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The Sins Of Your Ancestors

Hugo Schwyzer has a long and sometimes grating meditation* on the question of reparations for slavery and other racial oppression. He frames it as a question of responsibility for the sins of one's ancestors.

The "sins of your ancestors" frame has some utility in drawing attention to how the present system was historically constructed, and thereby highlighting precisely what kind of wrongs need to be righted. And it has utility in reminding us that those ancestors were in fact sinners -- and sinners in quite specific and often brutal ways, not just in a lip-service "we're all sinners" sort of way. But I think "sins of the ancestors" is problematic as a frame for thinking about the responsibilities of present-day descendants.

The problem with "sins of the ancestors" is that responsibility is not strictly about ancestry. Schwyzer is an upper-class descendant of a long line of upper-class people, and he owns up to the slave-owners and capitalist racial exploiters in his family tree. I, on the other hand, am the descendant of dirt-poor New Englanders and post-Civil War immigrants. So my family tree's responsibility for engineering racial oppression is tiny compared to Schwyzer's**. If I accept the "sins of the ancestors" frame, I could easily become one of those annoying people who whine about how none of my ancestors were slave owners.

But despite the great difference in ancestral guilt, Schwyzer and I recieve very similar amounts of white privilege, and thereby have similar levels of responsibility. The amount of privilege that's handed down as strictly consanguinial inheritance is small compared with the amount that's distributed as a sort of public good to everyone in the beneficiary class. The argument that's used to make descendants responsible for the sins of their ancestors -- you unfairly benefit from their sins -- must carry us further to the recognition that ancestry is no criterion at all. Responsibility is proportional to the scale of the descendant's benefit, not to the scale of the individual's particular ancestors' personal sin.

*Though this is one of the few posts on his blog that he doesn't describe in the title as a "long meditation." The post is actually, it turns out, a "rambling response."

**Which is not at all to say they were totally innocent. I should also note that I am distantly related to presidents Andrew Jackson and Franklin Pierce, two of our least racially enlightened commanders in chief. And in double-checking the Andrew Jackson connection in the family history book my maternal grandmother wrote, I was reminded that it's likely that one set of my great-great-great-great grandparents did have slaves, and their son was a Confederate soldier who later deserted to the Union side. (This is the anomalous slice of my family tree, as they hailed from South Carolina.)


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