Though we may have little or no direct connection to injustice, many of us benefit nonetheless from an artificial racial construct.
The premise of original sin inherently stirs guilt and, sometimes, anger.
Nick Coleman's Dec. 23 reflection on the Dakota wars as Minnesota's original sin probably stirred such feelings. They also appeared in responses to Waziyatawin Angela Wilson's "Time to Level" (Dec. 2). Awakening to our own or our ancestors' sins is painful. Religious teachings suggest a treatment: Repentance and restorative-justice efforts can evoke forgiveness and provide hope for reconciliation. Prayers help most of us, but the process can work for atheists, too, if done sincerely.
The honest public discussion about "race" that emerged in the Star Tribune in December evokes the prospect for much-needed rational discussion of a widely suppressed subject. Minnesota, celebrating its sesquicentennial, could join those using the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown landing as a similar frame of national reference. The goal is not just resurrecting stories of oppressive European invaders vs. African and indigenous victims, but reopening the historical lies that many of us have learned, as a step in repairing the breaches.
Most fundamentally, those of us descended mainly from Europeans must open our minds to acknowledge the privileges granted to us and to our ancestors by "white" identity -- today and every day of the past 400 years. Part of our privilege is in avoiding the prejudice, discrimination and stereotyping imposed upon people not seen as white. But we also benefit from the atrocities committed by our ancestors, through their leaders and communities if not personally, against such people.
That neither I nor my ancestors held slaves or engaged in combat against indigenous people does not free me from this obligation. The farm on which I was born in Nebraska was acquired by my great-grandfather from a homesteading entrepreneur who was given the land by the U.S. government after it forced the Otoe people to leave. That was only a few years after the Dakota were exiled from Minnesota. My access to federally insured home loans in "red-lined" areas brought me accumulated wealth officially denied to people not considered white and, therefore, excluded from those neighborhoods. The racial definition in today's American wealth gap is grounded in federal housing policies from the 1930s into the '60s.
Some public-policy changes have been made to avoid repetition of old injustices, but reparation for prior consequences has not been made, except to Japanese-Americans whose families were incarcerated during World War II. Most destructively, the racial paradigm remains in place, reinforced by systems of dependence imposed on victims. It defines and divides us in the face of scientific evidence that we are a single human race, all descended from Africans. We're all related (mitakuye owasin, as the Dakota say).
The very concept of whiteness is a lie, even to the naked eye, for we are multihued but never truly white. The original white lie was born with the concept of race, a Western social/political/pseudoscientific creation most explicit during the 18th and 19th centuries. Europeans and their American descendants claimed a color loaded with positive metaphors in order to assert racial supremacy. That doctrine, sadly, remains in place in our culture, with a broad set of assumptions manifest in where and how most of us live. Although most often practiced with subtlety today, it has an impact, less expected and less obvious, that can intensify psychological damage to victims while perpetrators remain in denial or even consciously blind to the true implications of their behavior.
How might serious, healing racial dialogue occur? A series of thoughtful, sensitive commentary in news media might be a starter. Sermons and study groups on race in churches would help, as would discussions in all kinds of community groups. Official public bodies must get engaged. What if a public commission were to begin to examine the American (and European) history of white supremacy -- and, here, how that doctrine shaped the formation of Minnesota and its public and private institutions? What if such a commission learned how to offer leadership and resources to dismantle this evil doctrine?
The results could be transforming for us and for all the world. What a magnificent legacy this might be to our celebration of Minnesota's sesquicentennial.
Louis Stanley Schoen, of St. Louis Park, is a consultant and trainer on racial justice in the Episcopal Church.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.