Last night, I watched the documentary film Banished: How Whites Drove Blacks Out of Town in America. I recommend seeing it. The film discusses how some American communities in the early 20th century purged themselves of black families. The land that had been owned by those driven away was stolen by white families, and some of these communities remain all-white to this day.

What’s particularly interesting about the events described in the documentary is that they occurred fairly recently. The descendants of those who had their property taken from them are able to quite easily trace their ancestry back to the original victims. And there is legal documentation that shows that title to the land never legitimately passed from the victims to their victimizers, but somehow ended up being owned by the victimizers anyway. The injustices that were done are concrete, and we can put a name and a face to those who were wronged. We can even, with some degree of accuracy, put a price on what was taken from them, i.e., the value of the land.

Reminders of such concrete injustices are helpful in an era when much of the discussion about racism revolves around abstract concepts like “privilege” and “implicit bias.” When the discussion is too abstract, it’s unclear to me what there is to be done about anything, or even that anything needs to be done. I’m not convinced that the difference in wealth between the average black family and the average white family in America is primarily a result of a persistent and widespread implicit bias against blacks. It is far more convincing to me to say that the differences in wealth persist because many black families were forced off their land, preventing them from passing it down to future generations.

In other words, I think that concrete instances of racism in the past are more to blame for current inequities than is privilege. One implication of this view is that the way to make things right is not by attempting to correct for privilege by giving people a boost based on the color of their skin. After all, not all dark-skinned populations are having trouble in America. Black immigrants, for instance, are generally doing very well. Rather, justice requires that we make amends for the specific  wrongs that were done in the past. We must return what has been stolen from these communities.


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