Living in the Present Means Taking Focus off Past

Commentator Eric Copage says when it comes to struggle, black people have enough recent historical issues to deal with. Because of this, he says, African-Americans should consider leaving slavery in the past. Copage is the author of Black Pearls: Meditations, Affirmations, and Inspirations for African- Americans.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Commentator Eric Copage says dealing with the present requires taking your focus off the past.

ERIC COPAGE: Black people, let's forget about slavery. Let's take the unasked for advice of those who have told us to forget about America's peculiar institution. My aim here is to point out that the situation African-Americans are in today is not the result of natural phenomenon. It is a result of ongoing, social engineering.

At this point, however, slavery is a straw man. Both blacks and whites would do better focusing their energy on defeating the 21st century foes of black equality in education, wealth and housing rather than tilting at windmills, whose blades stop rotating 141 years ago.

The thought of forgetting about slavery occurred to me recently while watching a show called The Conversation - an online feature of The New York Times. Calvin Sims, who is black and a reporter for the Times interviews prominent people of the day. On this occasion, he was interviewing Luke Visconti, an American of Greek and Italian heritage. Mr. Visconti is a co-founder of Diversity Inc., a consulting firm based in Newark, New Jersey, which specializes an increasing diversity for corporations.

Mr. Sims asked Mr. Visconti if the difference between blacks and whites in terms of education, wealth and access to housing could, as Mr. Sims put it, still be tied to slavery. There was no doubt in my mind about it, Mr. Visconti replied with assurance. Mr. Sims persisted. Is there a way to concretely demonstrate to whites the connection between slavery and the current circumstances of African-Americans, he asked?

First off, the desire to get white people to concretely see a connection between slavery and the current circumstances of African-Americans is itself a connection to slavery. It assumes a slave master's perspective, that there is no reality for blacks other than one acknowledged by whites. We of African descent should have the strength to declare our position and the intelligence to support it.

Second, any attempt at such a consensus of opinion is futile. It assumes that if you show people the same facts that they will come to the same conclusion: yours. This rarely is the case. Facts are interpreted. But the larger reason for blacks and whites to push pass the events before 1865 is that much has happened since then that challenge black progress.

For instance, most people know that the affirmative action that benefited blacks as well as many other groups began in the mid 1960s. But there was also affirmative action for whites. In his book, When Affirmative Action Was White, Ira Katznelson details how supposedly color blind legislation and programs -such as the GI Bill and the Fair Labor Standards Act - were manipulated to exclude blacks. Or take reparations, not for slavery, but for the loss of businesses and of lives suffered by African-Americans in the 1921 race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In Tulsa, 35 blocks of black businesses and residences were burned, and as many as 300 people were killed by rampaging, white citizens. Black survivors of the violence are still living. But in May of 2005, the Supreme Court refused to hear their case for compensation. And there is education.

In Jonathan Kozol's latest book, The Shame of the Nation, and in Sarah Sentille's book, Taught by America - the story of her two-year stint teaching in Compton, California - the authors recount that schools with majority black populations had filthy classrooms and obsolete textbooks - when they had textbooks at all. In a radio interview late last year, Ms. Sentille said, I started to believe that it was intentional that the government had set up my students to fail. I could go on, but I won't.

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CHIDEYA: Eric Copage is the author of Black Pearls: Meditations, Affirmations, and Inspirations for African-Americans. This is NPR News.

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