Sunday, June 7, 2015

Should Guilt be Inherited?

     What you see above is part of an exchange I've recently had with my psychiatric advisor for Tatterdemalion, nicknamed Propane Jane. "Jane's" a psychiatrist in the Houston area and she tweets regularly (and vehemently) about police brutality and racism aimed at her fellow African Americans. (The subject was the McKinney, Texas pool party that got broken up in typical white cop fashion, resulting in the offending officer getting immediately suspended). So this got me in a philosophical mood and got me to wondering: Should guilt be inherited?
      I'm specifically referring to white guilt over slavery but I suppose the same question holds for any kind of guilt that subsequent generations willingly place on their shoulders like so many little Atlases. Well, before we try to answer that thorny question, we have to satisfactorily answer the age-old question, Is there any such thing as inherited sin and should we continue paying penance for crimes allegedly committed by forebears we never knew?
     Inherited sin, in my atheist mind, was nothing more or less than a wonderful scam successfully operated by the Roman Catholic Church and used against those who had committed no sin, much less legitimately participated in back in Adam and Eve's day. It's like inherited debt (something that, sadly, exists)- You're in supernatural indentured servitude because a long-dead woman allegedly ate an apple and decided to cover up her genitals.
     This continued harassment, that went all the way up to the Pope on down to the meanest parish priest, got people coming to church every Sunday (the one day that God rests, no less) and in the confession booth. It also, coincidentally, still keeps the collection plates and boxes full during shriving.
     To be fair to those poor, needlessly suffering bastards, the church's power was absolute, moreso than we can imagine in our less uptight day and age.
     But inherited white guilt and the paranoia of Angry Black Person Syndrome is not enforced but willingly assumed. There is no church or any central authority telling us we will go to Hell or at least to a lengthy perdition if we do not continue to repent for our forebears owning and abusing slaves. This onus is entirely self-inflicted and most of us aren't even aware we're afflicted with it.
     In Die Hard III, Bruce Willis asks Samuel L. Jackson why he's so antagonist toward him. "You got some fuckin' problem with me 'cause I'm white, Zeus? Is that it? Huh? Have I oppressed you? Have I oppressed your people somehow?", he asks. It's a legitimate rhetorical question, not to mention a powerful one because John McClane does not feel guilty one bit for previous generations of long-dead white people who brutalized and oppressed African Americans for over four centuries.
     Neither do I. Am I ashamed at what my people did to black people for all those centuries? Absolutely. But shame is not a synonym for guilt, nor should it be.
     My family came from Sicily, Reggio Calabria and Ireland back in the early 20th century if not the late 19th century. And when my ancestors settled in America, they did so in the northeast where slavery wasn't legal. So it's not as if I should even feel inherited guilt for something my grandparents or great grandparents did.
     And that may be a facile and convenient answer for those who feel as if I should assume my share of the burden for our part in slavery and lynching.
     But if, by my rubric, inherited guilt should not exist any more than inherited sin, then do African Americans have a right to feel inherited anger over what happened to their ancestors? Well, yes. Put yourself in their shoes, if you can.
     While I've never been a practicing Catholic, it's deplorable, shameful and anger-inducing when I think of how brutally Roman Catholics were oppressed in England and here in America. There was a time in English history when "Papists" weren't allowed within London's city limits, couldn't own businesses and marrying outside their religion was punishable by death.
     The same could be said for the prejudice waged against the Irish until practically in my lifetime. I get angry when I see Irish stereotypes perpetuated on tee shirts sold at places like Walmart and feel a flush of indignation when I think of the bigotry that victimized my people. Yet my people weren't enslaved or lynched with impunity in the streets of America.
     So, yes, African Americans have a perfect right to feel anger once they learn how their ancestors were treated. The question is, "To whom should they direct their anger since all the slave owners and overseers are long dead?"
     Well, their rage is needlessly inflamed by the stubborn presence of the KKK, white supremacy and racist neo Nazi groups that have multiplied more fruitfully since the election and reelection of a certain African American President of the United States. It's inflamed even more by passive and active white racism that's exposed in social experiments and delineated by voter suppression and vote caging by right wing politicians, police brutality and police killings of unarmed African Americans. The enduring fury over racism is kept alive in more ways than most white people can count but that black activists, I'm sure, can easily enumerate.
     And it's literally a vicious circle that keeps feeding itself: Almost unanimously white cops kill black people without just cause, black people protest, white people denigrate not the killers but black people for unrelated or nonexistent looting, for protesting their lot while contorting their thinking to the point where Tamir Rice had it coming to him for being shot dead for playing with a toy gun at a playground.
     And so it goes, around and around, with seemingly no end in sight.
     So how do we calm this black rage over millions of crimes that had been committed starting in the 15th century? It begins with acknowledging their feelings. Most white people don't know what it feels like to be enslaved or lynched and neither do most modern day African Americans. But at some point empathy to some degree should be possible because, while slavery and lynching may be things of the past, the prejudice and double standards handed down by one irresponsible parent after another remains and is felt.
     Strong feelings (as opposed to mere kneejerk reactions and racist hatred) are often justified and need to be respected. And respect begins with acknowledgement. Instead of killing our black brothers and sisters for petty or no crimes and letting those murderers get off scot-free and then threaten to kill more when they assemble as per their constitutional right when they express their displeasure, we need to listen to their grievances. We need to listen because one human constant that unites us is a desire to be heard.
     And as long as mostly white constabularies and mostly white lawmakers continue demonizing these people for speaking up about injustice, then what incentive do they have for peaceful assembly?
     Let's keep in mind Dr. King's ominous words: "A riot is the language of the unheard."


At June 8, 2015 at 5:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well spoken. I don't expect anyone to feel guilty about their success or feel like they owe me anything. All I ask is for is an honest accounting of how society works and how institutional racism still makes it harder for some people. .


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