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social group was/is a beneciary or recipient of historical injustice, discrimi- nation, and oppression.2
The argument below rests on the view that the history of slavery and its legacies are “present” in our collective and individual identities, institutions, and distributions of socioeconomic and political resources.3 Recall Karl Marx’s obser- vation that humans “make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.”4 Autonomy, choice, and resistance are exercised within a framework of social structures shaped by history. Historical legacies embedded in the social struc- tures of the present cannot be wished away or denied. Thus, we must be wary of arguments that we should forget the past, since they ask us to engage in such a denial. The history of slavery is ours. How we remember and interpret it—and what we choose to do about it—is where Hill’s right to forget conicts with Barkan’s argument for restitution.
In Part II, I evaluate Hill’s argument for a cosmopolitan right to forget. While he highlights important dimensions of cosmopolitanism, he backs away from this right to forget and, in doing so, implicitly admits that forgetting may not be necessary, desirable, or possible.5 In Part III, I examine Barkan’s argument that the injustices of the past must be examined and rectied.6 Contrary to those who argue that black people should “get over it,”7 I argue that justice in the present requires us to remember historical injustices and recognize how they continue to shape identities and structures in the present. However, in Part IV, I examine how the politics of memory and time help explain why the federal government has neither apologized nor offered compensation for slavery. In Part V, I compare “passing” and a rejection of “white privilege” to illustrate the tensions between individual autonomy and the social structures of power that shape our
2 Melissa Williams, Voice, Trust, and Memory: Marginalized Groups and the Failings of Liberal Representation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 177. I thank the anonymous reviewers of NPS for helping me clarify this point and several others in this article.
3 For a discussion of how slavery shapes the meanings of concepts such as citizenship in our political discourse, see Howard McGary and Bill Lawson, Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992). The literature on racism is extensive. For two examples of how it continues to affect the lives of black Americans, see Joe Feagin and Melvin Sikes, Living with Racism: The Black Middle Class Experience (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995); and Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, Black W e a l t h / W h i t e W e a l t h : A N e w P e r s p e c t i v e o n R a c i a l E q u a l i t y ( N e w Y o r k : R o u t l e d g e , 1 9 9 5 ) . 4 Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in Robert Tucker (ed.), The Marx–Engels Reader, 2nd edn (New York: Norton, 1978), p. 595.
5 W. James Booth argues that the past is neither so powerful that there is no autonomy in the present, nor is it simply a social construction that the present generation can manipulate to the point of wiping the historical slate clean. Instead, memories and legacies provide the present generation with identities and debts that cannot be avoided. See Booth, “Communities of Memory: On Identity, Memory, and Debt,” American Political Science Review 93: 2 (1999), pp. 249–263.
6 For example, see Roy Brooks (ed.), When Sorry Is Not Enough: The Controversy over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice (New York: New York University Press, 1999); Martha Minow, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998); and Barkan, The Guilt of Nations.
7 For example, see Camille Paglia, “Who Is Really to Blame for the Historical Scar of Slavery?” in When Sorry Is Not Enough, pp. 353–354.