History Continues to Exact Its Price


May 07, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- It is difficult to believe that the expressions of good will and calls for reconciliation that have followed the Los Angeles riots will count for much. Race division has been the American curse since the Constitution -- meant to ''secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity'' -- had the institution of slavery written into it. Article I, Section 2, said that representation in Congress and direct taxation were to be apportioned among the states by ''adding to the whole Number of free Persons . . . three-fifths of all other Persons.''

The motive was property interest, slaves being property. The authors of the Constitution nonetheless had a bad conscience. Madison called slavery an ''unnatural traffic,'' deplored its toleration by the Constitution, but held that this was temporary.

Jefferson, a Virginia slaveholder, uneasily questioned whether the African was the moral equal of the white, writing that ''no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed.'' He said, though, that ''Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.''

He concluded that the white man disordered his own and his children's morality by holding slaves, in ''flagrant violation of the Creator's plan.'' However, he emancipated his own slaves only at his death. It has been argued that one of them was also for many years his mistress.

Forty years later Alexis de Tocqueville said that ''The most formidable of all the ills that threaten the future of the United States'' arises from the existence of a black population that has undergone the ''calamity'' of slavery. ''If ever America undergoes great revolutions, they will be brought about by the presence of the black race on the soil of the United States; that is to say, they will owe their origin, not to the equality, but to the inequality of condition'' among Americans.

Slavery was ended by the Civil War, but when Northerners as well as Southerners were confronted with the social and political consequences of Emancipation, they imposed that quasi-legal form of systematic oppression and exclusion, enforced by lynch law and called Jim Crow, which lasted until the 1960s.

The first genuinely desegregated American public institution, achieved in the late 1940s, was the United States Army. This writer, during the Korean War, spent 16 weeks of basic infantry training in a company almost equally divided between Southern blacks and whites, none of whom, except me, had graduated from high school. Training began with sullen resentment between the races and white hostility to the black sergeants and officers placed over us. We rapidly discovered the solidarity of shared misery and a common gratitude for the ''good'' black officers we met, with bitterness against the ''bad'' officers who were white.

When the experience was over we went our own ways. I am nonetheless convinced that the 1950s generation's experience of desegregated national service was crucial to the success of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.

That affair was an immense achievement, by which the American majority acted through its representatives to repudiate the past and attempt to make amends to the country's black minority. The results were very mixed; nonetheless in the quarter-century that has followed, a significant part of that black minority has moved into an integrated society, enjoying more or less equal opportunity.

Another part of the black minority, however, was left behind in the ghettos and on the streets, in misery and a deepening social pathology. Last week's explosion of violence came from here.

There have been three principal reactions to the riots. One says the problem simply is poverty (and the Reagan and Bush administrations under which ghetto poverty has increased). It has nothing to do with race. There are white poor too, and white, Hispanic, and Asian ghettos. This seems to me an unsustainable argument, however well-meant. The white, Hispanic and Asian ghettos are not the problem. People move on from them. The black ghetto is perpetuating itself, and its condition worsens.

The second reaction also says that the problem primarily is poverty, but that the social programs of the Great Society were working and were cut off by the Republicans. It says there must be a new national investment in social policies to mend the black family, educate the children of the ghettos, get the young to work, and so on. There is argument about what those programs should be, but a willingness to spend money.

The third reaction says that liberal social programs themselves created welfare dependency, and subsidized socially pathological behavior. The latter then was rationalized by black and white radicals as a justified reaction to ''white racism.'' This is what the White House has said.

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