Last week I began reading Disunion!, a book chronicling events over a 70-year period that set the stage for the Civil War. The book, by University of Virginia history professor Elizabeth Varon, has made me wonder about my own education in the public schools of South Carolina and the private school I attended in Virginia. (I don’t recall taking a U.S. history course in college.)
Let me describe what I remember thinking about the Civil War, the South, and South Carolina when I was in my early 20s. I remember thinking that the war — which real Southerners called The War Between the States — wasn’t about slavery at all, but about states’ rights. The slavery stuff was just what Yankees said to put us Southerners down. I might have even said that out loud. I remember wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt picked up at the Southern 500 stock car race in Darlington, S.C.
I remember having a romantic notion about the chivalry and nobility of antebellum Southern society. I remember thinking that John C. Calhoun was a great South Carolinian. It never entered my mind that he was a virulent racist. I remember thinking that “the North won the battles but the South won the war.” I didn’t make that up. It was said back then; and, for the life of me, I still don’t understand what it means. The closest I can come is that even though the South surrendered, its people would never let go of the beliefs that got them into the war in the first place.
I remember not being a bit ashamed of the fact that there were slaves quarters in the basement of my grandparents’ antebellum home, where the last meeting of the Confederate cabinet took place. In sum, I remember being clueless about the racial history of my region and having a ridiculously romanticized notion of the noble old South. I was complicit in the racism that has been so ingrained in our region.
It wasn’t until years later that my blinders came off and I confronted my own racist past.
Reading Disunion brought all those memories back with sharp and shocking clarity. Did I really believe those things when I was in college? Was I that blind and ignorant? Yes, I certainly was. And I know I wasn’t unique. I know that I was probably pretty typical of young, educated Southern boys at that time. I’m sure that many of them matured, dispensed with their youthful prejudices and embraced the idea of equality — and just as sure that others did not.
My own experiences as a reconstructed Southerner, along with my reading of Disunion gave rise in my mind to a question currently being debated in our country.
Should reparations be paid to families of former slaves?
I’ve always thought that reparations was far too complicated a subject to bring up, and one that could generate extreme ill will. It is a thorny issue fraught with emotion. But does that mean it should be shelved? I wonder. The way our country, officially and informally, has treated black citizens from the 16th century until the present day is our great sin. We have disadvantaged them in every way possible for three centuries. We made them three-fifths human in our Constitution and later made them second-class citizens after Emancipation. We denied them their civil rights until I was in my mid-teens and to this day we inhibit their right to vote. The effects of our racism are evident everywhere you look. According to a 2017 article in The Washington Post, white families have nearly 10 times the net worth of black families and the gap is widening.
So, I would argue that the discussion of reparations — of how and whether to systematically attempt to narrow this gap — is worth having. Is it our fault as white citizens of the U.S. that this gap exists? Yes, it is – for as long as we do nothing about it. Some creative form of reparations might be a partial answer. I hope it is something that’s discussed thoroughly in the presidential race.
The discussion should not be about what reparations would be, i.e., how much should each slave descendant receive. Rather, it should be about how to engage in a thoughtful discussion about race and the disadvantages visited on people of color. Enough opinion leaders, both black and white, are talking about reparations that the subject is unlikely to go away. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has introduced a bill (HR 40) that would establish a commission to study the subject. I realize the measure may never be passed but it is supported by a good number of prominent House members. As many have pointed out, we’re not living in a post-racial era. Racism is all around us and we have a president who uses all the dog whistle tactics of racism to divide us and rev up his base.
A discussion of reparations could be an education for the nation or, dare we hope, a method of healing the wounds that the institution of slavery continues to inflict.