Guest columnist John M. Connolly: White privilege in wealth of a nation

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Published: 3/22/2023 8:47:20 PM

I take exception to several points made in a recent guest column [“Not having any woke guilt,” Gazette, March 16]. The writer expresses umbrage at the Northampton City Council, the mayor, and unspecified others who subscribe to “a progressive woke ideology and virtue signaling.” In particular, the writer says his ancestors “had no involvement to slavery” and that “nowhere in [his] lineage has there been any white privilege.”

While the first claim may well be true, the second is surely not. The writer also asserts he “will not pay for [his] unfair share” of reparations to descendants of the enslaved. But this final assertion, if it means he owes nothing, contradicts a point made earlier in his column when the writer thanks recent guest columnist Jay Fleitman for rightly, in his view, pointing out that reparations “can only correctly be done on a national level.”

If the federal government were to accept Fleitman’s point, then he, the writer, and all the rest of us would indeed be paying to “cover the sins of our country’s past.” As pay we should.

Obviously Southern planters became fabulously wealthy through the unholy institution. But so did the Northern shipping magnates who profited mightily from the centuries of slave trading. And so did the Northern industrialists, for whom the supply of cheap cotton (“King Cotton”) to the textile mills — many of the most important ones right here in Massachusetts — was a boon made possible by slavery.

It is no exaggeration to say that the wealth of white America, both North and South, was to a considerable extent made possible by the forced, indeed stolen, labor of millions of enslaved Africans and African-Americans.

Nor, and this is the most important point, did it stop with the Civil War. Not only did the post-Reconstruction Black Codes and sharecropping enable Southerners to continue slavery in an another guise, Southern senators and House representatives blocked many attempts to bring about equitable treatment of Black citizens in employment and housing, the two most important sources of family wealth in the U.S. The de facto exclusion of Blacks from many branches of work and from most housing markets benefited whites by excluding competition for jobs and homes.

The columnist rightly claims his Sicilian immigrant ancestors were “treated like dirt” when they first came to America. The same, incidentally, is true of my Irish ancestors, as well as of Germans, Poles, Jews and others. But they were not systematically excluded from multiple opportunities — educational, economic, residential, etc. — by virtue of the color of their skin alone. Within a generation or two, they, unlike the vast majority of Black Americans, were given access to the American Dream.

I am glad that the writer and I agree that payment is due to the descendants of the enslaved for the sin of slavery. I hope he might come to see that he and I have benefited from white privilege.

John M. Connolly lives in Haydenville. 
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