Thursday, February 21, 2008

Banished and black reparations

I’ve been thinking about the Public Television show Banished, since I saw it two days ago. For those who didn’t see it, the show is about some modern day black people whose ancestors were victims of mob violence in the early twentieth century. The ancestors of the folks on the show were run out of town and their property taken over. Today, they return to those places and consider if something can be done to make those long-ago wrongs right.

One of the things that made our country great is respect for property rights and the rule of law. We have generally honored those ideas since the founding of the country, with some notable exceptions.

The exceptions generally resulted from the process of evolution in our thinking.

For example, in 1776, the framers of the constitution said, “all men are created equal,” but “men” appears to have meant “white males of European descent,” as opposed to the definition of “men” in popular use today.

At that time, there was no universal recognition of the rights of either Native Americans, black people, women, or certain other foreigners. While some individuals – perhaps many individuals – recognized those groups as having the same rights as others, their individual opinions were not backed by the force of law in American courts.

As a result, many colonial residents of this land lived in fear for their own freedom and safety. At the same time, they feared confiscation or seizure of their property. For the most part, our society has evolved to the point where Americans do not fear those things today.

Now, free Americans look back in our history to times when their ancestors were temporarily or permanently deprived of their own freedom, and they ask if that long-ago deprivation of freedom is a wrong that should be made right today. And if so, how? And if someone were to make things right, who would it be?

Indian tribes have looked to the Federal courts to redress the seizure of tribal lands in the 1800s. Now, black people are raising the issue of illegal property seizures in the American south in the 1900-1930 time frame.

In the Native American case, it was the action of the Federal government that took the land in the first place, and it’s the Federal courts that have addressed the issue today. That seems appropriate to me.

What about the black people’s situation? That’s more complex, because it resulted from individual actions 100 years ago, as opposed to the action of government agents. Who would they look to, to make that right? The grandchildren of the Klansmen or mob members who took the land? The town they lived in? The state?

I don’t purport to know the answer to these questions but I have a sense about it. I think the descendants of those victims of anti-black violence might look to the government body that looked the other way when the incident happened. Our country is built upon the rule of law and respect for property rights, and it was rule of law and respect for property that broke down on a local level to allow the incidents depicted on the show.

I don’t know if that points to town, county, or state government. I suppose it varies, case by case.

But is this right, making a claim today? We have statues of limitations for all crimes relating to property. That means, for example, that a vandalism we committed as a teenager cannot be held over our head at age 30. The only crimes for which there are no time limits for prosecution are very serious ones, like murder.

Should the statue of limitations apply to the black people’s mob violence claim?

It’s been argued that the Indian claims are not subject to the statue of limitations because they resulted from acts of our government. Can the same be argued in the case of the black people?

How far back in time should we reach with our modern ideas? If we go back far enough, every one of us can find ancestors who were oppressed, enslaved, or had their property seized. That’s true for all of us, white, black, and otherwise. Freedom and property rights are fairly recent ideas in much of the world, and they have yet to arrive in some countries today.

Should we let those past events go, or take action today?

10 comments:

first do no harm said...

I think you make a good point. We are a nation ruled by law, not by men. There is a good reason for this. The written law maintains our integrity when the emotions and biases of men waiver. It is important to establish reparations for a simple reason. It will prevent future mob rule when lawyers and judges look the other way. If a judge or lawyer knows his decision may be overturned, it will raise the bar on erratic or political or popular judgments.

John Elder Robison said...

Do you think that's true even in the case of events that happened 100 years ago?

If so, how far back would you reach, and why?

If we go back 300 years, for example, almost all of us can find unfair seizures in our past. Where and why should we draw a line?

Kanani said...

#1 has it right.

But big big questions and interesting thoughts.

By the way, I need to follow up on the book review and interview you. I haven't done that yet!

The Anti-Wife said...

To me this is like punishing children because their parents were bad. In this case the people who did the crime are long gone. Is it fair to punish their decendents who had nothing to do with it?

John Elder Robison said...

Anti-Wife, I agree with you with respect to individuals. I hope most people will agree that we should not hold young people today responsible for actions of their grandparents.

That said, what's the proper role of government in this situation?

John Elder Robison said...

Say, Kanani . . . the comments on the Easy Writer blog aren't working. I was going to write something on your self portrait essay.

On the book review . . . write anytime john@johnrobison.com and we can set it up

Chumplet said...

Look at the expulsion of the Acadians. I'm not sure how many came back to resettle, but many didn't. Did they go back to their old lands or start anew? This is something I must research.

first do no harm said...

At least half of the Acadians settled in New England. Up until a few years ago you could still attend Mass in French in Waltham, Mass. and many of the officers on the police force there had Acadian names. Holyoke, Mass. is also a place where you can find many Acadian descendents. This was an historical injustice and we probably can't do anything about something that happened nearly 300 years ago. John Elder was talking about injustice that occurred in living memory. Injustice is injustice and should be recognized as such. Should we not attempt to correct contemporary problems I suspect we are just increasing the probability that things like this will recur. American democracy is founded on rule by the majority while respecting the rights of the minority. Anything that chips away at this weakens us as a nation. It is hard work to maintain a democracy. It is also hard work for victims when democracy falls short.

Kanani said...

You're the second person to tell me the comments aren't working. I don't know why! I think it's a blogger glitch, as they were working this morning.

Gahhh!!!
Okay, I'll write you and we'll get your post-publication mug on my blog again.

I just plugged your book on a fashion site. Your bro's book "Sellevision" came up, and so I told them about YOU!
xx

Sustenance Scout said...

John, a timely discussion as so many Americans along the Mexican border face the potential loss of property for the sake of Homeland Security. K.