As one black man after another is murdered by police, and impotent rage wells up in me, I ask myself what, if anything, I can contribute to the public response save my cries of anguish. A veteran of more than 20 years in the police force shoots and kills a 20-year-old man who has been pulled over for a routine traffic stop, and by way, I suppose, of exculpation she says that it was a mistake, she meant to use a Taser rather than her service revolver. Why in God’s name even think of using a Taser on someone who has been pulled over for an expired registration tag!
Long ago I learned the terrible meaning of the phrase “the conversation” as it is used in American black families. The number of black men killed by police each year is tiny in comparison to the total black population in America, but that says nothing about the experience of being black in this terrible country.
As I was walking this morning, I recalled a passage in my last and least read published book, Autobiography of an Ex White Man, in which I tried a thought experiment to communicate something of what it must have been like to be a slave on a pre-Civil War plantation. I was reacting to an important and widely read book by the Nobel laureate Robert Fogel and his younger colleague William Engerman, Time on the Cross. Here is what I wrote 16 years ago. Nothing has changed.
“Needless to say, any individual slave was not likely to be whipped very often. Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, in a widely discussed and much criticized book, report that on one plantation whose owner, Bennet Barrow, kept careful records of his two hundred slaves, about half the slaves were not whipped at all during a two year period, and overall there were 0.7 whippings per slave per year. Since a number of readers have actually concluded from this bit of data that things weren’t so bad in the Old South, I tried a little thought experiment in an effort to imagine what effect whippings might have had on a slave.
Down the road from the University of Massachusetts is Amherst College, a famous private liberal arts institution that has on several occasions been ranked the best college in America. It has a faculty of two hundred -- just about as large as the slave population on Barrow’s plantation. Suppose a whipping post were set up in front of the Robert Frost Library in the central college common. And suppose that on an average of once every four or five days, an Amherst College professor were stripped to the waist, man or woman, and whipped at that post until the blood ran for some infraction of college rules or simply for failing to grade papers on time. Now, as a member of the faculty, I would presumably be intelligent enough and educated enough to be able to calculate that my chances of being whipped were only 0.7 per year, and I would also have noticed that if I was extremely careful, and never talked back to the Dean or the President, I might never be whipped at all. Nevertheless, I think it is reasonable to suppose that the steady progression of brutal public whippings would have, how shall we say, a chilling effect on me.
Such a fantasy seems absurd, of course, but that is just another way of saying that we White people don’t really think of the slaves as people like ourselves, regardless of the political correctness of our sentiments. Whipping slaves is terrible, cruel, inhuman, but it is something that happens to other people, whereas whipping professors, bizarre though that may sound, is something that might happen to me.”