Essays and Theories
It is hard to remember that just before last week's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the hot talk-show topic was whether descendants of American slaves were entitled to reparations.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson had joined the growing chorus in favor of such a program and news and talk shows across America were focused on whether such payments were a good idea. Last week's events have put that and a lot of other issues on the political back burners for now, but before the issue of reparations disappears from the public's radar screen, a couple of points need to be made.
We agree with, and wish to emphasize, some points made earlier by President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.
Rice correctly labels slavery as "America's birth defect," but went on to say that the nation must today choose between focusing on the past and looking toward the future."
"I would hope," se said, "that we would spend our time thinking about how to educate black children, particularly black children who are caught in poverty." Rice also pointed out that it makes more sense to focus concerns about the effects of slavery on those areas of the world, including the Sudan, where slavery is still being practiced.
Rice and a number of other prominent black leaders have opposed reparations because such payments would effectively consign African-Americans to permanent second-class status. As one put it, "Payment of reparations would be like saying, 'Here's your money, now don't bother us again.'"
Americans, we believe, are committed to full and equal black participation in the American experiment. A program of race-based reparations is fundamentally incompatible with that goal and for that reason, if for no other, should be rejected.
William A. Spriggs
November 25, 2001
There is something special about my country America. It is proud and arrogant; it stands before the world as a mighty symbol representing itself as the best of the best, noble and good, just and fair, and provider of vast opportunities to masses yearning to be free. That may be true in most cases of its domain, but it in regards to the subject of slave reparations, The Denver Post editorial seems to be that part of my America that wishes to ignore a serious defect at the very core of its cognitive process. I am talking about America's refusal to acknowledge nor engage in any honest debate concerning its role in slavery at the beginning of its founding and the resulting attitudes it has towards its own black African descendants. This is somewhat puzzling because America, along with other nations, has taken part in some reparations to other distinct minorities. Here is a short list of recent developments:
Before I respond further to The Denver Post editorial of September 18, 2001, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: since being born in this country in 1945 I have enjoyed much that this country offers to me and my family. I understand, without the slightest hesitation, that others in the world have much less opportunity and resources in which to draw upon to improve their lives and set the course for their future; this truly is the greatest country on the face of the planet. I just believe that my country could be vastly better, and hence, the initiation of this reply.
But even though I have much to be thankful for, I can not escape the undeniable sense that things could have been vastly enhanced for myself, and ultimately for my family, were it not for an underlining 'poison' of consciousness that seems to run through America's social fabric, then and now, that failed to see strong analytical talents in my youth that just now seem to be expressing themselves. I ask myself, how many great dreams, inventions, philosophies, and careers have been prevented from taking shape and lie dormant in frustrated souls that could not find fulfillment? In a society that prides itself on the sanctity of the family and "family values," how many "families" were torn apart and sold to other parties so as to advance the resources of a select few? Despite the persistent myth that success in America is only possible with self-determination, there also appears to be evidence everywhere that certain classes of people in our country have many more advantages working in their favor then others, hence, making "success" a breeze for some, while others have to work several times harder to succeed to the same level. In science, the proof is in the numbers; statistically, the "rags-to-riches" stories that our elite media moguls love to feed to us by the spoonful are really almost non-existent. I see the problem that we face today as the denial of those who occupy elevated positions in our society refusing to acknowledge that they not only enjoy those advantages, but continue to encourage and practice mechanisms that stimulate and perpetuate them. It is exactly why denial of slave reparations are poisoning the present and it may significantly go a long way toward explaining why many people in the world -- especially in the light of Sept. 11, 2001 -- do not like America -- and even hate it.
As I look back on my youth, I can not escape strong feelings -- because of no fault of my own -- of being rejected; shunned; cast aside like some out-dated piece of garment in an affluent society considering last year's fashion. I am left with questions that linger from my past and haunt my present state of being; they need to be addressed and a sense of closure given to my resolve -- if not for me, then for all other children being born in similar circumstances. I regret that I can not escape the conclusion that my Italian-American heritage which manifests itself outwardly in my local environment as a short man (by today's standards) of 5'6" height, stocky muscular (endomorphic mesomorph) body type and facial features that obviously are not western or central European in origin, closed doors of opportunities in my youth, intentional or unintentional, and contributed enormously to how I view myself and the world that I live in today. I do not buy for one moment the dominate culture’s argument that I do not try hard enough -- and failure is entirely my fault.
My father was born a second generation Italian-American, my mother a second generation Polish-American; both were children of the Eastern European and Southern Mediterranean Catholic migrations that flooded America in the early to mid-18th century. They both grew up in the Depression era of grinding poverty; my mother in the coal regions of Pennsylvania and my father in the town in which he was born: Millburn, New Jersey. (My father legally changed his surname [a behavior I have labeled Origin Denial, Resource Realignment] in 1933 from Speranza to Spriggs -- he first told me it was because the teachers had difficulty in pronouncing his Italian name -- then, after he was retired in the 1970s, he admitted that it was because he wanted to become a businessman and thought it would help). Despite limited job opportunities, and struggling with various jobs, my father found a house to rent, which later my parents would purchase, and they settled down to raise my two sisters and me in an awkward attempt to emulate the growing and thriving American way of life that surrounded them. I say awkward because despite our poverty, my father used to deposit and pick up my mother every Sunday morning at St. Rosa Lima's Catholic church front door for services -- just like the wealthy folks -- in his own limousine-like 1950 Packard which he used as his flag ship in his three-automobile "Spriggs Auto-Livery" service. It was not quite a real taxi service because the town fathers refused to give him a taxi-license stating that the small town already had a taxi service. However, my father quickly realized that there were no restrictions on what his auto-livery service could deliver -- and that included the delivery of humans which my father already realized was the best meal ticket in town; he immediately began to push the edge of the envelope and began carrying human "delivery items." The town fathers were so embarrassed that an Italian-American outsmarted their restrictions that they just ignored the problem -- or perhaps, they left him alone after he began hauling specific humans that were useful to the dominate culture's elders.
My father became successful in the business of "delivering" black maids who lived in Newark, a black ghetto, some ten miles to the East, and arrived in Millburn via the Erie rail line and needed a ride to their wealthy white employers up on the hill. In the train station across the street was the only taxi service that was "protected" by the town fathers (owned by a white man of Jewish heritage, by the way) and had first access to the maids as they exited the station trough a long tunnel. But since my father treated all the black maids with such great dignity and respect -- especially telling the one's with the large full-bodied figures to take their time in entering and exiting the Packard -- and "taking book" on an occasional horse race and selling British Sweepstake tickets -- thus providing a sort of traveling betting parlor -- that the maids walked the extra 500 feet to my father's "taxi" stand across a heavily trafficked street, and it was not long before he soon captured the entire market share of this important rich white commodity.
In the 1950s, Millburn New Jersey was a perfect Norman Rockwell town where the rich white folks lived upon the top of the hill in homes of vast elegance and the poor workers like us lived down at the bottom and did the manual labor that revolved around their existence; on my return to the region in the late 1990s, I could see nothing on the surface that would indicate that anything had changed. Through the middle of the township, running east and west, the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad, once proud hauler of commerce, was reduced to transporting white affluent males to the city of New York in the morning rush and back again at night into the arms of the beautifully dressed women who sat waiting in their Ford and Chevy station wagons. The rich folk took such special pride in themselves, their homes, their children, and their environment that they managed to influence the then politically-influenced Post Office into giving them their own zip code -- Short Hills -- despite their small area. In order to preserve the "bucolic" British country charm and real estate values of their local environment, they insisted that no concrete sidewalks would line their country lanes and access ways; it seems that stop signs would pop up at intersections only when the inconvenience of someone's death occurred, and then, only as an afterthought.
I suppose, in some ways, my father's success was made possible by open and hostile discrimination of all black males persistent at that time in our small village. It seems that when the black husbands of the maids attempted to drive their wives to work, (many could not find jobs for themselves), the males were always stopped in the affluent neighborhood by the town's ever vigilant police force. The police then escorted the lone black male drivers to the city limits, thus, making sure that they would leave. In the late 1950s, the word "profiling" did not exist in America's lexicon -- as this was standard operating procedure to consider a black man in a wealthy white neighborhood as something that was "just not natural" and one could assume that the black male was "up to no good" by his mere presence. I recall newspaper articles from The Newark Star-Ledger dated in the late 1950's and early 1960s accompanied with photos of black male faces that started with the first sentence of the newspaper article telling readers something like this: "John Smith, a Negro, was held on suspicion..." on this or that violation of the law. But even in my youth I wondered why a similar newspaper article on another "John Smith" that was accompanied by a white man's face never had a coma and "a white" racial identification tag after his name. There was something in the air -- something not quite right -- total and complete -- that one could not escape breathing that affected all of us.
Living in the present moment of our existence, we have no way of grasping the vast enormity of everyday events as they pass by our consciousness. We do the acts we do because we only have the reality that surrounds us in our local environments; we take in that reality, analyze that information, and act upon that incoming data the best way we can. Sometimes, like in my case, the passage of close to fifty years of life history and intense study in evolutionary psychology over the past eight years was necessary to grasp the significance of what transpired in my youth. I believe I now can understand why in 1955, the white mother of a young friend of mine that I was visiting in his hilltop home bent down on both knees, faced him squarely face to face, placed both hands upon his shoulders and then shook him vigorously three or four times to make sure he was paying attention, and said, "Don't you ever bring his kind into this house again" as I stood just a mere foot or two away. Needless to say, I lost a friend that day, but also not knowing quite why; my conclusion, veiled by a sense of guilt, was that it was somehow my fault, and if I wanted to stop losing friends from school, I had better "correct" my life.
With the passage of those years and studies, I believe I now can understand why I, and many others of my socioeconomic class, were segregated and placed in "slow" and remedial classes in high school. I believe I now can understand why our home room teacher, where we started our daily trek through classes, constantly derogated us by telling us that we were "stupid," "lazy," and would never amount to anything (and for those daily diatribes, we called her Rosie the Rat). I believe I now can understand why a science teacher, Mr. Forest, said in the first day of class of my senior year: "I'm not going to teach you anything this year because it would be a waste of my time and yours. Why should I? You're just going to leave this place, get a job, get married, and have babies." Once again, back then, I pondered and concluded that the station in life that I found myself was my fault and that I had better redirect my efforts in order to save myself from the doom that this person in a position of trust predicted for us.
Fortunately, we are no longer in the Dark Ages of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement where lunch counters, water fountains, and bus seating were segregated by race. Yet, I can't seem to escape this conflict in my consciousness regarding a society that tells me that "all men are created equal," and that there is "equal justice under the law" while solid empirical evidence surrounds me in abundance (especially in prison population demographics) that our great American society is no where near being equal in its distribution of opportunities and disbursement of justice. I sometimes hesitate and then bristle at the suggestion by others that I should get over it and focus on the future instead of dwelling in the past because I know that something is just not right that needs to be corrected. But that’s one of the several points of this essay; I am saying that we can't go forward into the future making the same mistake over and over again unless we acknowledge that there is a fundamental flaw in our cognitive brain process as a nation that is impacting the lives of many people in a negative way.
I believe that the place to start is at the beginning in America's history where Ms. Rice's understates America's role in slavery as a "birth defect." This simple wave of the hand to brush over a fatal flaw in the foundation of America's birthing process is also part of what this essay wishes to expose: That refusing to acknowledge, or even be aware that the exploitation of slave labor at America's birth helped to create or perpetuate vast wealth for select individual land owners and their inheriting families. Here's another stark truth that gets buried with this brush off: America would never have been able to form a centralized government if the Northern alliance did not agreed to the Southern alliance demands that slavery be continued in the newly formed country. Oh, there were arguments pro and con concerning slavery, but in the end, the acceptance that slavery held many advantages economically for the country won over the religious, ethical, and moral deliberations. I will say that the founding fathers did all they could to keep language concerning slavery out of the Constitution with their strong belief that someday slavery would end, but that did not stop some Southern forces to demand the following Constitution entry regarding fugitive slaves:
Article IV Sec. 2
No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.
Our primitive brains easily grasp the significance that accumulated wealth (be it land and slaves in 1790 or electronic ions stored in a bank computer in 2001and assigned to one's account) is an enormous advantage over others in our local environment that do not have such advantages; doing all in our means to accumulate resources is merely following genetic codes mandating survival. But we humans are more complicated than that. In most cases, our behaviors can control or overcome most deep history emotions--violence, anger, greed, hate, and lust -- to name just a few. To those who take the selfish, greedy path of total self-preservation and confuse only the accumulation of wealth as "success," slide back into the depths of our primordial beginnings; it is the enlightened and well-informed souls of today who seek the upward path toward altruism and shared understanding that we all are genetically in the same family. The human genome, deep within the building blocks of every human on the planet, does not have religion, political agendas, nor national boarders in its chemistry.
This refusing to acknowledge that great wealth accumulation involving the exploitation of slave labor at America's birth also helps to expose other series of events or actions in human behavior that are taking place at the same time: That there is a myth revolving around many highly placed élites in America and elsewhere that they enjoy their position in their hierarchies solely because of their own unique abilities and competitive nature. There can be no doubting that successful people have great social skills in interpersonal alliance building and have used those abilities to make the best advantage of those opportunities placed before them. But along the way, there is also is a non-acknowledgment to the world that they were also "assisted" by actions of other individuals or groups that eliminated competition for them, and thus, aided their assent. This dual behavioral mechanisms to assist "one's own kind" by blocking others advances takes the form of what I call "the gatekeeper syndrome." Self-appointed individuals, social groups, or institutions that take clues from established social display rules, in their past or present culture, specifically targeting individuals or groups for exclusion while at the same time assisting one's family clan, village, fellow ethnic grouping, race, gender, trade, or business in the continued retention or accumulation of resources (In my opinion, the perfect gatekeeper example is the image of then Governor George Wallace standing in the doorway of The University of Alabama in 1963, declaring defiantly, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever"). It is easier to walk down a path when there are no blockades to climb over nor doors that slam in your face. Since the obvious crimes of the past have been exposed and laid bare, the social climate has changed for the better; but the obvious and overt have been replaced with the subtle and concealed that is harder to detect but just as effective in achieving its goal of excluding those considered "undesirable" to dominate cultures.
The Denver Post editorial could be considered as part of this "polite" form of gatekeeping discriminatory process that assists and gives a boost to some members of our dominate cultural society while at the same time excluding others who would be considered submissive and less powerful. In the most negative interpretation of the editorial, one could interpret the dominate culture in America telling us little folk at the bottom of the heap that we are lucky to have a life. That one's survival is the direct result of the efforts of a élite core of wealthy individuals who put capital in motion together to create even more wealth through the efforts of their determination and genius -- and we little folk who they consider as their children had also be thankful for the job opportunities that it creates. The editorial fails to mention that without of the efforts of slave labor at the time of America's birth, most likely the profits of agriculture that created that vast head start of wealth I mentioned would most likely be lying fallow in a field of tobacco, rice, sugar, or cotton. In a similar vain, the editorial fails to mention that because of the efforts of labor in today's society, wealth would still be sitting in a bank vault somewhere growing mildew on it. No amounts of effort by capital will result in any creation of more wealth unless Labor moves it. The unacknowledged truth that exists in the world today is that capital and labor TOGETHER create the all the wonders that you see before you in our great land and on the planet. Don't misinterpret my words; I do not believe for one second that the editors of The Denver Post put these words in motion to harm or derogate anyone. I just strongly argue that they are not aware of the full range of biological and social forces at work. In the evolutionary timeline of Homo sapiens, our species are like newborn children crawling about their new environment.
I think that it is now necessary to at least attempt to explain how various forms of this duel behavior came to evolve amongst humans in the first place. I argue that these behaviors are an apparent universal thought process that helped us survive in our ancestral past. Back then, we needed to "push" ourselves beyond our extended abilities in order to survive, and sometimes that involved ignoring pain signals within our bodies or "gut" feelings that somehow we were making the wrong decisions; in order to evolve, we had to extend our reach beyond that which came before. As our deep history ancestors began to live in hunter-gatherers groups and developed hierarchies based on competitiveness, being together in groups brought with it advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of group protection, food sharing, and greater mating potentials also brought the disadvantage of any potential opponent "seeing" your obvious weaknesses. Such obvious weaknesses could be a serious injury such as a broken leg or a birth defect (polio) declining in severity to something as subtle as being frightened and projecting facial expressions that reveal that emotion. Hence, the evolution of the concealment of weaknesses found internally in our emotional state through facial expressions and body language that we display outwardly to others.
Now this puts us at the front door of another behavior along similar lines, but is outward in movement instead of internal. It is the "false advertising" behavior we relate to others in our group concerning our fighting ability, cognitive skills, or alliances that we have with others -- but really don't have -- hence, we have the "bluff" -- The attempt to "outsmart" one's opponent with false "information" concerning our abilities or disabilities (a good example today would be the sport adage of "never let them see you sweat" -- in other words, never let your opponent see you "sweat" from fear -- the concealment of weakness so your opponent will not detect that weakness). But along with this ability to "conceal" the truth of our weaknesses, evolved other another human ability to detect these false "signals" being displayed by our opponents -- called the "cheater detection" module in evolutionary psychology. Here then, is the perfect example of evolution at work because it presents us with evidence of a "human arms race" in the mechanism processes of behaviors and the ability to analyze those behaviors by our cognitive skills acquired during the evolutionary process. In our particular case, it involves a dominate party "concealing" a "weakness" to submissive groups of admitting that slavery did have a great advantage for some of its founding families. And that the detection of that fact could result in an "opponent" draining away valuable resources -- and resources are what gives individuals or groups a huge lead in the genetic transference race. In "protesting" the need for reparations through what we call the "grievance process," the submissive groups are saying that it "detects" this "cheating" behavior and are making demands to receive resources that it feels they deserve. (This then leads into discussions of what is fair and equitable, but that subject I shall leave to another time and place).
All these complicated human behaviors can be linked to our evolutionary past of living in groups. But group living is just that -- it's a grouping of more than one individual. And although you may think your the meanest Able ape in the forest, the sheer logic of being outnumbered by the masses in your group brings one quickly back to the reality that if you get a group of submissives angry at you, your butt can be severely bitten off. Thus, our ancestral minds understand the vast advantages of alliance building: the coming together of other like individuals into a common bond to create a powerful force in the acquisition and retention of resources. It begins at the beginning with our ability of simply being self-aware; the need for survival of our genes motivates our entire subconscious which begins with our self-preservation survival mind set, extending to the protection and support of our children who are also vessels of our genes. Not one person on the planet today -- even the most uneducated -- can deny the protective and supportive nature of things we do for those genetically close to us; we as parents will do anything within our power to help give our children the advantages in life that we as parents failed to achieve. Since living in groups has many advantages, our ancestral brains also can grasp the significance of group identity and the territory that one's group occupies and can link that identity with survival. From this point, it is also not hard to understand the significance of group identity and territory as it pertains to the protection of our children, and thus, the successful transfer of genetic heritage. Since groups are thus similar in their goals as individuals in terms of gene transference, one can grasp the understanding of group protective behaviors designed to propel the group's genes into the next generation -- but that also creates the group cognitive images of "us" vs. "them" and the behavioral mechanisms that go with those cognitive beliefs.
This now places our group in the position of doing the same behaviors we as individuals would do to insure personal survival. In our ancestral past, we can not exclude the undeniable fact that violence was part of our genetic heritage in our evolutionary path to extend our genetic heritage. As time marches us through our human history, we do record group violence as extensions of those beliefs, and as each day continues to unite the planet in communicative connectiveness, the undeniable truth is also emerging: we prefer to be at peace and non-violent in nature if those options were available to us. Simple logic tell us that peace is more conducive to gene transference than war.
This then rises the ultimate question: If peace is more conducive to gene transference than war, then why is there War? We can look at various reasons for organized human conflict, but if we strip away religious and ethnic fervor, we are left with the truth that some clans, tribes, groups, and now nations, have more resources that assist in the transference of their genes than others. The ancestral brains of both "sides" understand what these resources can mean for their respective group's own survival and that of their children. Those that have those resources want to keep them, and those that do not have them, want them. The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 was an attack on the "business" end of America (the accumulation of resources) while the attack on the Pentagon (the force that protects those resources) was by those (we assume) have very little expect blind faith to pass to their children -- the argument that the attacks represent a conflict between two major religions is hollow; organized religions are a very recent evolutionary event while our brains and the architecture of those brains were already set in stone thousands of years ago.
Despite presenting new evidence in the field of evolutionary psychology to the debate on slave reparations, one can still make logical replies to the opponents of any reparation repayment plans. In arguments refusing to consider slave reparations, one major point given is that the origin of African slavery began with the African's themselves taking slaves and dragging them to the western coastal demarcation cities where they would sell their own brethren to the slave traders. That is true. However, the other side of the coin is the simple truth that the "customer," who constantly seems to remind us that they are the moral and religious leaders of the world, could have simply refused to purchase them -- hence, deflating the "invisible hand of supply and demand." Another argument opponents of reparations use is that it would be "too difficult" to solve the "problem of how to distribute money" to all the relatives of past slaves. In reply, one must recall that since 1969, America has had 29 Nobel Prize winners in Economics who have either won or shared this prestigious prize; placed men on the moon; sent robots probes to the outer limits of our galaxy, and, in addition, we all have been witnesses to the vast explosion of technological marvels that have enriched our society. The excuse that it is "too hard to figure out" seems obviously disengorgingly limp.
In all fairness, since reparations have already been paid to some American Jews and Japanese Americans, The Denver Post editorial should be calling for the return of those reparations paid to those groups so as to demonstrate that these Americans who share in the equal participation the American experiment be saved from the disgrace of "permanent second-class citizenship."
The arrogance of refusing to enter serious debate concerning slave reparations sends the message to the world that our country is above international law. In someway, this arrogance has contributed to the greatness of the United States and we cannot deny that we, as a nation, have done many great things. But standing alone like the rough and tough symbol of America's Western cowboy, standing on top of a hill pounding his chest over his victorious assent and ignoring all pleas for justice, is a symbol that will not prevail in our new expanded role in the world after September 11, 2001. The issue of reparations will not fade from the radar screen because they represent a fatal flaw in American cultural thought. And thinking has to do with the brain. Hence, the 'birth defect' that Ms. Rice talks about is really a brain tumor that, left undisturbed, will only fester and continue to make this country a target for terrorists who envy our resources. Even without advances in the behavioral sciences to inform us of what is happening, the "gut feeling" sense ability which all humans come equipped with tell us that these denials are really about money, greed, power, and the denial of one's past errors. It is merely arrogance unfettered, and those responsible should be ashamed
Copyright, Evolution's Voyage, 1995- 2011
Permission for use of The Denver Post op/ed piece has been applied for.