Earlier this year, PBS pulled "Finding Your Roots" off the air after the Sony e-mail hack exposed something pretty telling. Actor Ben Affleck was a guest on the show. And like every other episode, the one including Affleck told his particular American story by way of deeds and birth records, death certificates and bills of sale, wills and census records and/or DNA testing.
But Affleck launched a successful campaign to get the show's producers to exclude a certain portion of his family history from the show — the part where one of Affleck's ancestors owned slaves. Affleck lobbied fairly hard. The well-known academic behind the show, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, and his production company complained to the bosses at Sony. Then, they capitulated. When the episode aired in October 2014, it told the version of the truth about his family history that Affleck wanted. It was one that was — surprise, surprise — slave owner-free.
All these months later, we can all collectively suggest that Affleck was foolish to do the show without contemplating what might be found. But in asking and then essentially demanding that the producers hide the truth, let's at least acknowledge this:
Affleck was not alone in his instincts.
The problem for PBS, for Affleck and for Gates was that all three were essentially exposed as no more willing to face and tell hard and ugly truths than many other Americans. If America has a little-acknowledged but widespread pastime, it may well be denying the fact that race-based inequality and maltreatment not only rank among the nation's original sins, but those for which too many are unrepentant and the sinning has not stopped.
It's true that a relatively small number of Americans — the overwhelming majority white and Southern, but some neither — owned slaves. But the share of people who at the height of this "enterprise" participated in or worked in the slave trade or in some way profited from it? Well, that's a much bigger group.
They worked in insurance, in shipping, in agriculture, in textiles, in offices and banks. They were unemployed ladies running unpaid workers in their households, on the grounds and putting them in charge of the care and feeding of their children. There were Americans who ran slave auctions, who wrote the descriptions of slaves for sale and who hunted for those who managed to run away. There were Americans who did business with these businesses and reaped the benefits of the absent wage costs.
But it is also true that slavery was an institution so integral to the American way of life and certainly its economy that Ed Baptist calculated in his 2014 book, "The Half That Has Never Been Told," that American slaves were collectively worth more than $1 billion by the 1820s. That gave slave owners a lot of easy-to-liquidate assets and collateral and about a third of all the wealth in the entire country at the time. And the industry was thriving right up to the Civil War. So don't be mistaken: Other Americans were also in business with those involved with slavery.
That's cold, financial language for the trade and exploitation of human beings, but it's also the truth.
So, "Finding Your Roots" sidestepped not just Affleck's personal lineage, but a racially loaded discussion about the way that both advantage and disadvantage accrue across generations. It allowed many Americans to continue denying the very real possibility that some of what each of us has and does not have today are, at the very least, partial products of that.
That's an often-denied truth that absolutely drives what a lot of people think government should and should not do and, for that matter, how big government should be. One need look no further than the 2016 presidential election to comprehend how these issues continue to animate our politics.
But here's something else that The Fix learned: No one at PBS can say with certainty that the Affleck episode and those telling edits were an isolated incident. PBS limited its inquiry to just one one episode of "Finding Your Roots" — the Affleck episode.
There was no answer by deadline Tuesday as to why. At least eight episodes of "Finding Your Roots," broadcast in the same season as the Affleck episode did include the stories of famous individuals and public figures with slave-owning ancestors. This does, of course, only highlight precisely how bold and frankly outrageous Affleck's request and the producers' ultimate edit of that episode really was.
But here again, one can't help but spot a rather instructive metaphor about race in America.
Americans do on occasion confess to some vague notion about the ways that race continues to matter, sometimes to a deadly, dangerous and unfair degree. Maybe people even know something about the way that slavery gave way to sharecropping, wholesale black voter suppression and exclusion from certain jobs, industries, neighborhoods and the nation's best schools. They know that all of the above flourished under Jim Crow and then continued in less overt but nonetheless effective forms in the decades that followed.
Maybe people know that the concentrated poverty of experienced today by the group's excluded — blacks and in some places Latinos — was created then fed by this. And they also know that they and many others have reached a point of accepting that state of affairs as intractable, normative. Some have progressed to a state of constant and obtuse shock, and or blame directed at the most disadvantaged.
There are legions of Americans — many of them white but certainly not all — utterly unable or unwilling to properly distinguish between causes and effects, symptoms and root ills.
All of this is at least part of the reason that we have a presidential campaign where, on the one side, plenty of candidates have been very willing to divide Americans and even suggest whole groups of people are largely criminals. And on the other, parroting the phrase "Black Lives Matter" and a brief explanation of just why that phrase entered the lexicon is about as specific and focused on racial injustice as the campaigns really get.
So, PBS is putting Gates and company back on the air. This time the team will include an "independent researcher" and an expert in DNA-based genealogy. There's also a clear directive to meet PBS's editorial standards. A PBS spokeswoman told The Fix on Tuesday that PBS has a long history of "fostering conversation around difficult issues such as race." It is not an issue from which PBS has ever "shied."
Here's hoping viewers, and for goodness sake the show's guests, can manage the same.