Rebutting Retroactive Racism

I intend to see 12 Years a Slave; it sounds like a very good movie. But I was somewhat daunted by the discordant note struck at its debut in Toronto:

Toronto festival artistic director Cameron Bailey, who is black, introduced the film by noting its personal significance. "My great, great, great grandparents were involved in plantation slavery," he said. "And chances are, many of your ancestors were involved in it as well ... one way or another." The uncomfortable laughs were the last the audience would have for a while...  [itallics mine]

This, of course, translates as "you whites are all descendants of slave owners and should be ashamed of it." I feel obliged to protest this sort of innuendo by dissecting Mr. Cameron's remark.

First of all, ancestral guilt is nonsense. Going back five hundred years or so, each of us has about a million ancestors. Probably, every one of us has a rotten apple or two among them. However, if one of mine committed a murder in 1625 -- or managed a slave plantation in 1740 -- I refuse to feel the least bit guilty about it and I dismiss Mr. Bailey's remark as gratuitous racist sniping.

But it was also inaccurate. Even if the audience was entirely American, about half of them would have been descendants of post-emancipation immigrants, and therefore free from any taint of slave-trade ancestry. Next, consider the ante bellum ancestors of the remainder. Half of these came from the North and may well have been members of the abolitionist movement or of the million and a half men who fought in the Union army to end slavery. Mr. Bailey owes those ancestors, and their descendants, an apology.

In fact, Mr. Bailey had better check up on his own lineage. Before Americans ever set foot in Africa, native tribes were busily enslaving one another. Moreover, the rounding up of slaves for export to America was a collaboration in which Arabs and tribal chiefs enthusiastically participated. Chances are that Mr. Bailey's ancestors were involved in slavery in more ways than one.

Or perhaps, Mr. Bailey means -- as some black activists imply -- that any white person is accountable for anything any other white person ever did. This is racism in its purest and most concentrated form. If it were true, then I would expect Mr. Bailey to publish an abject apology for the massacres in Rwanda and turn himself in for punishment.

In any case, his remark was mean-spirited and ill advised; perhaps that's why most newspapers ignored it. But I don't think that we should. Considering how black activists have hounded Paula Deen for having once used "the N word", and how they almost cost David Howard his job for using an innocent but similar word, I think we should protest every time that one of them utters anything as nasty and stupid as Mr. Bailey did.

I intend to see 12 Years a Slave; it sounds like a very good movie. But I was somewhat daunted by the discordant note struck at its debut in Toronto:

Toronto festival artistic director Cameron Bailey, who is black, introduced the film by noting its personal significance. "My great, great, great grandparents were involved in plantation slavery," he said. "And chances are, many of your ancestors were involved in it as well ... one way or another." The uncomfortable laughs were the last the audience would have for a while...  [itallics mine]

This, of course, translates as "you whites are all descendants of slave owners and should be ashamed of it." I feel obliged to protest this sort of innuendo by dissecting Mr. Cameron's remark.

First of all, ancestral guilt is nonsense. Going back five hundred years or so, each of us has about a million ancestors. Probably, every one of us has a rotten apple or two among them. However, if one of mine committed a murder in 1625 -- or managed a slave plantation in 1740 -- I refuse to feel the least bit guilty about it and I dismiss Mr. Bailey's remark as gratuitous racist sniping.

But it was also inaccurate. Even if the audience was entirely American, about half of them would have been descendants of post-emancipation immigrants, and therefore free from any taint of slave-trade ancestry. Next, consider the ante bellum ancestors of the remainder. Half of these came from the North and may well have been members of the abolitionist movement or of the million and a half men who fought in the Union army to end slavery. Mr. Bailey owes those ancestors, and their descendants, an apology.

In fact, Mr. Bailey had better check up on his own lineage. Before Americans ever set foot in Africa, native tribes were busily enslaving one another. Moreover, the rounding up of slaves for export to America was a collaboration in which Arabs and tribal chiefs enthusiastically participated. Chances are that Mr. Bailey's ancestors were involved in slavery in more ways than one.

Or perhaps, Mr. Bailey means -- as some black activists imply -- that any white person is accountable for anything any other white person ever did. This is racism in its purest and most concentrated form. If it were true, then I would expect Mr. Bailey to publish an abject apology for the massacres in Rwanda and turn himself in for punishment.

In any case, his remark was mean-spirited and ill advised; perhaps that's why most newspapers ignored it. But I don't think that we should. Considering how black activists have hounded Paula Deen for having once used "the N word", and how they almost cost David Howard his job for using an innocent but similar word, I think we should protest every time that one of them utters anything as nasty and stupid as Mr. Bailey did.

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