Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Apologies for Slavery, Should Acknowledge Privilege

So the House apologized for slavery and Jim Crow last week. An interesting move coming as it does 140 years after the end of slavery and many years after apologies for the atrocities committed against Native Americans and the internment of the Japanese — events that occurred before, during, and after slavery. On one level it's just interesting if you're interested in politics, as I am: Why this and why now? How did this come about?

Not so interesting to me were some of the objections. So predictable: I didn't own any slaves, my family were immigrants and they didn't own any so why should I apologize, and blah, blah, blah. As Katrina Browne, a descendent of this country's most successful family of slave traders, said on this program last week: "If you wore cotton or put sugar in your tea, at some point you benefited from the slave trade."

But let's set that aside and focus on what is "not" being talked about — the other part of the apology— the apology for Jim Crow, the system of legally imposed, culturally sanctioned and violently enforced discrimination that lasted well into this century. The legal framework of Jim Crow was dismantled only a generation ago, which means that the people who lived with, suffered from and benefited from Jim Crow are very much with us today.

Just last month for example, Virginia unveiled a monument to the students who walked out of their all-black high school in Prince Edward County, Virginia to protest inferior conditions there — a case that later became part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that was decided in 1959. But the monument also serves to remind us about what happened after Brown. Prince Edward actually closed the schools for five years rather than educate black and white kids together. Of course all-white private academies, funded by state and local tax credits, quickly sprang up for the white kids. But most black kids were left to fend for themselves until 1964, hardly ancient history. If that doesn't merit an apology, well I don't know what does.

Can I just tell you? What I think this debate is really about is acknowledging privilege.

In this country, we hate to acknowledge that any of us gets any sort of leg up at all. In fact, the more privileged you are, it seems the less likely you are to admit it. At tax time we complain about having to pay up but those of us who benefit rarely acknowledge the breaks we get as homeowners that renters don't, or that married heterosexuals get that singles and same-sex couples do not. At college admission time people grouse about race preferences and conveniently forget all about legacies. And how about all those SAT prep courses, private tutoring, or the simple leg up that a stable, functional household gives you? The more you have of it, the more invisible privilege becomes — and then that becomes the entitlement of forgetting, as if it never happened at all.

I noticed this when — through the miracle of frequent flyer miles — I recently got a chance to take a trip in first class with my husband and kids. What an amazing experience. On my own, in coach, I was just another butt in a seat. But in the front cabin with the nice husband and two adorable tykes no less — why I was upholding Western civilization. There was none of this having to stand in a long line to check our bags, no begging for a jacket to be hung up, for a drink to be refreshed. Oh no, it was smooth sailing all the way. So this is how it is.

"This is how it is?," I said to my husband, who frequents that part of the plane far more than I do. He looked at me puzzled and asked, "What's the big deal?"




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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues