When Medieval Inquistion (of the non-Spanish variety) rode into a town beset with heresy, everybody got 30 days to confess without punishment. This was known as the “Term of Grace”. Anyone who came in out of the cold during those 30 days and admitted their heresy was considered saved through the mercy of the Church. Anyone who didn’t was suspect.
Witchcraft trials worked the same way. So too did Stalin show trials and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. And so does the endless folderol about “White Privelege”. Here’s John McWhorter, calling the whole parade into question in the Daily Beast:
In a society where racism is treated as morally equivalent to pedophilia, what whites are seeking is the sweet relief of moral absolution. Inside they are pleading, “Please don’t hate me!” And I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an accompanying feeling of purification (redemption, even) that comes with such consultant-given absolution. I can honestly say that I would be engaging in exactly this kind of moral self-flagellation about racism if I were white in today’s America.
However, not being white, I can’t help but see it from a different perspective.
The question he goes on to ask, “cui bono?” And the answer is, “Not blacks.”
When your people have been enslaved for centuries followed by another century of lynching, Jim Crow, and worse, the racial ego suffers. A suffering ego is ripe for using the status of the Noble Victim as a crutch; you gain a sense of worth in being a survivor of the evil one’s depredations. The Noble Victim is in control—of the conversation, as it were, of the parameters of moral judgment.
The Noble Victim, most certainly, matters. He is, in a sense, whole. But meanwhile, no one gets a job; no one gets fed; little tangible progress is actually made. The Struggle, as it used to be called, sits on hold.
Which is why I’ve become perfectly fine with being the wrong kind of white person, the kind who “just doesn’t get it.” You’re right. I don’t get it. When I think about race in America, and about blacks in particular, I am reminded, on this feast day of St. Patrick, of my own ancestors, who populated the “inner cities” of the 19th century and were likewise given to poverty and crime. What’s the difference?
Chiefly, any reasonably functional boyo could walk into a mill or the docks and find a job. Not a great job, not even a job that did much more than keep him in corned beef and whiskey. But a job. His life had purpose and function. He could be a husband and father, if he had the sands for it. And over the generations, his peoples built up the wherewithal for a better life.
Today, those jobs are gone. A young black man who gets a diploma from Baltimore City Public Schools can’t just walk down to the harbor and sign on with a firm. Or at least, not enough of them can to prevent the rest from falling into despair. And despite a mountain of good intentions, despite continuous Crusades on Poverty, despite endless Inquisition into our horrid horrid Privelege, white people have been unable to redeem this situation.
Because in order to do that, we’d have to stop talking about ourselves.