Not Guilty, Just Responsible

Illustration by Jeffrey Thompson

I was recently asked to speak at a teach-in addressing the latest spate of racially charged killings involving police—killings by police and killings of police. Those events involve ultimate stakes: human life. And the emotions that go into the larger conversation (read: shouting match) that characterizes American public “discourse” on the subject are super-charged as well. In closer-up meetings things might go more politely, but the underlying dynamic is probably much the same. The (accurate) litany of black oppression proceeds; the wall of white anxiety and denial goes up. In my experience—that is, observations of myself and of others—the black litany registers in white ears as an indictment placing blame and inducing guilt. It is not meant that way, but that’s often how it’s taken. And as we know from one-on-one exchanges in our families and friendships, blame and guilt trigger defensiveness and denial, shutting down the conversation before it gets past square one.

How then to proceed in some sort of constructive manner without denying the truth? That is, how to get white people in the audience to listen—and hear? The other night I offered a concept that’s been very helpful for me personally, so helpful that I wrote it out and taped it to my desk at work. It’s a quotation from Abraham Joshua Heschel, a professor at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and one of the foremost Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. Heschel was also deeply involved in the civil rights movement. It was in connection with that activism that he uttered the line that has become my mantra: “In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.”

This has a way of addressing the answer many white people give to assertions about the legacy of slavery and institutional racism. “Hey, I know blacks suffered under slavery and that was a terrible thing, but my ancestors arrived in America long after the Civil War was over. They didn’t have a part in slavery, they wouldn’t have approved of slavery, they met a lot of crap in making their own way in this country, and they finally got through by means of their own hard work. We’ve earned everything we got.”

In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.

It’s important to listen to this seriously, because a lot of that statement is true. The median date at which Euro-American forebears first arrived in the United States is about 1890—well after the Emancipation Proclamation. Many of those ancestors met fierce prejudice. A lot of them, demeaned or not, worked really hard for long years in making and maintaining a stake in this land. The thing is, so did African Americans—and for a much longer time. Their median ancestral arrival date was about 1780. So the white excuse of a later arrival, long after slavery’s demise, ironically turns into the question of whose country, by tenure and service, the United States really is.

I can offer my own family’s saga as a case in point. My great-grandfather Hero Bratt (the name is Norwegian, originally, and—so the family joke goes—asserts in words what is, ummm, lacking in deeds) arrived here in 1867, buying 40 acres of Ottawa County Michigan muck to farm next to his brother’s similar patch. He worked hard, did great-grandpa Hero; worked himself to death, in fact. His many sons also worked hard—on farms, in factories, one to seminary and a career as a preacher. Their sons and daughters worked hard too. More of them followed the 20th century’s broadening pathway to higher education and became teachers and doctors as well as ministers. Some served in World War II and received the GI Bill’s boost to education and home-ownership. And so it has gone on with the next generation, and the next. A hard-working, respectable lot, all in all. Decent achievement; low on dysfunction, high on service.

It’s essential to note the roles played in this saga by elements besides hard work and duty, by human and social capital and government benefits and a growing, broadening economy. Essential because just here—not in hard work or dutifulness—lie the chief points of contrast between Hero et al. and their African American counterparts. Hero was educated and literate; the vast majority of African Americans of his generation had been forbidden to become so. He had enough financial savings to buy land in America; the vast majority of African Americans of his generation had been denied that, had in fact been expropriated of due compensation back all the generations to their ancestors’ arrival. Then there’s that date when Hero came ashore—1867. The era of Reconstruction. A vast body of black workers in the South yearned for a new start after slavery. With them the nation had a deep connection. To them the nation owed a great deal, in money, in suffering, and in justice denied. With Hero it had no connection; to him and his family it owed nothing. So who was welcomed in and given a good deal on West Michigan land? Where did the millions come from in the fifty years after the Civil War to get in on the opportunities—harsh as they could be—of the expanding Northern economy? From Europe. What about the millions of blacks long trapped in Southern slavery? By policy and brute force, they were kept in the South, falling behind every year, sharecropping in a style of agriculture that had no future in the twentieth century.

What about the millions of blacks long trapped in Southern slavery? By policy and brute force, they were kept in the South, falling behind every year, sharecropping in a style of agriculture that had no future in the twentieth century.

This history could go on to recount who was cut in, and cut out, from the GI Bill. Who was, and was not, offered access to quality schools. Who was, and was not, forced to pay a premium—higher prices for lower-quality houses—via real-estate redlining. Who was, and was not, therefore, taxed on the twin building blocks of middle-class status—education and home-ownership. Whose hard work got due reward, and whose did not.

Hero and his children and his children’s children did not institute these laws, practices, and policies. Had they been asked, they probably would have admitted that it was all pretty unfair. Most of them probably didn’t ask. But the record is clear nonetheless. They were admitted—largely welcomed—to the first floor of the American house. It rested on foundations whose concrete and mortar were mixed—to use the abolitionists’ term—with “Negro blood.” People who had been here (and had been exploited) much longer than my forebears had been here, were kept in the basement, staring at those foundations. To use another metaphor, my family was grafted pretty painlessly into the tree of American life. But that tree was first planted in the soil of slave labor and fed over long generations by the racism invented to excuse the same. The grafted branches do pick up those nutrients, willy-nilly.

In a free society, not everyone is guilty but everyone is responsible. My forebears were not guilty, but the latter generations acquired responsibility. To me, the moral of the story—and the way to detox the anxiety in the room when discussing race—is for white people not to take things personally right away. It’s not our fault, it’s a situation we’ve all inherited. So don’t take it personally. Just take it very seriously.

The apostle who used the illustration of grafting to explain the Gentiles’ part in God’s plan of salvation used another history lesson that’s apropos here as well. I did not know sin until I knew the law, said Paul. So we, too, coming into knowledge, bear increased responsibility. If we ignore it, then we do take on guilt. If we take this seriously, we will—sooner or later—have to take it personally.

James Bratt is with the History Department at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For the 2016-17 academic year, he is Fulbright Lecturer in US history at Xiamen University in Xiamen, China.

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