The letters from blacks come in dribs and drabs to my mailbox, not many, but several a week. They vary. Most are in ordinary English. A few carry the characteristic misspellings and odd grammar of uneducated blacks. Most are civil. Many are virulent in their hostility to me, understandable given my expressed distaste for racial preferences.
I try to put them together, to piece together from them a picture of black America. It works poorly, of course. My mail isn’t a representative sample of blacks. Those who write are those who use computers and, at least occasionally, read Internet columns. That’s part of black America, but only part. I don’t hear from the projects of South Chicago. What people say in letters to columnists is not always what they say to friends while sitting around the kitchen table.
Yet themes recur. The commonest, not always present but nearly so, is a profound sense of having been wronged by whites, and a corresponding expectation of being given things in return. This isn’t news. The intensity of belief, the hermetic impermeability to reason, the apparently implacable anger, are arresting. Whatever is wrong in their lives, whatever woes and miseries they bear ? these are the fault of whites. “You people tore us from our homeland and African civilization?.”
They regularly ascribe to whites a desire to control blacks, to oppress them, to keep them poor, to deny them education. Drugs in black neighborhoods are a white plot to destroy blacks. I think they really believe it.
Oddly, they seem to define themselves by the sense of abuse, to cherish it, to want to protect it against disbelief ? to like being mad.
The attitude as I encounter it is usually emotional, at best dimly lit by study, informed by little familiarity with either history or geography. The oft-invoked attachment to Africa, for example, is unaccompanied by knowledge of the continent. If asked to name the African countries whose capitals are Sulawesi, Patong, and Catarrh, they can’t. Nor do they care: Since books are readily available, the lack of knowledge implies a lack of interest.
The impression given is of an angry people who, in isolation from historical reality, weave a world that isn’t there and then live in it. I sense (for what that’s worth) a deep discomfort with the values and ways of whites, and a consequent desire to construct a mental universe with explanatory power, as well as power to keep whites at a distance. Part of this world is the frequent assertion that the Greeks were black, that the Egyptians were black, that Beethoven was black, that Jesus was black.
When beliefs become crucial to one’s understanding of one’s place in the world, they lose all susceptibility to reason. Little point exists in arguing to a Jesuit that the Vatican is merely a collection of buildings, or to a Mohammedan that Shiva is God, or to an evolutionist that much of what he believes doesn’t make sense. All of them can, or could, understand the argument. None of them can afford to.
So, I think, with blacks. The sense of grievance, of being owed, seems as central to their notion of the world as God was to Bernard of Clairvaux. It is not a condition but an identity. Without it they would be unsure who they were, and might have to look within for explanations of their problems. And so they protect the grievance, shield it from thought, cherish it as others cherish their children.
This explains the vast chasm that yawns between so many whites and the black mainstream. When blacks demand reparations, a white, acting in the European tradition of logic and analysis, is likely to point that he has never owned slaves, that blacks under 135 years of age have never been slaves, that he supported the civil rights movement of the Sixties, that his ancestors arrived in the US in 1923 from Poland.
He thinks these objections are telling. None of this makes the slightest impression on blacks, whose engagement with the matter appears to be chiefly emotional. They can’t look at their position rationally because it doesn’t hold together rationally, and would threaten the grievance.
In the background of all of this lies a tendency to think of people in groups, instead of as a collection of individuals. The distinction runs through much of politics. For example, conservatives routinely believe that advancement should depend on individual merit, while liberals believe that it should depend on membership in particular groups. As Marxism yearns for class warfare between moiling faceless masses, individualism thinks of Marlboro Man tall against the Wyoming sky, alone and self-reliant. The two currents are age-old.
Blacks do not seem to me to be at all Marxist, and in fact do not fit well into the political categories devised by whites. But they do fall on the group-oriented side of the philosophical divide.
Thus blacks as I encounter them appear to regard whites as one large organism, having a lifespan of thousands of years and collectively responsible for all things bad that any of its component particles have done. If Fernando Vasquez of Barcelona was in 1567 a slave trader, I owe blacks reparations. (That Fernando bought his slaves from other blacks never, ever registers with a black.)
If I told a black man that he was responsible for the atrocities of Idi Amin, because Amin was black, and that the black man therefore owed reparations to Amin’s victims, he would regard me as crazy. It would be a reasonable view. But the same black man will quite seriously believe that I owe him reparations for something somebody else did to somebody else long before either of us was born. The illogic means nothing.
Everything is always someone else’s fault. I encounter an absolute, unbreachable refusal to concede that they might in any way, however slight, have contributed to their own difficulties. Protecting the sense of grievance seems to take precedence over all else, going beyond the tendency common in argument to fortify one’s position somewhat beyond the facts. It seems a desperately held, essential tenet of life.
The reliance on grievance as a universally applicable explanation does not of necessity prevent advancement: One might respond with furious effort to excel the supposed oppressors. (“I’ll show them.”) But the belief that everything in life is determined by white racists implies that nothing is determined by oneself. Passivity and dependency, I think, result. These haven’t entirely crippled blacks, who are indeed making progress, but that progress is slower than it need be.