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.
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.