One of the great pleasures of my Thursday and weekend mornings is the privilege to record sections of the Washington Post for the Metropolitan Washington Ear (www.washear.org), a non-profit, volunteer-based, service for visually- and physically-disabled individuals. For almost 40 years, the Ear has "voiced" the pages of the Post and a dozen other publications including the New York Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal. This Sunday, a day after the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, I recorded Post opinion writer Cortland Milloy's column, "50 years later, black leaders' words lack their forebears' fire."
The recording was going well until I reached this: "The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple A.M.E. Church in Baltimore, received some of the biggest applause when he said, 'We want reparations.' At times, it seemed as if the only meaningful action speakers could take was pressuring government for redress."
I actually stumbled on the words, and had to pause the recording, then back up a few seconds to restart the passage. The second time was fine, and I finished Milloy's column and proceeded to record the World News section. But I couldn't get Reverend Bryant's words out of my mind. "We want reparations." This is a guilt trip and I'm not buying a ticket for the ride, nor should the federal government.
By all accounts, I'm as average a white baby boomer as you'll get. One side of my family is New England-raised, stretching back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, softened a bit by solid Midwestern stock; the other side has its roots deep in 18th century Creole New Orleans, blended with a couple of generations of North Carolinians, and several more generations of Tennesseans. Overall, a 50-50 paring of North and South. There are no family accounts on the southern side of any slave traders or slave holders -- just teachers, farmers, and small-town merchants. My northern ancestors were lawyers, bankers, politicians, poets, inventors, and pastors -- one of whom, Dr. Hiram Corliss, an influential Adirondacks abolitionist, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad in Union Village (Greenwich) New York. His portrait hangs on a wall in my home as a proud reminder of my ancestor's commitment to civil rights.
Nowhere in this lineage is there anyone who could remotely be called to account for the crimes and injustices levied upon African Americans from the time my line of white settlers arrived in 1620 to today, 390 years later. I'm not denying any of the misery or suffering of blacks in America; I certainly can't deny the horrors of lynchings that occurred not far from my home in Louisiana in 1963. And I don't deny that I went to schools with boys and girls who were as profligately racist as their parents were and for whom the n-word rolled off their tongues with dangerous ease. And yet, over the course of my 60+ years, I have run across more of my contemporaries who eschewed that behavior than those who embraced it.
The white baby boomers I know don't have any African American friends. We have friends who are African American. This is not just semantics; there is an important difference in how the words are linked. In the former, African American is of primary importance; friends just follows along. In the latter, friends leads the way, and African American is descriptive. This is how most of us grew up, this is how our children grew up, and we hope it is how our grandchildren will grow up; friends, colleagues, leaders, spouses who are also black, just as we happen to be white.
While we are conscious of the sins of the past and aware of the continuing social, economic, educational and political inequalities of the present, we are more determined to level those playing fields for all Americans. To ask the government -- of which all of us are a part -- to repair a broken past is to pointedly, and rudely, ignore the work done by whites and blacks together over the past 50 years.
This is not the time to push us away with harsh words of recrimination. Admittedly, we have not achieved a perfect restoration, but much has been accomplished. Cries for reparations dilute the glue of our mutual efforts to bond us together to continue to work toward fulfilling Dr. King's dream.
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