Roger Marolt: You can’t take the credit if you don’t also take the blame
Do I feel guilty being a middle-aged, educated, white male living comfortably in Aspen, Colorado, USA? That’s a hard one. I wonder about it. I don’t believe I earned my existence here. I try not to feel superior for it. I am more fortunate than deserving.
Am I guilty of anything for this existence in paradise, as many call it? I’ve read “East of Eden” and am convinced I am not culpable for my ancestors’ sins nor doomed to repeat the transgressions of my brother. Then again, it would be silly to argue that white men who slaughtered Native Americans to settle the West and plantation owners who used slaves to contribute in building our nation’s formidable economic power have not benefited me. Our nation, physically and deliberately, moved the white race ahead of Native Americans and Black people. We gave ourselves a head start. The path of least resistance has been to continue suppressing minorities since.
Did my direct ancestors steal land from Native Americans? I don’t think so. The West was settled before they arrived. They certainly may have acquired stolen land indirectly. But, it may also have been worthless land in the mountains that nobody previously claimed before the miners showed up. I’m almost certain they had nothing to do with slavery in America. The verdict? I am not guilty.
There is no doubt that white settlers stole land from Native Americans, oftentimes through murder. It is an awful fact that our country benefited, north, south, east, and west from the cruelty of slavery. The accompanying atrocities should be fully recognized and roundly condemned. There is no justification for any of it.
I believe the innate goodness in human beings is stronger than the possibility for serious malevolence. We are more prone to be taken by an impulse to do good than to plot hostility. This makes explaining the orchestrated massacre of Native Americans and slavery painful, especially employing truth in the examination. That the entire country has benefited gets us nowhere, because it is an ugly truth, not the beautiful kind. It only reveals the slow festering infection still smoldering beneath an ugly scar across our chest.
For most of our ancestors, their crime was ignorance.
The consideration of paying reparations to ancestors of our slaughtered, displaced and disadvantaged is not the answer. It is scattershot grazing the target around the periphery. Money can only ease immediate suffering. That won’t cut it for an injustice centuries in the making. Cash buys a “Get Out of Jail” card for America to consider a huge debt paid and then carrying on as usual. It will cause resentment to further fuel hatred. It does nothing to address systemic racism.
Guilt doesn’t get us very far in making amends, either. Foisting it onto a person’s shoulders bolsters resolve and stamina to resist. It leads to justifying what was done. In cases where it is levied unfairly, it turns potential allies into those who would stand away from the issue at arm’s length. It makes the underlying injustice easier to ignore.
The goal is to end the perpetuity of injustice, to change laws now, to change attitudes forever. We have to make descendants of Native Americans and slaves equal to the Americans of European descent, in law and in our unconsciousness.
Money is insufficient to address this problem. Better will be a change of heart leading to a change of mind. We must admit grave injustices from our past. We have to commit to truth. We need to teach our children honestly. National pride must absorb a bruise for every injury we have inflicted on those we should have assimilated rather than oppress.
I do not believe I have a ruthless disposition. If it is a latent trait that is only waiting for opportunity to manifest, I pray I am long dead before that occasion arises. As for weapons, I’ve never owned a gun. And still, a big question about history is how we would have existed in it. What would I have believed had I lived in the deep south in the antebellum period? How would I have acted given an opportunity to settle my claim in the great west? Speculation is easy. Personal truth in retrospect is as hard as it is unknowable. I bear no guilt for crimes against humanity that occurred and still I am sorry for every one of them. I desire to make things better. I can’t change the past. I can play a part in the beginning of the future.
Roger Marolt tries not to take living in Aspen for granted as much as he tries not to take much credit for it. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Columnist Paul Andersen continues to hope that the moral arc of the universe trends toward justice.