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THE PAST SHAPES THE PRESENT; ACCEPT IT

Here we go again. Another day, another white man who thinks I hate him.

It's an occupational hazard for any black writer who invokes black history, as I do from time to time. Most recently, in a column arguing that it's a mistake to read too much into a recent series of arrests in old civil rights murders. While it's gratifying to see the guilty brought to justice, it does not necessarily convince me that we as a nation are yet prepared to confront the demons of our racial past.

From this, a small number of readers -- white guys, all -- extrapolated my supposed hate for them. And my desire to make them feel bad. Better, said one, that I stop castigating white men for ancient sins and wrestle instead with fatherless-ness, crime and other clear and present dangers besetting the African-American community.

Their reasoning, such as it is, would be easy enough to ignore, but for this nagging sense that here lies the crux of the "thing" between black and white. For some white men, the history of black America is necessarily the indictment of white America. And when you realize that, their defensiveness is no surprise. You always resent the things that make you feel guilty.

It might surprise them to know that I don't want their guilt. My primary reason is a selfish one: I've seen white guilt, been on its receiving end, and I can tell you unequivocally that there are few things less attractive or more discomfiting than someone crying -- I mean that literally -- the "shame" of his whiteness in your ear.

But are weepy recrimination and shut-up-don't-talk-about-it really the only alternatives white people have when talk turns to black history? Isn't there some middle ground of simple human compassion?

Because I've got to tell you: While the one extreme makes me squirm, the other just hacks me off. It's tiresome to hear people deny truth that, in any other context, they would consider obvious. Namely, that we are all shaped by history. All challenged by it, ennobled by it, lifted and stained by it. That yesterday informs today.

Stop talking history, they say. Don't bring up my father's sins. Concentrate instead on all the things that are wrong in your community here and now. As if those pathologies had come from nowhere, appeared fully formed one sudden day, had no earthly connection to eight generations of slavery and three more of Jim Crow.

The point is not that black people bear no responsibility for their own salvation. To the contrary, we bear ultimate responsibility. Nor is that obligation one we have always met. Too often, we have been reactive instead of proactive. Failed to demand academic excellence of our children. Countenanced the loss of our men and boys. Sought to salve spiritual wounds with material treasures. Promoted a pop culture of pimp values and thug conscience.

For all that, though, it's galling to hear a white man claim that white men and women bear no responsibility here, have no obligation to history. African-America as we know it today did not just happen. It was built lie by lie and betrayal by betrayal. Its architects were greed, moral cowardice and white supremacy, its contractors county sheriffs, sharecrop landlords, government functionaries and hooded men with torches.

America -- first as a British colony and later as a nation -- spent nearly 350 years creating the problems that beset black people. It has spent 35 years -- a tenth of that time -- engaged in any meaningful effort to resolve them. So you have to wonder about those who suggest we've done enough. That the time has come to forget.

Or, that remembering is hate. Because remembering is obligation -- ask the survivors of the Holocaust. Remembering is how we honor the past, challenge the present and admonish the future.

If that makes you uneasy, maybe you ought to ask yourself why. If it makes you jump up and holler accusations, maybe you ought to wonder about that, too. Because in that response, I see neither principle nor truth, but only proof that the old football coach was right:

The best defense is a good offense.

Miami Herald

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