Reparations and Recriminations

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday issued a landmark apology for slavery. Specifically, asked African Americans to forgive "on behalf of the people of the United States for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow."

Equally unprecedented was the fact that a white lawmaker, Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, penned the resolution. (Ironically, Cohen also tried to join the Congressional Black Caucus but, in a flip of the script, was turned down because of his race.)

To me, it doesn't matter who takes the ball. What matters is that it gets bounced. And Cohen, a Jew who jokes that he has the voting record of a "liberal black woman" has taken an important  first step to heal some deep historical wounds.

Uh-oh. You know what comes after an apology. Restitution. Reparations. That's what some folks are most afraid of. I can hear them now.  "Apologize for what? Why should we pay reparations? We had nothing to do with slavery. Our ancestors came over here well after slavery."

That's why the resolution refers to the "wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow."

Well, now. Jim Crow was alive and thriving while I was a kid, about 40 years ago.

But beyond that, whether people want to admit it or not, whites have benefited from unspoken privilege based on skin color. Jobs, schools, housing, you name it. It's what ethnographer W.E.B. Du Bois described as the  "social and psychological wage" that whites are granted  -- that they continue to receive even today.

All of these issues are hard to talk about in mixed company. But if I ever met Cohen, I'd give him a hearty, "You go girl!" for helping to put the discourse on the public agenda. Because he's an honorary sistah in my book.