I recently heard an interview with the editor of "Without Sanctuary," a collection of postcards made from photographs taken of lynchings in the United States. He described one postcard of a black woman and her son hanging by their necks from a bridge over a river.
Her husband was suspected of a crime, and when the lynch mob failed to find him at home, they hung his wife and child instead. After they were lynched, the citizens proudly lined up along the length of the bridge to have their pictures taken with the bodies dangling below. The idea of someone sending a postcard like this is shocking enough, but the fact that until 1908 they were mailed in the U.S. mail was even more disturbing.
This led me to read other books on African American history, including one demanding that the U.S. government reimburse African Americans for loss of wealth and apologize for its role in slavery and segregation. The argument lies in the fact that slavery and segregation excluded African Americans from the democratic process, depriving them of equal opportunity, and stole money from the free labor of blacks for the financial benefits of whites. Moreover, the overt role of the U.S. government in the creation and perpetuation of these institutions made this theft possible, and the government should therefore be held directly responsible for the damages.
I bristled at this idea. After all, I was not guilty for what happened 350 years ago. I had never hurt anyone of color. Moreover, I asked, "Why can't blacks improve their conditions like other minorities?" Comparisons like these are often made between African Americans and other minorities who have come to this country and climbed their way out of poverty.