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legacies, rights, and responsibilities. Barkan observes, “Guilt does not pass from generation to generation, but rights and responsibilities do.”47
The discussion then becomes one of inheritance, and the rights and responsi- bilities of beneciaries. Let us look at an analogy: many in the US are clamoring for the right to inherit wealth that their forebears amassed even when they personally did no actual “work” to create this wealth; and then rail against the estate tax (what critics have successfully labeled a “death tax” in public dis- course) as a violation of their rights. If we are able to see the inter-generational transfer of wealth as a legacy to be claimed in the present, then we should be able to see the legacies of slavery (e.g. the deprivation of wages, wealth, and property) in the same light. The rhetorical question asked by Ali Mazrui reframes the issue in just such a manner: “If Americans of the 20th and 21st century are prepared to inherit the intellectual and moral assets of the Founding Fathers, should they not also accept the moral debt of the Founding Fathers?”48 If we are called on to forget the past, then we should forget the great achieve- ments of the past as well as the injustices. Obviously, we cannot do this and would not want to even if we could: we recognize the ways in which decisions made by the framers of the Constitution affect us today even if we are unrelated to them or are children of immigrants who came to the US after the ratication of the 13th Amendment. By describing our democracy as an ongoing project, we are claiming the intellectual achievements of our collective past as constituting who we are in the present. By the same token, we ought to be honest enough to recognize the ways in which the injustices of the past, perpetrated by individuals, corporations, and sanctioned by state and federal public law, affect us even if we are unrelated to the individuals who perpetrated the injustices.
V. Individual Identities and Social Structures
I have been critical of the right to forget because a group or a nation that has committed an injustice in the past might invoke it in order to avoid responsi- bility for it and deny its effects in the present. I think Hill would be concerned that this right to forget might be misappropriated and abused by governments. However, even if the right to forget is applicable only to individuals, the assertion of this right remains politically problematic.
Let us, for example, consider the political motivations and consequences of “passing”—when light skinned African Americans “pass” into white society and leave their families, friends, and communities behind. Hypothetically, a person who passes could defend his/her choice by invoking the moderate cosmopolitan position that individuals have a right to leave their cultural group or the radical cosmopolitan position that individuals have a right to forget where they came from. Hill might defend this choice to pass as motivated by the individual’s feeling that he/she was restricted or restrained by a monolithic group-based identity. Thus, passing can be construed as a form of autonomy and self- identication. Any resentment within black communities toward those who pass
47 48 Barkan, op. cit., p. 302. Quoted in Barkan, ibid., p. 302, italics added. Ali Mazrui is a member of the committee of Eminent Persons that was created by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to investigate reparations to African countries for slavery.