Small Step in Their Shoes

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Some time ago I interviewed a professor at Howard University who recalled his boyhood in the South and the kindness of a shoe store owner who let him try on shoes. Mostly, blacks were not permitted to try on shoes before buying them -- a feature of Jim Crow racism that took some creativity to come up with. Still, to be poor and stuck with shoes that don't fit tells you a lot about racism in America. You and I would not want to walk in those shoes.

Lately, America and American institutions have been on something of a tear when it comes to apologizing for racism. The Senate was approved a resolution last night apologizing for never enacting an anti-lynching law. Mostly, the effort to pass such legislation was stymied by southerners who wielded the filibuster. In states that would take no action, the federal government wouldn't either. This would not have been the case if whites were being lynched as frequently as blacks.

You can scoff at the Senate's action -- what good will it do? The victims of lynchings are dead. It's a bit late to apologize. The same can be said for the other institutions that lately have been owning up to their somewhat shameful pasts. Some of them have been forced into contrition by local laws demanding an accounting. Wachovia Corp., for example. After Chicago insisted that any company doing business with the city had to reveal any past connection with slavery, the huge bank dug and dug and came up with a connection: Two predecessor banks held slaves as collateral for loans. Most of the loans were paid off, but some weren't. The slaves, I assume, were repossessed -- like a car from a deadbeat owner.

J.P. Morgan Chase has also apologized for the way its predecessor institutions made their money. Some owned slaves outright; some took possession upon default of loans. The numbers of slaves were not small. In all, J.P. Morgan's antecedents owned more than 1,250 men and women. The bank apologized and established a $5 million scholarship fund for black students from Louisiana to attend college in their home state -- the state where the predecessor banks were located.

There is a dreary routine associated with these apologies and maybe the suspicion that they are issued with not a lot of sincerity. I think otherwise. What's most important is that by pressing these matters -- by digging into the history of American racism -- we continue the great, troubling excavation of our past. Slavery and racism and segregation were not, as some of us experienced it, a chapter in a history book but an all-encompassing reality whose consequences are with us to this day. I count myself pretty knowledgeable about our own history, yet I did not know that slaves were used as collateral. Why this never occurred to me, I cannot explain. It just didn't.

When Bill Clinton, on a presidential visit to Africa, offered an apology for the enslavement of black Africans by white Americans, he was criticized for it in the usual circles. But what Clinton said that day in Uganda was right on the money: "Going back to the time before we were even a nation, European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade, and we were wrong in that." Wrong to have done it, wrong to have benefited and right to have apologized -- an appropriate expression of regret, I wrote at the time.

An apology from the person who did not do the injury to the person who was not directly injured is in a special category. But in the sense that an apology is an acknowledgment, it not only makes sense, it is long overdue. It says, among other things, not merely that we are sorry -- ashamed would be more like it -- but we know something about what we have done. It's not some abstraction called slavery that was wrong; it was the wrecking of individual lives, one after another. Little by little we learn. We were not always -- and maybe not even yet -- such wonderful people. We could be bad. We could be evil. We could be human. It is always good to keep that in mind.

The shoe story sticks with me because it is not about being denied the vote or the right to attend a certain school or drink from a particular water fountain. It is about walking, putting one foot in front of another -- the pain we all know when the shoe does not fit. It is not in the same category as lynchings or beatings or the ordinary terror of being black in a world of white racism. It's a little thing. Slip it on. If you are white, it will fit.

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