“Racism — It’s not my fault, or my problem.” The argument shows up with amazing frequency on social media. I didn’t do it, so I can’t be held responsible. I don’t own slaves. No one in my family has ever owned slaves. I didn’t steal any land, nor did any of my forebears. I have a deed that demonstrates the truth of this. I have earned and paid for everything I have. So, get off my back. Besides, you weren’t a slave. You haven’t had any land stolen from you. So, suck it up and get over it.
As I have studied Paul’s Letter to Philemon, I have learned that these are not new arguments. As ancient philosophers thought about slavery, they found inherited enslavement was the hardest practice to justify. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, there was no worse fate than to move from free to enslaved. Many ancient thinkers believed that forcing a free person into enslavement was inherently wrong and dishonorable. So, relying on “born” slaves was, on the surface of the argument, preferable to any of the other paths to enslavement. But, in fact, this view just kicked the philosophical can down the genealogical road.
Jennifer Glancy describes the argument from origins made by the ancient writer, Dio Chrysostom. In short, he argued that if you go back far enough in anyone’s family tree, you will find a free person. If you followed that family tree far enough, you “would eventually reach the moment in which a free person had been illegitimately reduced to the status of a slave,” Glancy writes, “most likely by an act of violence.” (Glancy, Enslavement in Early Christianity, KL 1459). So, for some ancient thinkers, born enslavement was not enough of a story to justify the practice. At some point, you will run into someone who is free. Either that person’s life doesn’t matter, or a crime was committed that is carried down the generations.
Is receiving stolen property a crime? In general, we think so. It is possible to receive stolen property in ignorance, although the circumstances of the transfer usually raise questions that must be willfully ignored. That is not the case, however, when it comes to enslavement in either the Roman or Transatlantic systems. We know that in either case, someone at some point was free and then was not.
The same is true of all land in North America. At some point, Europeans arrived and took what was not theirs. In this case arguments are made that Native peoples didn’t own the land or didn’t believe in the concept of ownership. The fact that a system of deeds and titles did not exist is neither de facto nor de jure proof that there was no ownership. In fact, the United States Supreme Court had to create a settled law that Native peoples did not own the land which they occupied. In the 1823 decision in Johnson v M’Intosh, the Court used the “Doctrine of Discovery” to support the claim that the United States was the only entity entitled to purchase land from the Natives.
In Unsettling Truths, Charles and Rah write, “The Native occupants of the land would be deemed inferior to the superior claims of the image-bearing Christian presence of European settlers. This sense of sovereignty and superiority of the European-American people would be a common-sense assumption explicitly and implicitly expressed throughout US history” (page 104). Every non-Native claim to land ownership on this continent is therefore legally rooted and grounded in that act of national theft and violence sanctioned and sanctified by the highest court in the nation. Receiving stolen property remains a crime.
At some point, the land belonged to others and was taken. At some point, the bodies were free and were stolen. How many transfers of ownership does it take before the theft disappears? How many generations does it take before enslaving becomes irrelevant? When does the White benefit from black enslavement no longer stand as a debt in need of repayment? The petulant argument doesn’t answer these questions except to say that it was long enough before I came along.
That’s historically and morally incoherent. In his classic work, Inhuman Bondage, David Brion Davis argues “that racial slavery became an intrinsic and indispensable part of New World settlement, not an accident or a marginal shortcoming of the American experience. We must face the ultimate contradiction that our free and democratic society was made possible by massive slave labor” (page 6). For the receipts, please read the works referenced below.
For example, my “people” arrived mostly from Germany between 1880 and 1920. In historical terms, these folks did not and could not enslave people. But they and I have benefitted and continue to benefit from systems, structures, and surpluses built by black people for the exclusive advantage of white people. And they settled on and “developed” land that was taken. The passing years have not changed those facts. If anything, successive practices of Jim Crow, redlining, rolling back Civil Rights gains, and ignoring the humanity of people of color have amplified and magnified the offenses.
The petulant argument that it’s not my responsibility simply asserts that at some point the people who owned the land and inhabited the bodies simply didn’t matter. Is it any wonder that we treat their descendants as if they do not matter as well? Denying and erasing responsibility — also known as “forgetting” — is the surest path to repeating the crimes against humanity that we, the perpetrators, try so hard to forget. And it is the path toward the subhuman reality of white people in the West.
I come at this from a couple of angles. First, I take seriously the argument that Charles and Rah make in Unsettling Truths. They refer to the work of Rachel McNair in Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing. McNair proposes the concept of “Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress,” identified by the acronym, PITS. McNair’s work has been with Vietnam veterans, who experienced a form of PTSD — not because of what they suffered but rather because of what they did.
Mark Charles wonders, based on his own experience of trauma-survival, whether something like PITS can describe part of the White reality in the West. “Is it possible,” he asks, “that PITS also has a complex version for people who lived their entire lives perpetrating dehumanizing violence against people of color?” (page 176). He notes that trauma can have transpersonal and transgenerational manifestations and effects. It’s not just the problem of “those people way back when.” He asks, “are whites experiencing the phenomena of a generational trauma that can be labeled ‘the trauma of white American’?” Charles believes that is the case.
I think he’s on to something. If he is anywhere close to correct, then the petulant argument is one manifestation of a trauma response — denial. There can be no healing and reconciliation without truth-telling to defeat that denial. If Philemon accepted Paul’s counsel and urging in how to respond to Onesimus, I have to wonder what sorts of truth-telling (aka “confession”) were part of the building of that new relationship? Did Philemon suffer from some variety of PITS for which he and his household needed healing? Did the Roman Empire, as an authentic slaveholding society, suffer from the culture-wide version of the syndrome and need a healing that was not to be found?
A second dimension of response to the petulant argument comes from Heather McGhee’s new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. McGhee describes the “zero-sum game” of White racism — the notion that any gain for people of color must come at the expense of White people, and especially of working class white people. She reviews how this ideology is used to weaponize working class whites politically, economically, and socially against people of color in order to sustain the power, privilege, and property of white elites.
The reward for working class whites is what W. E. B. DuBois called the “white wage.” This is the sense that working class whites may not be much but they are at least better than those colored people. This status is the payment made for sustaining the system. McGhee describes what could be called the “white tax.” This is the cost to working class whites in terms of education, opportunity, voting rights, housing stock, and public amenities when people of color are deprived of those benefits. Often some working class whites are caught in the blast radius of such discrimination — and continue to vote against self-interest in order to continue receiving the “white wage.”
McGhee describes in detail what she calls the “Solidarity Dividend.” This is the opposite of the “white tax.” In fact, when racial discrimination has been reduced, working class whites have benefitted as well. It is in the economic and social self-interest of working-class whites to forego the “white wage” and embrace the Solidarity Dividend. Again, that requires an honest reckoning regarding race (aka “confession”) before real solidarity can be accomplished.
I wonder if the Roman system suffered from some of the same liabilities as our own culture. The honor and shame hierarchy of the Roman system was not racialized in the way our system is. However, there was an intense appreciation of better/worse, more/less, gain/loss. The ancient Mediterranean world was a limited good culture, as Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh point out repeatedly. It was an honor/shame culture as well, so status was worth more even than money. How often did that get in the way of cultural progress? Often, it would seem. Was that culture a reality that the Good News of Jesus could overcome in the household of Philemon? We don’t know for sure.
“Racism — It’s not my fault, or my problem.” The petulant argument is a trauma-induced denial of reality and responsibility. As has often been said, when it comes to racism, not even the past is past. This an ideology and a system that requires most of us to be regarded as less than human to one degree or another. Only the few at the “top” are treated as fully human and having that personal worth. When we white people participate in and benefit from a system of increasing dehumanization, we cease to be fully human and miss out on the dividends that abundant life offers.
Did Philemon experience Paul’s letter as an invitation to authentic and abundant life? Do we?