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Thomas N. DeWolf: Traces of the Trade, Reparations, and Goodwin Liu

Thomas Norman DeWolf is the author of Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History. DeWolf was born in California and educated at the University of Oregon. He served as city councilor, county commissioner, and for nine years on the Oregon Arts Commission. His years of public service focused on literacy, children's issues, and restorative justice. This post originally appeared at his Inheriting the Trade blog.

photo of Goodwin Liu I did not see this one coming.

President Obama has nominated Goodwin Liu, an Associate Dean and Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law, to serve on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Opponents have seized upon comments Liu made during a panel discussion on May 6, 2008 following a screening of Traces of the Trade at the Newseum in Washington, DC that was sponsored by the Council on Foundations (I wrote about the event here).

The distinguished panel was moderated by Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree and PBS Senior Correspondent Judy Woodruff. Panelists discussed the major themes in the film and how they connect to the world of philanthropy; how foundations can effectively facilitate discussions on race, the legacy of slavery, and the need for healing. When government lacks the capacity–or will–to lead the way in creating a more just world, how can we best encourage grass roots leadership in undoing racism and other forms of oppression.

Goodwin Liu’s comments were right in line with these themes. Yet if you Google "Goodwin Liu, Traces of the Trade" you'll find several links to a YouTube video clip, just over 2 minutes in length, titled "Obama Appeals Court Nominee – Goodwin Liu – on Reparations for Slavery." You’ll find an article by Ed Whelan, prominent conservative legal analyst and blogger, in which he claims Liu "... would make those who were not complicit in slavery pay the price of his grandiose reparations project." You’ll find many other bloggers chiming in.

But if you watch the entire discussion (which you can download here) you’ll find that what Liu was advocating in saying that each of us has a moral duty to make things right is that,

...instead of looking for the single national strategy, which is what everybody always looks for, think about what you can do on a much smaller scale in much smaller communities, around specific problems that people face, whether it’s in their schools, in their workplaces, access to health care, in their housing; whatever it may be.

For far too long we have allowed extremists and the media to define "reparation" for historic slavery as that "single national strategy" in which people who never enslaved anyone pay the price for checks being written to people who were never themselves enslaved. Such a definition serves well those who rely on division and controversy to serve their own ends. But it isn't helpful to those who want to make a positive difference in the world.

Book cover for Inheriting the Trade Reparation is repair; repairing damage from past harms to the best of our ability. And there remains much to repair in connection with injustice and inequity in connection with race. Goodwin Liu rightly asked, "What are we willing to give up to make things right?" He mentioned several. I would add to his list two important things I hope we will give up: our silence and our ignorance.

I hope as a result of this controversy that more people will see Traces of the Trade and read Inheriting the Trade. People who read the book will find much of the last chapter "Repairing the Breach" and the "Afterword" devoted to the issue of reparation. I believe some folks will be surprised by my conclusions. Hopefully people will then embark on their own journeys of discovery about what impacts still linger from the legacy of slavery that cause inequity and injustice in the United States today.

And then, as Goodwin Liu encouraged those of us gathered at the Newseum that evening, I hope we’ll join together to repair the damage.