The American Dilemma

02 Apr 2024 08:42

My country was conceived and born in sin; or rather, in two sins.

One is that every inch of it is the product of conquest, on a spectrum from ethnic cleansing to genocide. This is not actually that distinctive as countries go. (Some of them have just been better at forgetting, or been trying to forget for longer.)

The other, which is somewhat more distinctive, was the practice of African slavery. This, again, was hardly unique to my country --- it has it in common with (I think) every other modern country in the Americas, and more places besides --- but it was a conspicuous fact about us. Even more: for a century after founding itself on equality and freedom, my country maintained a caste of people in bondage. This was followed by another century where most* of the descendants of those slaves were an oppressed and degraded caste.

Now it would be absurd to pretend that the difference between, say, 1960 and now is not immense --- perhaps not as big as between 1860 and 1960, but honestly there was less distance to go. But equally it'd be absurd to pretend that the history of slavery and then of racial/caste oppression didn't shape a lot about my country, and doesn't continue to be relevant.

Finally, I cannot resist quoting an observation on us from one of our "friends from afar" (in this case, Canada):

To any non-American, the most oppressive feature of intercultural relations in America is not that people are racist, but just that they talk and think incessantly about race, even worse than the way the English talk and think incessantly about class. --- Joseph Heath, Enlightenment 2.0, ch. 13

(The name for this notebook comes, of course, from the great Swedish sociologist's book about this.)

*: I say "most" because there was a continuing phenomenon during this time, as before and later, of people who were born into the lower, black caste moving, more or less surreptitously, into the higher, white caste --- of "passing". That most American blacks have substantial European ancestry is well-known; that a large fraction of American whites have at least some African ancestry is I think less widely appreciated.