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What do African Americans owe America?

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I gave an interview recently that involved, among other things, the subject of gratitude and debt. A listener emailed me afterward, asking this: “Against the backdrop of claims for reparations, what do African Americans owe America? Should African Americans be grateful that they are Americans and not Africans?” 

The questions struck me as odd at first. Black Americans, I thought, owe nothing more to America than any other group of Americans. But considering claims for reparations for extant damages incurred through slavery, some Blacks today claim that white Americans owe them quite a bit of reparative compensation. The questioner inverted the reparations claim to imply that African Americans have a debt to pay to America. 

To make philosophical sense of the questions, let’s consider what they should be grateful for. Their freedom from the chains of slavery? But this was a God-given birthright, one could assert. The granting of freedom was not a gift bequeathed to them or a privilege bestowed. It was an inalienable right denied and eventually applied. So, they need not be grateful or owe their emancipators anything.  

Analogously, one could say that children have a right to be looked after by their parents. They did not ask to be born. However, given that parents can renege on parental responsibilities, children ought to feel gratitude toward them for fulfilling their obligations.  

African Americans, one could argue, ought to feel gratitude that the fiduciaries of the people’s well-being and rights eventually fulfilled their leadership roles in recognizing the rights of those once expelled from the human community. The attendant respect to the institutions through which their liberty and freedom were forged is an ethical mandate for Black Americans. Why? Because although freedom was their God-given birthright, those who held them in bondage could have kept them enslaved and refrained from affirming their dignity and recognizing their inalienable rights. 

Slavery has been ubiquitous throughout history. It existed in ancient Greece and Rome, in the Near East and in Sub-Saharan Africa. Emancipation is a recent phenomenon — a Western and European concept forged in liberal Enlightenment values that established political principles out of a Judeo-Christian moral axion: that each individual possesses inviolate dignity and intrinsic moral worth. 

In being granted full equality before the law, Blacks were given a legal and public personality, thereby making them part of the sovereign mass of a constitutional republic. The inalienability of their rights was codified in law. 

But it is not fundamentally gratitude that African Americans owe America. It is, rather, a duty to remain in the historical process into which they were delivered via slavery. The Sub-Saharan ancestors of today’s African Americans were encased in Pagan animism. Their progressive emancipation as rational subjects was not just compromised, it was foreclosed to them. 

The African indigene was a natural creature who had not yet transformed himself out of biological time into an epoch-making world historical person. Having failed to abstract himself from nature by transcending it, the Sub-Saharan indigene viewed himself as inextricably bound to nature. To enter the historical process, one must see oneself as transcendent of nature. Nature becomes a thing — not that one adapts oneself to as do animals, but rather as a malleable entity that adapts to human needs, desires, aspirations and creative capabilities. 

Only a self that is divorced from nature can enter the historical process. An irrevocable tie to nature condemns one to a life of cyclicality, a range-of-the-moment existence in which innovation, change, moral and political evolution, and creative adaptation are not possible.

Tragically, it took slavery — which Africans facilitated with the Europeans — to transplant the indigene into the historical process by inserting him into the civilization crucibles of Judeo-Christendom, with its emancipatory moral narratives and an evolving political philosophy that discovered, recognized and protected the inalienable rights of man. These include freedom and liberty, the right to the pursuit of happiness, freedom of conscience and speech, the right to bodily integrity, and the right to property.  

The induction was tragic. It involved a violation of a natural right to freedom, yet it was a precondition for the indigene to comprehend the singular meaning of true moral freedom. This is a freedom found in being bound to natural law. It is a freedom from existential encasement in living as a purely biological creature, as dictated by the precepts of an animistic worldview. True moral freedom is found in being bound by moral law. We have the capacity to follow the laws of reason that lead us all to adhere to the invariable laws of nature. 

Freed from repetitive cyclical conceptions of life, the descendants of today’s Sub-Saharan ancestors are endowed with a legal and public personality and recognized as being beyond exclusion from the human condition. This endowment is a historical achievement.  

The republic, the state, the nation — as Socrates reminded us — is the milieu in which we matriculate morally, politically, and develop into literal human beings. This is not a principle for extolling the rights of the state above the individual. It is a duty we each have to ourselves to secure the preconditions of a free, civilized republic that we need as human beings.  

The United States often has functioned like a great eugenics program in the moral and political sphere. It has allowed people to reverse the accidents of birth that would have kept them enslaved in lower forms of life, into an advanced realm of consciousness that now sees them existing as co-equals with their compatriots. This viewpoint is predicated on the fact that not all cultures are equal, and not all forms of life establish optimal conditions for human flourishing.  

This viewpoint is controversial in that it holds that, while all forms of enslavement are evil, enslavement that eventually improves the conditions of the enslaved is qualitatively less evil. We measure the contributions an action does in striving for a moral good against the harm it does in achieving that good. 

In this regard, African Americans have one ancestral home: the United States, to which they owe their allegiance. No one today who identifies as African American bears a resemblance to indigenous African ancestors who lived centuries ago. They differ in matters not of degree, but of kind. Once one has entered the historical process, those whom one has left behind are merely symbolic reminders of what one could have been and remained indefinitely. The road to inclusion in the human community was messy, but the forward-looking intention of America’s founding principles was clear: None ought ever to be locked outside the historical process.  

Like all Americans, it is to these foundational principles — which were themselves the foundations of Black freedom — that African Americans owe their lives and fealty. 

Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago specializing in ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy, and American politics. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming book, “What Do White Americans Owe Black People: Racial Justice in the Age of Post-Oppression.” Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.

Tags Americans Black people liberty Natural rights and legal rights Slavery

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