Why Are Black People So Forgiving?

By Ta-Nehisi Coates
2010-02-20-MalcolmChild.jpg

Jeff asked this question after dealing with an utterly evasive Haley Barbour on the ever-present neo-Confederate question. The obvious answer of course is black people aren't very forgiving at all. Indeed, looking back on these Malcolm X tapes, I think a large part of his appeal was that he eased a bitter pill. White racists were freely slaughtering black children, and what we had, what we showed the country, was prayer and church hymns. Even now, that's hard to take.


Having said that, black people played an indispensable role in creating the American concept, and thus, as much as anyone, are aware of its charms. A pure nationalism would never have truly worked if only because as surely as they believe that real America is in Wasilla, we believe it is in Harlem. The difference is that we have been attuned to the cold practicalities of this country, and thus understand that our claim is not exclusive, that our claim requires moving toward the broad American consensus--even if much of the consensus is wrong.

Correcting that consensus is about firepower, and African-Americans, relatively speaking, don't really have much:

For outrageous as it is that there are black students who attend a Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, the simple fact is that it pales in comparison to the other things African Americans in the South have had to worry about. Jacksonville, Florida, where that high school is located, for instance, has a double-digit poverty rate, a double-digit unemployment rate, and a fairly high murder rate, all of which disproportionately affect the city's black population. Confederate-worship is annoying, but outrage falls pretty low on the hierarchy of needs, all things considered.  

I would also add that African Americans simply don't have the social capital to make people care about bigotry against them. Outside of high-profile incidents or blatant cases of racism, there aren't many people concerned with ubiquitous Confederate veneration. Indeed, it doesn't even come across as obviously wrong in the way that a Nazi flag would. Put another way, this country has made an effort to forget its racial sins, and African Americans don't have the social power necessary to challenge it, or stop the Confederate mythologizing of (some) Southern whites.

That's Jamelle talking. And I want to double down on his last point. This is an America where sober progressives(!) soberly argue that Obama should upbraid the NAACP for asking the Tea Party to repudiate elements of racism in their midst. This is an America where Shirley Sherrod was told to pull over to the side of the road and resign for fear that she was a racist, 
This is a country where, despite the existence of easily accessible primary documents, a large swath of the people believe the Civil War, which killed two percent of the entire population, was about tariffs.

Jamelle cites the double-digit poverty rate as a more pressing problem. I would say that there is a direct link between that poverty rate, and the story this country tells itself about its past. And there is a direct link between both of those and the ignorance we choose to see, and the ignorance we don't. This summer's events, from Shirley Sherrod to Marty Peretz, should teach us that. 

I think, in my heart, I am a nationalist. And yet I am thankful that to a member of community that is wiser than me, one that understands that ideals are just that when they have no guns to back them up. These people are not noble. To the contrary, they have always been coldly opportunistic.They are forgiving because they have common sense. They are forgiving because they do not have the weaponry to be any other way.


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/10/why-are-black-people-so-forgiving/64129/