The three columns Ross Douthat has written so far in the wake of Ferguson on the subject of “When whites don’t get it” argue that Americans need “a wrenching, soul-searching excavation of our national soul, and the first step is to acknowledge that the central race challenge in America today is not the suffering of whites.” (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
In each column Douthat has set forth the facts and figures to illustrate “a system that manifestly does not provide equal opportunity.” Because his target audience consists of white Americans who refuse “to accept any responsibility” for this system, Douthat focuses on these hard facts, and on how we whites distort or ignore these facts, or make up our own “facts.” When some of his readers responded with plausible points about the responsibility of blacks for their own fate, Douthat countered: “Slavery and post-slavery oppression left a legacy of broken families, poverty, racism, hopelessness and internalized self-doubt.”
These are what Buddhists might call “taints” or “fetters” that hold us in the continuing round of birth, suffering, and death. I would add another fetter to Douthat’s list: resentment, as described and analyzed by Jean Améry.
Some kind-hearted readers of this blog cringe at or even denounce Améry’s proclaimed refusal to forgive the Germans for what they did to him as a Jew. Yet, many of the same people strongly support the continuing demonstrations in and about Ferguson. I would submit that we whites can never understand the spirit, the energy, and the intensity of the black participants in these demonstrations if we don’t open up to the resentment that helps fuel them.
Yes, simple justice demands the truth about the death of Michael Brown. Simple justice requires radical changes in the way young black men are dealt with by our criminal justice system. But if we whites are to enter fully into the soul-searching that Douthat rightfully calls for, we need to let go of our resistance to recognizing black resentment.
As I tried to describe in my post about the man who sought reparations for American slavery, African-American resentment can be quite complex and include a strong love for their country. As I’ve tried to explain in my posts about Améry, he may not forgive the Germans, but he has moved “Beyond Guilt and Atonement” (the German title of his book At the Mind’s Limit). Améry does not want revenge or eye-for-an-eye settlement of accounts. He wants both the perpetrators and their heirs to join with the victims and their kin in wanting as much as the victims do “to undo what had been done.”
This can only be done, Améry explains, in “moral time.” The problem with looking at crimes like slavery and post-slavery oppression in the context of “natural time” is that we quickly fall under the influence of the image of a wound and time healing all wounds. If we are the heirs of the perpetrators or the beneficiaries of past injustices, we start arguing that the wound has closed up. So, what’s the problem? The problem is that the crime has not been undone in “moral time” and that those who continue to endure its consequences recognize that “moral truth.”
One of the best and most pithy comments I’ve received on a blog post is amy the redhead’s in response to my first post about Améry: “resentment is taking poison and waiting for someone else to die.” One of the best depictions of the poisonous brew of resentments in American race relations is the 2004 movie Crash. Just as Améry really wants to be able to let go of his resentments against the Germans, we Americans need to work on letting go of our resentments by following his example. For white Americans this means recognizing the reality of black resentment and not dismissing it as merely another form of racism.