(Not) Coming to Terms with the Past
Race, Injustice and Social Policy in “Postracial” America
On February 27th, Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, issued a public statement that said Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” and “are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.” By the next day she tried to distance herself from the implication that her statement was meant, as some pithily put it, to whitewash the history of slavery and segregation in the face of which the HBCUs were created. The impression nevertheless remained.
A week later, on March 6th, Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), waded into similarly troubled waters when he claimed — in an address to HUD employees — “That’s what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they, too, had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.” Facing immediate outrage from many quarters — including a sharp statement from the Anne Frank Center — Carson (unlike DeVos) defended his controversial words, saying: “I think people need to actually look up the word immigrant. Whether you’re voluntary or involuntary, if you come from the outside to the inside, you’re an immigrant. Whether you’re legal or illegal, you come from the outside to inside, you’re an immigrant. Slaves came here as involuntary immigrants but they still had the strength to hold on.”
Carson is wrong — and I have looked the word up, as he might also want to — but before we get into that, I’d like to step back from the immediate, partisan context of these two “gaffes.” Leaving aside their resonance with Republican policy directions for the Department of Education under Secretary DeVos or the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Secretary Carson, I’d like to suggest that they are symptomatic of something far more nefarious than misrepresenting the degradations and dehumanization to which people of color in the United States have been subjected. (Which, don’t get me wrong, is bad enough.) What is truly telling about these two moments is how, individually and collectively, they build upon a notion — a wrong-headed and demonstrably false notion — that American society somehow entered a “post-racial” moment in, with or by the election of President Obama. That President Obama himself, while always careful not to endorse this notion, contributed to its proliferation in his words and deeds does not exonerate DeVos and Carson. But that fact does contextualize their errors, and tells us something we still need to face about how hard it really is for Americans of all ideological temperaments and of all races to come to terms with the past.
The rhetoric used by Obama during his two-term presidency bears on what made it possible for Carson to say something as outrageous as what he said. Indeed, as Breitbart News first reported, and was later picked up by various outlets both expressly partisan and non-partisan, Carson’s claim bears a close resemblance to something President Obama said in December 2015 during a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives. Here’s President Obama on that occasion: “So life in America was not always easy. It wasn’t always easy for new immigrants. Certainly it wasn’t easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily, and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves. There was discrimination and hardship and poverty. But, like you, they no doubt found inspiration in all those who had come before them. And they were able to muster faith that, here in America, they might build a better life and give their children something more.” Strongly similar, no doubt. What’s interesting about that?
I cannot know, will not know what was in the minds and on the hearts of enslaved persons on the ships that carried them against their will to live a life of involuntary servitude all the days of their lives thousands of miles away from the land of their ancestors. But, having read slave narratives — which themselves have their own ideological distortions of course — and being not entirely unfamiliar with the careful studies that have been done on chattel slavery in America and the Americas, I find this statement from Obama to ring false. But let’s put that to the side. Whether or not human beings, sent in chains across the ocean, held hope in their hearts or not, and whether or not “they found inspiration in all those who had come before” (here, if I am not mistaken, it seems Obama has shifted from speaking of persons who were captured or bought in Africa and shipped across the ocean to speaking of their descendants), the important claim in this quote from President Obama is what came before, when he says: “yet in their own way [they] were immigrants themselves.”
Here we see the crucial overlap between Obama’s claim and Carson’s defense of his claim: slaves “in their own way” were immigrants. Here, President Obama is wrong, and so is Carson. And it is a meaningful wrongness. Let me try to say why, as I see it. Persons who are trafficked against their will are not immigrants. Every immigrant is someone who was first an emigrant, and in order to be either a person needs to be a migrant. But “migrancy” connotes moving and, crucially, the “freedom of movement.” But such freedom of movement is a key constituent of, and contributor to, personhood. Having personhood means being the sort of entity that can act with intention, for instance to move (to migrate), to move away from one place (to emigrate) and toward another (to immigrate). Trafficked persons, like the enslaved Africans both Carson and Obama remind us to imagine on those boats on the Atlantic, were deprived of that personhood and thus, that capacity to move. Remember, this might sound abstract, but literally they were deprived of their freedom to move. Not figuratively, literally, physically deprived. This freedom of movement was denied them and, unlike a prisoner or someone else who was considered to have had their person “confiscated,” an enslaved person was deprived that personhood without hope of restoration. This is not a metaphor: this is cold historical reality.
Why does this matter so much? It matters because it displays our incapacity to see enslaved persons — especially those who were captured and shipped across the ocean, but also their descendants — as persons who were deprived of their personhood. We want so badly to redeem American history and our cultural and political heritage that we blind ourselves to what is irredeemable in that past. No, enslaved persons were not immigrants. Precisely because they were not immigrants I consider it immoral for us to fantasize about what “hopes and dreams” or what “inspirations” they might have had. Why? I know we are being asked to engage in this fantasy as an act of moral imagination that restores the basic humanity of those persons “in the bottom of slave ships” as Carson put it. I don’t doubt that he means the exercise to be empowering, and I don’t disagree that Obama’s speech had the same intended effect. I respect their efforts, but I also find them to be, in actual effect, immoral. The immorality rests in our willingness to believe that America is and was the “land of opportunity”, the place where, among other things, HBCUs could be “pioneers in school choice.”
We must shout “NO!” at this whole line of thought and educate ourselves about the harsh realities of American history. We need, in short, to be honest with ourselves and with our children. And we need our leaders to lead the way. We need them to call upon us, first and foremost, to face and to retell the hard history of how the practice of chattel slavery deprived enslaved persons of the very conditions that make having hopes and dreams possible. We need to recall that, at the most basic level, to be enslaved was to lack a future, as well as a present and a past. Yes, even the kind of temporality that makes personhood possible was deprived to enslaved persons. We need to teach and remember that the crimes of the past were so basic and so thoroughgoing that their legacy outlives (not outlived) them, even as we all, regardless of ideology, aspire to an America that is truly free of that legacy of unfreedom.