Collective Responsibility

Scripps-Howard News Service 8.14.02
Balint Vazsonyi

For a number of years, it seemed that reparations for slavery was something of a wild card used by the likes of Jesse Jackson if their names were absent from the papers for a few weeks. Since the proposition was devoid of moral or intellectual merit, I thought it would never be taken seriously.

But now it's upon us and a demonstration has been scheduled for August 17 in the nation's capital, making the demand official. We had better take it seriously.

I respectfully make the identical recommendation to advocates of the proposition.

Whereas the rule of law outside most of the English-speaking world has been the dream of a few, The Founding Fathers made it reality in America. A major component of this success has been the vesting of rights in individuals - as opposed to groups - with corresponding individual responsibility. The ancient aspiration of equality before the law was thus placed within the grasp of all who were to come to America.

Unless I am mistaken, the thrust of the Civil Rights movement as articulated by Martin Luther King was a similar aspiration. Focusing on the "content of character" as opposed to "color of skin" can mean only that people of African ancestry should be treated as individuals.

A great deal of effort has gone into making the foregoing reality - effort, and money. By definition, the effort had to be made by white Americans, always assuming the agreement and full cooperation of black Americans. The millions who used the opportunity to get ahead by honest work have done just that. Black leaders, by and large, decided that real money came from ignoring the historic experiment of creating a truly integrated society, and embarked on a never-ending litany of past and present injuries. Over the decades since passage of the civil rights legislation, they succeeded in building an army of people whose primary emotion is resentment of white America.

Of course, it is a lie. Blacks love "racist" white America, and wouldn't dream of living anywhere else, least of all in Africa. Were that not so, we would have witnessed a vast stream of migration to the black continent. There is not even a trickle.

But ultimately the future depends on the emergence of a long-overdue "Civil Responsibilities" movement. There must be plenty of dark-skinned fellow-citizens who think and act as Americans. Alas, most of those we get to see on television - including elective office holders - are "professionally" black. In other words, they have rejected both Martin Luther King's call and white America's effort to look upon everyone as an individual.

And therein lies the real danger of embarking on the reparations debate in earnest. It will put the clock back several decades in that it will unavoidably pit black against white and vice versa. It will not only consolidate the influence of the enemies of integration on both sides, but drive wedges between people who today are working together in true harmony.

Early on, I mentioned the absence of any moral or intellectual merit. Though obvious, a point or two may be worth recalling. Since the past cannot be changed, there is no such thing as "righting a historic wrong." If people come to believe that injustice is being committed, they can change the terms for the future. Significantly, in the present case, those who were wronged, and those who wronged them, are long dead. Consequently, extorting money from people who have done nothing wrong for people who have not been wronged is possible only by invoking collective responsibility.

Ay, there's the rub, Shakespeare would say.

Hand in hand with collective responsibility goes collective evaluation of every kind. And it's not a one-sided game, nor is wishful thinking of much practical value. Current example: the Arab/Muslim world holds America responsible for all its woes, but protests erupt when America holds the Arab/Muslim world responsible for terrorism committed by some of its members. To no avail. It's either one way or the other.

Genuine, ongoing and lasting improvement for black Americans is achievable only through individual effort, harvesting individual appreciation. The interference by those who continue trading on slavery has already slowed the benefits to all. If an additional blow is now struck through the reparations demand, it may be fatal.

It took millennia for white people to establish individual rights. It took centuries for black people to secure equal participation in that rare blessing. If they throw it away, there may not be another chance for some time.