Rules on Race, plus one: 'Study History'

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Don't freak out." "Be forgiving." "Build trust."

In the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, those were three of the dozen "Rules on Race" suggested by writer William Saletan in Slate and republished in the July 28 Forum section.

They're good principles to practice in any area of life, actually, but I would add one more, especially in this moment when it seems we will never be free of our nation's tragic racial past.

"Study history."

In his seminal 2008 speech on race, President Barack Obama invoked William Faulkner's famous declaration: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

It's true that the past is always with us and powerfully shapes us, but how much the past controls us, and in what ways, depends to a great degree on what we know about it.

Earlier this year Emory University President James Wagner ignited a campus controversy, one discussed well beyond Atlanta, with an essay in the alumni magazine praising compromise. He opened by favorably citing the "three-fifths compromise" adopted by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, and he did so without including necessary and accurate historical detail.

Perhaps Mr. Wagner wanted to ennoble the often baldly selfish or highly political negotiations on budget and curriculum common to the modern campus. Whatever his motivation, by comparing the founders' negotiations with those of universities and congressional bodies today, he implied that the three-fifths compromise was an enlightened agreement reached by those with different but equally admirable priorities.

It was not. It was far more bitter and ominous than that. Even before the Revolutionary War there was a growing abolitionist movement in the North, and the South had already threatened to form a separate nation unless anti-slavery passages were removed from the Declaration of Independence.

As the Constitution was being drafted, the Southern states wanted to include slaves in their population count simply to secure more seats in Congress; the North feared Southern power and decried the South's cynical inclusion of persons who were otherwise treated as property. So they recycled a figure established in the earlier Articles of Confederation and agreed to include three-fifths of any state's slave population in its total.

This was a bitter pill, but it was not a poison pill. Scholars disagree on its disparate motivations and results, but it did keep the South in the Union while allowing the North to control the spread of slavery, to keep moral pressure on and eventually to win a bloody war for the truth.

In a terribly imperfect world, the three-fifths compromise was a very ugly but important step on the long road to universal freedom.

Emory students, staffers and donors must wrestle with their president's weird misapplication of a fraught historical episode, but it also highlights a very timely challenge for the rest of us.

If we don't understand such important conflicts from our shared past -- and present -- and if we fail to acknowledge how messy it often is to seize some small gain for the good, we make it less likely that we'll help bring about history's "long arc" toward justice.

"Separate the issues," reads another of the "Rules of Race," but we can't if we don't really know much about the issues to begin with.

"Don't polarize," Mr. Saletan urges as Rule No. 9 -- but it is historical detail that fills in the distance between our society's extremes. We can't "Put things in perspective" (Rule No. 11) when it is detail that shapes and fills a reasonable, generous perspective.

Our ignorance of history creates extra work for our would-be-noble characters. When we assume evil intent where there were in fact flawed and failed efforts at goodness, we create more to forgive.

And then we must ask ourselves -- ouch -- whether we prefer ignorance: Its vacuum gets filled with something, and we unconsciously choose the feeling -- vengeful passion, moral pride, a condescending kind of forgiveness -- that pleases us most. This is human nature in all its ugly complexity.

A 19-year-old protesting the Zimmerman verdict tells a reporter, "The system was never built for us." How tragic, because it was! Designed to be blind to race, religion or sex, the justice system is only as good as the humans who populate it.

But she was only 2 years old when a mostly black jury acquitted O.J. Simpson -- an opportunity to address race that we treated "only as spectacle," Mr. Obama noted in 2008. And I was that age when the South's Jim Crow era of lynching -- mob justice for imaginary crimes -- finally came to an end.

These painful moments in history teach us, or they terrorize us like ghosts if we fail to turn on the light.


Ruth Ann Dailey:


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