing to embrace the privileges.

Nobody is ever like, “I don’t have anything to do with slavery, so get this modern industrialized economy away from me! It ain’t mine!”

I’ve never heard, “Well, I suppose I wasn’t around when slavery happened, so I’d better avoid this white privilege too.”

I’d be shocked and awed to hear: “I didn’t own slaves. My daddy didn’t own slaves. My granddaddy didn’t own slaves. Therefore, I don’t deserve this land handed down by my great-grandaddy who might have had a slave or two.”

That would be too honest.

Even more than apologies for slavery by white institutions, I’m interested in black folks doing an internal assessment of slavery’s impact. None of us can escape our history, and I think there’s a lot we as a people can learn by processing that baggage. I find it hard not to see a connection between the “crisis of black men” and the “destruction of the black family” and days when families were forcibly ripped apart with government and social approval.

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