Guilt is necessary

August 13, 2008

Hal Crowther is one of the wisest people I know. I wholeheartedly agree with almost every word of his column, "White denial" (cover story, July 30), but I disagree with his central premise.

Crowther quotes George Garret with approval: "I, too, must bear my burden of contemporary guilt like a student's obligatory backpack. But I flatly refuse to add to it one ounce, one feather's weight of historical guilt for anything. I am not guilty of or for the actions of anyone but myself."

In discussing the case of Japan, Crowther says, "It's only by denying the truth—participating in the cover-up—that you acquire your own share of the national guilt."

I disagree. The wealth we white Americans share today was generated largely by taking from black slaves the fruits of their labor and transferring them to our ancestors. This wealth has been conveyed to us through generations and kept out of the hands of the descendants of those slaves through property ownership and the advantages of education and upbringing in atmospheres of safety, security, leisure and cultural riches.

Whites benefit as a result of transfers from the black community that took place during the Jim Crow era. The goods and services we bought when I was a child were subsidized by the lower wages paid to black people who made and performed them. If you don't feel guilty for the advantages you enjoy that have been taken from the black community, you should.

Ned Kennington

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"If you don't feel guilty for the advantages you enjoy that have been taken from the black community, you should." Ned, I'm curious: what is it exactly that you suppose feeling guilty will accomplish? Pretend I'm a white person who works every day of his life to reconcile the disparities created by racism (historical, contemporary, institutional, personal, etc...) but feels no guilt about circumstances that placed me in a position of privilege - instead I use that privilege to correct social ills. Is my work invalidated by my lack of guilt? Am I worse for society than a white person who DOES feel guilt but doesn't work to correct racism? Do we not wish that MORE people in privileged positions were paying MORE attention to race issues? I'm very skeptical that guilt ever accomplishes anything positive, and we're going to need a lot of positive work if we truly want to reverse the course of historical racism.

Posted by Mike Nutt on 08/15/2008 at 2:00 PM
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