City Journal

Jim Sleeper
Prisoners of Race
The politics of racial revenge undermine real black power
Winter 1991

Jim Sleeper is a member of the editorial board of New York Newsday. This article is excerpted from The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York, recently published by W. W Norton & Co.

It was only a straw in the wind of racial discord listing through the city that winter of 1987, following the previous December’s outrage at Howard Beach—a shift so subtle in the tone of a friendship that even an observant third party might not have noticed it. Yet what happened unsettled me, and as other straws blew by in a gathering storm, I pondered it in a deepening disquiet.

Dan (I have changed his name) was a black teacher, 49 years old in 1987, thoughtful, tweedy, comfortably established with his wife and children in an integrated middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood. A sometime journalist, he moved easily across the broad spectrum of black politics and activism in New York and through white reform Democratic circles as well. Dan had been a source of good counsel to me ever since I’d met him in the late 1970s while running The North Brooklyn Mercury. His wry sanity about the vagaries of black community politics was all the more welcome because he was as unsparing in his witty criticisms of demagogues and hustlers there as he was in skewering hypocritical white officials. He held everyone, black and white, to a single standard. Or so it had seemed, until I called him one day to talk about Howard Beach.

I thought Dan would help me understand what had gone wrong with black protests and legal maneuvering over the brutal assaults. Political activists have often used exemplary criminal cases to heighten their followers’ awareness of broader social injustice. But I was sure Dan would agree that the Howard Beach victims’ attorneys, Alton Maddox Jr. and C. Vernon Mason, were pursuing that goal in an unusually dangerous way. The lawyers might well be right to withhold their clients’ cooperation from the authorities in order to compel Governor Cuomo to replace the Queens district attorney with a special prosecutor. But surely they were wrong to try to justify that noncooperation by vilifying Dominick Blum, the motorist whose car had struck Michael Griffith, as a racist accomplice.

Blum was an amateur actor, a decent young guy of 24 who, on his way home that night after watching a play at Brooklyn College, had just dropped off a black fellow actor with whom he’d shared a stage in Raisin in the Sun. After colliding with what he claimed to have thought was a tire or an animal, he’d left the scene of the accident. But then, after consulting with his father, he’d returned—how many would?—and had tearfully offered to waive immunity and testify to establish his innocence of the charges Maddox and Mason were heaping upon him. Blum was no hero, but that was just the point; in his very ordinariness he seemed to me to exemplify those fair-minded, working-class, white New Yorkers whom any movement for racial justice would have to embrace, not enrage.

Yet, as evidence of Blum’s innocence had begun to mount, Maddox and Mason had kept shifting their story; maybe he had not started out as an accomplice, but driving by, he had witnessed the chase and joined in it by car; if not that, then Blum had simply seen a black man running across a highway, and figuring he could get away with it, decided to hit him. That the authorities would not arrest him was reason to withhold all cooperation. In the court of public opinion, meanwhile, Maddox and Mason were contemptuously writing off essentially fair-minded New Yorkers who identified with Blum.

I called Dan to ask why so many black ministers and civil-rights-movement veterans had gone along with Maddox and Mason. As I listed my concerns over the phone, he began a series of long, low chuckles that kept punctuating my comments and, finally, my silence. Dan’s heavy, humorless laughter told me that while he could not deny the dishonesty of the black attorneys and their supporters, he was enjoying their strategy because it was winning. “This isn’t about fairness and intellectual integrity,” he said, finally; “It’s about power—and, sure, maybe it’s the same, morally bankrupt power whites have held over us through institutions like the Queens courts for years. When was the last time the ’fair-mindedness’ of white folks in Queens ever got us justice?

Maddox and Mason had been naughty,” he continued, but they’d “gotten the system over a barrel.” Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature had refused to create a special prosecutor for race-related cases even after the 1983 death of graffiti-writer Michael Stewart in police custody went unpunished. Now they had had to respond. The lawyers’ victory, compromised and polarizing though it might be, overrode its flaws.

But did it? Only, I countered, if you are narrowly focused on the legal victory without caring about the political coalition-building that must sustain such victories over time. There had been no organized white opposition to a special prosecutor. Now, however, the lawyers’ dishonest strategy had turned white acquiescence into resentment.

What I learned that moment on the phone was that Dan no longer much cared. Something had snapped in him at Howard Beach. Tribal truth counted for more than interracial consensus, which can be won only by upholding standards of personal accountability, public honesty, and trust. For the time being, at least, Dan found it more satisfying to hurt than to hope.

Dan was by no means alone. The city’s two black weeklies went full tilt in support of the lawyers; the chief reporter covering Howard Beach for the Amsterdam News, Peter Noel, doubled as a kind of press secretary for Maddox, rebuffing all requests for interviews from the “white” press by lecturing us white writers on our sins. Though the polls showed many blacks doubted the Maddox-Mason approach, few black organizations or leaders openly challenged the lawyers’ strategy.

In Howard Beach, the practitioners of the politics of paroxysm preferred to convict not only the thugs who murdered Michael Griffith but also Blum and to indict all whites as accomplices. Mirroring victimized whites’ often indiscriminate rage at young blacks, they ratcheted up the cycle of racial recriminations, at special cost to blacks like Dan and to all of liberal society. Casting every tragedy or disappointment in terms of white racism leaves blacks the victims not only of whites but also of one another.

Race and Personal Dignity

Racism of any kind is intolerable in liberal social thought because every victim of racism is presumed to have a personal dignity that runs deeper than color—deeper, even, than any culture bounded by color. Liberals believe that ultimately it is not within the oppressor’s power to grant dignity or take it away. Even in oppression, individuals can make choices, and dignity that runs deeper than color carries with it a personal responsibility that transcends color. When a victim of racism responds intelligently, he reaffirms his dignity in the very act of choosing.

These truths about moral responsibility in adversity animated the civil rights movement in its confrontations with a rigid, monolithic racism. As historian Christopher Lasch has observed:

It would have been impossible for [Martin Luther] King to mount any moral attack on segregation if he had taken the position that black people, by virtue of their special history, had developed a special set of moral principles that whites could not appreciate . . . . The genius of the civil rights movement lay in its insistence that a resort to coercion was by no means inconsistent with an appeal to moral principles that both sides in the conflict could be made to acknowledge.... It was not rejection of violence as such but the rejection of resentment ... that enabled the civil rights movement to speak from a position of overwhelming moral authority.

Today that moral authority is all too often squandered by those who prefer the visceral satisfactions of demonizing white society to the hard work of building coalitions of goodwill.

A Separate Reality

The scene was a conference on drugs in Manhattan late in 1989. A white friend of mine found himself in an otherwise all-black workshop of half a dozen middle-class educators and social workers. The small discussion group quickly developed a horrific, if by now familiar, picture of drug wars in low-income, African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods. More shocking than that picture, though, was the group’s interpretation of it. Everyone present embraced the view that the drug wars are the unfolding of a white, genocidal conspiracy against blacks.

Everyone, that is, but my friend. An historian, he knew that conspiracy theories had raced around the black community for years, at least since heroin’s rise in the 1950s. Still, he was surprised to see the conspiracy idea enunciated with such certainty by professionals who, if truth be told, were doing reasonably well in this supposedly genocidal society.

He spoke up. The idea is preposterous, he ventured, a paranoid and utterly self-destructive delusion. What kind of white conspiracy would let drug enforcement agents and police officers, white as well as black, die trying to protect African-American witnesses to drug crimes and the African-American residents of apartment buildings where officers went to make undercover buys?

“Why haven’t you gotten the message of ’Miami Vice’ and ’Crime Story’?” snapped a younger man in a three-piece suit the director of a black community-based social service agency. “Sure, for the sake of appearances, low-level law enforcement is hung out to dry—make that ’to die’—by superiors in Washington who are in cahoots with the international cartels. There’s just too much money to be made.” This conspiracy was as lucrative as it was genocidal.

At that, my friend threw up his hands. “Okay, you’re right! Whites got together in secret and decided to funnel this stuff in. And their racist, genocidal plan is moving like clockwork. Now what?”

A silence ensued. My friend continued. In a society where whites outnumber blacks nine to one and armed uprising is impossible, there is only one answer to the drug question, he said, and those of us who reject conservative ideology can’t help the fact that it was Nancy Reagan who first put that answer into three simple words. The only conceivable answer is that the black community will have to stop drug dealing and drug using on its own.

Now it was the group’s turn to explode. The “community” in drug-ravaged areas is already too fragmented, too terrorized, too addicted, too desperate to pull itself together and “stop” anything, they said. The conspiracy has done too much damage already.

My friend was implacable. “Your alternative?” he pressed them. “Go quietly, like the Jews?”

“No,” growled one man through clenched teeth. “We’ll go like the Muslims, and we may take a few Jews with us.”

Never mind that in citing the Muslims the speaker had undermined his own argument that blacks could do nothing, or that he’d whisked Jews from victimhood to villainy in the twinkling of an eye. Quite without intending to, by positing the white world’s unrelenting hostility, these black professionals had stumbled upon some hard questions about personal and communal responsibility. My friend was saying that unless blacks’ options are truly as constricted as those of concentration-camp inmates, they can rail at the heavens and develop elaborate diagrams of conspiracies, but they dare not scant community organizing that builds upon and reinforces personal accountability.

But accountability to what? Is the larger society something to keep faith with, or should one, rather, confine one’s accountability to other blacks? Do appeals to racial solidarity in the teeth of oppression invigorate or retard personal dignity and accountability?

In truth, the answers from history are mixed. As Christopher Lasch has noted, “American history seems to show that a group cannot achieve ’integration’—that is, equality—without first developing institutions which express and create a sense of its own distinctiveness.” He reminds us of the black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier’s observation that the black man’s “primary struggle” in America “has been to acquire a culture—customs, values, and forms of expression which, transmitted from generation to generation, provide a people with a sense of its own integrity and collective identity.” Only within such a culture can individual dignity be nourished. That is certainly the claim of a large community of Muslims in Brooklyn, who redeem countless drug addicts and violent criminals through faith.

But can an embattled minority acquire a culture through politics, especially a politics that defines itself primarily as a struggle against the white racist devil? Those who think so defend not a culture in the classic sense but an ideology and, to my mind, a delusional system, a separate reality. Such a system’s most salient characteristic is that it explains too much too easily, and when otherwise intelligent people buy into it, they can go on elaborating it forever, almost effortlessly, in response to every challenge.

Liberal individualism makes radically different demands. It holds that periodically, at each important moment of decision, the responsible person stands alone. Even within a tightly knit, disciplined community, the initiative of individuals is critical to the rejuvenation and maintenance of the community itself. That is the mystery of human dignity at this pass in the history of liberal societies, perhaps nowhere more so than in America, where countless whites as well as blacks are generations removed from any recoverable religious or ethnic community. Life in polyglot, liberal America daily reminds most of us that our dignity is not reducible to our group memberships. To recapitulate even a racist society’s apparent obsession with one’s blackness is not to enhance one’s dignity.

Nor does it enhance one’s political resources, which is why it is folly to write off in advance, as the Howard Beach attorneys had done, that stratum of whites who are willing to live by the rules of fair play. Maddox, Mason, and other black militants had fled to ever more baroque elaborations of white genocidal conspiracy, producing the styles of protest that would so alienate New Yorkers during the same period at the end of the decade. They overlooked the importance of honesty to any community that is organizing to build real power.

Psychodrama and Public Truth

The legal and political strategies of Maddox and Mason license white anger by affirming that blacks live by different rules. During the Howard Beach trials, for example, when Maddox was denouncing the criminal justice system for routinely acquitting whites who murder blacks, he managed, deftly and cynically, to win acquittal for Andre Nichols, a 19-year-old black man who confessed to killing a white priest who, Nichols claimed, had solicited him for sex. The priest, Frederick Strianese, was unarmed; Nichols had a gun. He claimed he’d used it because the priest had used excessive force trying to detain him.

Trading heavily in the worst sort of reverse racism and homophobia, replete with imagery of the white sexual exploitation of black youth, Maddox convinced the jury to acquit Nichols. The integrated jury, members of Strianese’s parish and, apparently, the assistant district attorney were all paralyzed by Maddox’s lurid characterizations. Strianese, he told them, had enjoyed “good food, good wine . . . and now he wanted some good flesh.”

In another celebrated case that winter, Maddox defended one of two blacks charged with slashing white model Marla Hanson, demanding an acquittal on the grounds that her own hysterical racism had caused her to mistake her assailants: “Seeing two black men, she went absolutely nuts.... She thought she was going to be raped” because “she had racial hang-ups, “ he told the jury as Hanson sat shocked, weeping in the courtroom. Maddox tried to convince the jury that she had attacked the men and precipitated the violence—that they, like Nichols, were the victims. Though he did not win this one, the message was clear: Murder and attempted murder are morally variable according to race.

Perhaps Maddox was doing what any good courtroom attorney would. But he had more on his mind than a vigorous defense of his clients. As he told Jill Nelson of the Washington Post, “[black juveniles] ... are the majority of people being arrested and tried and imprisoned. Ain’t nobody givin’ up nothing in New York. If you want to survive here, you have to take your turf!” Maddox conceives of his cases as racial battles. He thereby sends his community the message that personal accountability is dissolved in collective grievance and entitlement. The system acquitted the murderers of Michael Stewart, the young graffiti writer who “died in police custody”? We’ll acquit the murderer of the Rev. Strianese. The system smeared Jonah Perry, the Harlem honors student accused of mugging a cop? We’ll smear Marla Hanson. Tit for tat. When we get control of the system, we’ll turn the tables.

In every case, Maddox does not simply try to acquit the defendant; he tries to recapture the innocence that was his when he suffered a brutal beating at the hands of police in his hometown of Newnan, Georgia, in 1967. Innocence like his moved a nation. As Shelby Steele says, such innocence:

... gave blacks their first real power in American life. But this formula ... binds the victim to his victimization by linking his power to his status as a victim. And this, I’m convinced, is the tragedy of black power in America today. It is primarily a victim’s power... So we have a hidden investment in victimization and poverty. One sees evidence of this in the near happiness with which certain black leaders recount the horror of Howard Beach and other recent (and I think overcelebrated) instances of racial tension.

There is another way than Maddox’s to reduce racism in the criminal justice system. A community can apply its electoral muscle to elect judges and district attorneys who feel a political debt as well as a moral obligation to blacks—Hynes, for example, was elected Brooklyn DA in 1989 with a strong black vote. And there are other ways than Sharpton’s to organize public protests; there can be demonstrations that embarrass whites into decency by embracing them in the process of confronting them. But doing that would mean rising above victimhood to display a disarming magnanimity. Maddox isn’t up to that. Every trial he casts in black and white becomes a reenactment of his own attempt to vindicate what he suffered. But one can never escape pain this way. For while Maddox was black and innocent in Newnan, Georgia, in 1967, and the police officers who beat him were white and racist, not every black defendant is innocent, and not every white plaintiff is racist. Because Maddox cannot admit this, he cannot lead a movement for racial justice, only one for racial revenge.

The support Maddox enjoyed among militant nationalists even as these trials unfolded suggests that his kind of pain is widely shared. A year after Howard Beach there was a new “Dominick Blum,” surrounded by more strategic lies: Maddox and Mason had accused Dutchess County Assistant District Attorney Steven Pagones of raping and sodomizing Tawana Brawley and had likened State Attorney General Robert Abrams to Adolf Hitler. Mason declared that Abrams has masturbated over photographs of Brawley, repeating the accusation on the air and for newspaper reporters.

Brooklyn Assemblyman Roger Green, a young activist whose father was a veteran of the civil rights movement, publicly criticized the lawyers for the “cavalier use of words like ’racism’ and ’fascism.’ To equate at this point in time the Attorney General of the State of New York with a fascist dictator and ... the system with fascism does a major disservice to all those who fought and died against that most heinous form of injustice.”

Sharpton immediately charged Green with buckling to pressure from the Governor’s office: “He’s obviously doing the bidding of his sponsors ... [it] shows where Roger’s heart lies as an apologist for the system.” The next day, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who represented the same area of Brooklyn as Green, announced her intention to oppose Green’s reelection as chairman of the Legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, saying she thought it inappropriate for Green to have attacked “a citizen leader such as Al Sharpton” and that it was “time for a change” in the caucus leadership. A few days later she abandoned her candidacy because she did not want to “continue to project a sense of disunity,” and Green was reelected. But the flare-up had been revealing, and distressing. Is this how a city moves toward justice?

Murder and Honesty

The August 27, 1989 New York Daily News shows a photo of the Rev. Al Sharpton and a claque of black teenagers marching in Bensonhurst to protest Yusuf Hawkins’s death. But they are not really “marching.” They are stumbling along, huddled together, heads bowed under the storm of hatred breaking over them, eyes wide, hanging onto one another and to Sharpton, scared out of their wits. And because Sharpton is with them, his head bowed also, his face showing that he knows what they’re feeling, he is in the hearts of black people all over New York.

Yet something is wrong with this picture. Sharpton did not invite or coordinate with Bensonhurst community leaders who wanted to join the march. Without the time for organizing which these leaders should have been given in order to rein in the punks who stood waving watermelons, without an effort by black leaders more reputable than Sharpton to recruit whites city-wide and swell the march, Sharpton was assured that the punks would carry the day. At several points, he even baited them by blowing kisses. Instead of mounting an unforgettable tableau of the city, Sharpton provoked a symbolic reenactment of Hawkins’s murder, in a way calculated to make it easier, not harder, for the community to embrace denial. That denial surfaced in the trial, where little people who had told cops they had seen the killing suddenly developed amnesia.

In a sense, Sharpton’s strategy was brilliant. If it eclipsed one reality, it certainly exposed another. Because the city is in fact better than the reality the demonstration exposed, those moments in Bensonhurst may well have accounted for David Dinkins’s stunning defeat of Koch in the Democratic mayoral primary two weeks later. But while Sharpton would take credit for that, it was far from clear that victory was what he had intended, for Dinkins was more threat than blessing to his kind of politics, the politics that finds it more satisfying to hurt than to hope.

To many angry blacks, Sharpton’s politics of resentment were irresistible. At some point in the late 1970s, the politics of race in New York had begun to turn more and more on death—on recitals of the names of blacks murdered by whites: Randy Evans, Arthur Miller, Willie Turks, Samuel Spencer, Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpurs, Nicholas Bartlett, Jonah Perry, Michael Griffith, Yusuf Hawkins. Among blacks, it seemed, the politics of victimization had triumphed: Along with murderous white racism, it cited drugs, AIDS, and doomed boarder babies, parables of hopelessness and despair spiralling easily into projections of white genocidal conspiracy. Sharpton claimed that he and other protesters had forced the murders and plagues upon the conscience of the city. They were not wrong. But where could it lead? What real power did it build? And how, without power, could the violence and plagues be stopped?

These questions took on new urgency as another deadly roll call forced itself upon the activists’ and the city’s attention, this time without Sharpton’s help. It was reported well enough in the mainstream press, yet this roll call was not read aloud at protests in the streets or in solemn memorials within the black community itself. It just swelled and swelled until it could not be ignored, until it eclipsed all that had gone before.

Two weeks after Hawkins’s death, 13-year-old Sean Vaughn, a young, black participant in the “I Have a Dream” program, which guarantees college tuition for ghetto kids who stay in school, was gunned down in a parking lot near his home in the Soundview section of the Bronx.

A few days later, on September 11, Duane Lewis, 18, was shot in front of Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights High School as scores of students watched. On Friday, October 27, Gemel Kalek Mitchell, a 19-year-old student at Julia Richman High School in Manhattan, was shot and killed by another student on a subway train after an argument in the school cafeteria. That night, a 15-year-old sophomore at Stuyvesant High School was shot in the head in a discotheque in Jackson Heights.

Early on Sunday morning, October 29, Donald White, a 17-year-old honors student at Murray Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in lower Manhattan, was shot in the head and chest by a crack addict. On Monday, October 30, Edward Caban, a Julia Richman High School student, was shot and killed in East Harlem in what was ambiguously described as a “drug-related shooting.” On Friday, November 17, Melvin Smith, 24, a popular ministry student, was shot and rendered brain-dead by thieves who got $5 and his wristwatch as he was heading home from a Bedford-Stuyvesant grocery store.

On Thanksgiving Day, 14-year-old Preston Simmons, known as “Little Man,” was killed, allegedly for selling drugs independently instead of through the murder suspect. On December 2, Arnulfo Williams Jr., 19, was shot and killed while trying to shield his younger brother from bullies at a bus stop in South Jamaica. In four days beginning on December 21 there were four unrelated killings of innocent bystanders. Two of the victims were young black women in Queens, one of them 25 years old and nine months pregnant. Another victim was an 11-year-old boy.

They were all young blacks, the hope of their people, killed by other young blacks who had become the scourge of their people. There were many others. In the four months after Hawkins’s death, more blacks were killed by other blacks than had been killed by whites in two years. And, in a departure from past patterns, many of the assailants and victims did not know one another. As the toll rose, most black militants, ministers, and civil rights lawyers and their white-activist apologists were as silent as the graves into which the bodies were being lowered. There were no marches. There were no speeches.

Finally, the silence could no longer be borne. Some black rap groups had already begun to sing out against black-on-black violence when Sharpton delivered the eulogy for 14-year-old Preston Simmons in a tiny chapel inside a Bronx funeral home. According to New York Newsday’s William Douglas and Doug Haberman, Sharpton:

... blamed Preston’s death on the black community and black leaders, who he says have allowed drugs to invade and take over their neighborhoods.

“I think it is now the responsibility of the community and activists to be responsible for the drug killers of our race as well as the race killers. We’ve lost two young men this year [sic], Preston at 14, Yusuf Hawkins at 16. One was our fault because we should have policed our community and taken a more active stand against drugs.”

“This was a tragedy equal to what happened to my son in Bensonhurst,” Moses Stewart [the father of Yusuf Hawkins] said. “This time, we are at fault.”

Coming from men known for denouncing racism as the alpha and omega of black suffering, this new, more introspective line was surprising. The halting movement by Sharpton and others toward acknowledging black individual and communal responsibility, even amid racist adversity, has more potential to improve matters than they may realize. It frees us from the game of racial finger pointing which whites, too, have played, using black crime to “explain” and excuse their racism. By declining to blame whites at Simmons’s funeral, Sharpton and Stewart implicitly affirmed that racism is intolerable precisely because most blacks are worthy people who hold one another responsible for their actions. That deprives censorious whites of the moral advantage of condescension. The vicious spiral is broken.

Victimhood vs. Victory

“Efforts to stop the polarization in the city can’t be geared totally toward race anymore,” says Roger Green. “It’s a point I have to argue, but folks do realize it. Sometimes we’re captive to our own rhetoric, as opposed to looking at what’s really happening and analyzing it. For example, after Howard Beach, I saw in the demonstrations something entirely new to me: that those white kids are a lost generation too, that there is a poverty of spirit that doesn’t just come down to race.”

Green’s view is implicitly endorsed by the hundreds of thousands of working-class blacks and Hispanics who turned out to vote for David Dinkins, who was anathema to the militants. The practitioners of racial paroxysm claim that their demonstrations and demands have aroused blacks and shoved whites in directions that made the moderates’ victories possible. In reality, their brand of racial politics has established a stereotype of public protest which the church groups and unions have had to work hard to break in their own rallies, and it surely cost David Dinkins white support that would have widened his two-point margin of victory.

What some of the militants can’t quite let go of, I think, is an unconscious need for powerlessness; so long as whites have the real power, these black leaders can remain righteous victims.

Dinkins, on the other hand, triumphed over the inevitable white hostility to his candidacy because he doggedly refused to make things “black/white” and to blame everything on racism. He denounced Minister Louis Farrakhan. He condemned the Brawley advisors. He called the assailants of the Central Park jogger “urban terrorists,” and when a black listener objected, he responded, I called them that, Bill, because that’s precisely what they were.” Finally, he told a group of black high school students during his campaign:

I know that we, the adults, have not done all we should, and all we must, to make this city all it can be. And I pledge to you that I will do my part as your next mayor. But I want a pledge, in turn, from you. A pledge that you will never use those obstacles and barriers as an excuse. I know that life is not always fair, that it’s hard to get ahead, but your obligation is to work hard, respect the law, be disciplined and strong—and take responsibility for your actions.

Dinkins was denounced for defending the “system.” But the militants have made his stance easier by staking out too despairing and vindictive an alternative.

A mural at Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Slave Theater, where Sharpton holds forth at weekly rallies, depicts a young, barefoot black man crying, “I don’t know who I am! Lost my name. My tribal language. My homeland. African wealth. I have nothing!” Another mural depicts a muscular, blond white man in chains, his captor a much smaller black field hand. “Sam,” the white man cries, you chained me up when I was asleep, you S.O.B.! Cut me loose or I’ll charge you with white man’s slavery.” The field hand replies, “Shut up, Pete, you chained me up when I was asleep too. Now it’s my turn. I gotcha, boy.”

To which the definitive response comes from the writer Leon Wieseltier:

The memory of oppression is a pillar and a strut of the identity of every people oppressed. It is no ordinary marker of difference. It is unusually stiffening. It instructs the individual and the group about what to expect of the world, imparts an isolating sense of apartness.... Don’t be fooled, it teaches, there is only repetition. For that reason, the collective memory of an oppressed people is not only a treasure but a trap.... In the memory of oppression, oppression outlives itself. The scar does the work of the wound. That is the real tragedy: that injustice retains the power to distort long after it has ceased to be real. It is a posthumous victory for the oppressors, when pain becomes a tradition. And yet the atrocities of the past must never be forgotten. This is the unfairly difficult dilemma of the newly emancipated and the newly enfranchised: An honorable life is not possible if they remember too little, and a normal life is not possible if they remember too much.

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