A Sorry Tale: Clinton Sends His Regrets

Derek Walcott was most recently in the news for his role in the production of Capeman . His previous major opus was Omeros , a postmodern Iliad set in his native Caribbean, which had plot problems, too. But there were also memorable episodes, among them a dream journey that Achille, a fisherman, takes back to Africa. He experiences an ancestor’s life before slavery, the capture, the middle passage and finally the chain-gang arrival in a strange land, which, after two centuries, has now become the dreamer’s home.

Among the many heartaches was Mr. Walcott’s refusal to forget how the process got started. Achille’s ancestor is captured in a raid by a rival tribe. The European middlemen waited at the coast, the continent’s checkout counter. Their insatiable demands helped keep the traffic flowing. But they did not act alone. Among the many things the phrase “African-American” means is this economic routing slip: bought by an American, sold by an African. Every slave got here because it was profitable to at least two slave drivers to bring him here–and one of them was black.

This is one reason against the flat apology, or expression of regret, or whatever President Clinton, temporarily relieved of the burden of contemplating his copulations, chose to call it. On whose behalf is it given? Many (most?) European-Americans are descendants of Europeans who weren’t here when slavery was legal. To whom is it offered? Most African Americans are also European Americans; they have white ancestors. Many of those ancestors were slaveowners, or overseers. Should one-tenth of Jesse Jackson apologize to nine-tenths of himself?

The shortest and most compelling reason is that the apology already was made, in blood. Lincoln said it in his second inaugural: “If God wills that … every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'” God willed it; the drops were drawn. Go to Gettysburg and see.

All the apology talk is window dressing, anyway. Early in the African trip, The New York Times , interviewing black Brooklynites on the apology question, got from one the answer: “What is he going to do for us now? … He can’t go back and change it.” This is the right answer; you could say, the all-American answer.

Unfortunately, the ruling paradigm of black rejuvenation–pork and quotas–is neither convincing nor simple. We can study the results of pork politics in New York, where welfare programs are increasingly defended not because they give jobs to the poor (they don’t), but because they give jobs to the social service class, largely black, living in Brooklyn and Queens. Socially, it is a kind of perpetual-motion machine–except it doesn’t move anywhere, and it is perpetual only so long as the revenues to fund it keep rolling in from Wall Street. Quotas, the most lasting legacy of the Nixon Administration, are justified on the grounds of historical disadvantage–which brings us back to slavery. It turns out that half the answer to the question, “What is he going to do for us now?” is: “Try to make up for the day before yesterday.”

For 30 years, the politics of race has been a futile contention between this paradigm, which has all the momentum of programs in place behind it; and the paradigm of laissez-faire. Different energies fuel the laissez-faire paradigm, from white backlash and resentment (why coddle them ?) to the conviction that real gains can be made only on a level playing field. Sometimes one energy switches rapidly into another, as when a level-player finds his contract lost to a high bidder, his promotion given to a less qualified colleague, or his taxes or his children shunted to a remote school district.

There is another force coming on the scene. I was having lunch with Q. He told me that Arthur Jensen has written a new book on an old friend, G , which is the name for a presumed quality of general intelligence. Mr. Jensen assumes it is measurable, heritable and (here is the rub) racially aggregated. This was the path that took Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein into the hot water of The Bell Curve . My friend Q was saying that he did not feel like reading Mr. Jensen’s work–not only because it will be a tome, and life is short, but because, as an American, he does not see the point. I understood.

Part of the problem is educational. We are both humanities majors. Figuring out my income tax is the closest I will ever come to the science of statistics. The scientists who might guide us through these questions are so partisan (to say nothing of the pundits fulminating for places like The New Republic ) that we are lost.

But the main problem is political. “Suppose Jensen is right about something,” Q said. “Where does he want us to go from there?”

I reminded him of Thomas Jefferson, prey to all manner of weird racialist theories about blacks, who nevertheless wrote that “their degree of talent … is no measure of their rights.”

“So,” he rejoined, “we’re supposed to say to blacks, ‘Yes, you have rights, but by the way–you’re stupid.'”

“‘Not you personally,'” I went along, “‘just your whole family.'”

We agreed that this undermined democratic civility.

“But aren’t there other factors besides G ?” I asked. “What about C –charisma–whatever it is that makes blacks and Irish good politicians, soldiers and cops? Isn’t that even more important to society, in many situations, than G ? Who do you want at your side in a crisis–Colin Powell or some pencil-neck?”

“And where does that take us?” Q asked. Good question: Hinduism (a cop-and-pol caste)? Plato’s guardians? Reggie White? So we faded on the blowing of the horn.

The Congressional Republicans want to stay in power and President Clinton wants to stay out of jail, so nothing will be done about race, quotas or the folks in Brooklyn until January 1999, or January 2001, for that matter. That may not be disastrous, since we aren’t doing anything as it is, except harm. But we also may not have forever.

A Sorry Tale: Clinton Sends His Regrets