I’ve been thinking about the Public Television show Banished, since I saw it two days ago. For those who didn’t see it, the show is about some modern day black people whose ancestors were victims of mob violence in the early twentieth century. The ancestors of the folks on the show were run out of town and their property taken over. Today, they return to those places and consider if something can be done to make those long-ago wrongs right.
One of the things that made our country great is respect for property rights and the rule of law. We have generally honored those ideas since the founding of the country, with some notable exceptions.
The exceptions generally resulted from the process of evolution in our thinking.
For example, in 1776, the framers of the constitution said, “all men are created equal,” but “men” appears to have meant “white males of European descent,” as opposed to the definition of “men” in popular use today.
At that time, there was no universal recognition of the rights of either Native Americans, black people, women, or certain other foreigners. While some individuals – perhaps many individuals – recognized those groups as having the same rights as others, their individual opinions were not backed by the force of law in American courts.
As a result, many colonial residents of this land lived in fear for their own freedom and safety. At the same time, they feared confiscation or seizure of their property. For the most part, our society has evolved to the point where Americans do not fear those things today.
Now, free Americans look back in our history to times when their ancestors were temporarily or permanently deprived of their own freedom, and they ask if that long-ago deprivation of freedom is a wrong that should be made right today. And if so, how? And if someone were to make things right, who would it be?
Indian tribes have looked to the Federal courts to redress the seizure of tribal lands in the 1800s. Now, black people are raising the issue of illegal property seizures in the American south in the 1900-1930 time frame.
In the Native American case, it was the action of the Federal government that took the land in the first place, and it’s the Federal courts that have addressed the issue today. That seems appropriate to me.
What about the black people’s situation? That’s more complex, because it resulted from individual actions 100 years ago, as opposed to the action of government agents. Who would they look to, to make that right? The grandchildren of the Klansmen or mob members who took the land? The town they lived in? The state?
I don’t purport to know the answer to these questions but I have a sense about it. I think the descendants of those victims of anti-black violence might look to the government body that looked the other way when the incident happened. Our country is built upon the rule of law and respect for property rights, and it was rule of law and respect for property that broke down on a local level to allow the incidents depicted on the show.
I don’t know if that points to town, county, or state government. I suppose it varies, case by case.
But is this right, making a claim today? We have statues of limitations for all crimes relating to property. That means, for example, that a vandalism we committed as a teenager cannot be held over our head at age 30. The only crimes for which there are no time limits for prosecution are very serious ones, like murder.
Should the statue of limitations apply to the black people’s mob violence claim?
It’s been argued that the Indian claims are not subject to the statue of limitations because they resulted from acts of our government. Can the same be argued in the case of the black people?
How far back in time should we reach with our modern ideas? If we go back far enough, every one of us can find ancestors who were oppressed, enslaved, or had their property seized. That’s true for all of us, white, black, and otherwise. Freedom and property rights are fairly recent ideas in much of the world, and they have yet to arrive in some countries today.
Should we let those past events go, or take action today?
Causes John Robison Supports
I support Asperger and autism advocacy groups. I also support the University of Massachusetts