Sorry to turn this into Affirmative Action day guys, but there's a lot of interesting stuff in comments. Glad folks are speaking their mind, and arguing with a level of intellectual honesty. Anyway, here's another argument I've been turning over in my head:
Try explaining to 3rd generation immigrants how they or their forebears benefited from slavery. There are many facts that you could produce that may indeed prove it. But do these arguments have the same impact as the anecdote about the 2nd cousin who was denied a promotion because of a quota? This is the disconnect. The descendants of immigrants see themselves as not personally responsible for the crime of slavery, yet they see themselves personally paying for it. Why shouldn't they resent it? AA doesn't seem all that noble to them.
Obama gave a nod to this argument in his speech on race. As a politician, I wouldn't expect him to do anything else. I think it's an effective line and it reaches out to people who he needs in his coalition. Fortunately, I'm not a politician and so I'll just say this--the "immigrants didn't do it" argument is dubious. Let's skip past the fact that the argument rather conveniently reduces a case made against slavery and Jim Crow into simply, "slavery." Let's skip past the fact that even at the reduced standard, the commenter owes, at the least, the very existence of the seat of his country to slave labor. Let's ignore all the slaves who died in the Revolutionary War, without which, there would be no country for the commenter's forbears to immigrate to. Let's skip past the era of redlining and excluding blacks from New Deal programs which "benefited" all whites--immigrants or not.
Let us jouney to the heart of things--what the "immigrants didn't do it" defense offers is an a'la carte brand of citizenship where one gets to pick and chose what one will or won't claim. Here is fellowship rendered on the cheap--scarfing down hot dogs and cheering for fireworks on the Fourth of July (despite the fact that said commenter's forbears did absolutely nothing to liberate the country) while slinking away when the subject of slavery or Jim Crow arises. I should thank the heavens that I had nothing to do with the forced removal of the Native Americans. But I recognize that I live in Manhattan--on land that I didn't settle. Moreover, I certainly had nothing to do with the murder of millions of Jews by the Third Reich, but I'm quite proud that my taxes help pay for the Holocaust Museum. Either you're an American, or you are not. If you are, welcome to the family--the entire family.
One more thing. I want to push back on this notion that asking the country to acknowledge past wrongs and commit itself to righting them is some sort of "give away" to black people. I think it's myopic to say whites "benefited" from Jim Crow because, when we refused to be mature and decided to segregate, we did not merely disenfranchise blacks, we passed our problems off to our children--black and white. I have made this case before, but bridging this chasm, healing this wound is only a "favor" for black people if you have no problem with your grandson having this same conversation again in fifty years.
Jim Crow wasn't simply a crime against black people--it was a crime against the American future. It robbed this country of the innovation and ingenuity of some of its most patriotic citizens. I talk about lynching a lot, because I think it gets to the meat of things--it's like our own version of Stalin killing all the Polish intellectuals, writ small. Post World War I, returning black veterans were hung by the Klan in the very uniforms that they'd served their country in. Think about that. Think about the damage that did to the country. Consider that when race riots jumped off in the South, they often didn't target the black poor--they attacked the black middle class, they very people you need to build a country. We stood by and watched as thugs sacrificed human capital in the name of some imagined virginal white womanhood. Was it really worth it?
It takes a certain type of mind, a certain short-sightedness, a certain craveness to see race along the lines of Us vs. Them, to believe that Jim Crow somehow (in the long-term) actually helped white people, and thus presumably, helped most Americans. I will be candid--where I'm from, we call that a ghetto mind-state, a "nigger-on-the-corner" mentality. But we only call it that because we give white people too much credit, because we watch too much TV, because we don't travel enough, because we think ya'll can fly.
No doubt, in the era of Jim Crow, the country failed black people. But what the progeny of the white immigrant should know is that, most importantly, the country--our country--failed itself. And then it left its children to pick up the pieces. You having fun yet?