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April 30, 2017

Don Wycliff

Paying down the debt

On a Saturday morning not long ago, I was giving a lesson on black history to a group of African-American boys, students in the Freedman Academy, an activity sponsored by my local chapter of the mentoring group 100 Black Men of America.

The lesson included a discussion of the Rosenwald schools, school buildings for black children constructed across the South in the early 20th century by Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who headed Sears Roebuck & Co., the Walmart of that era. Without Rosenwald’s benefactions, many Southern black children would have had no place to go to school, because spending on their education was not a priority for white-dominated public-school authorities.

In the course of the lesson, I mentioned in passing that I personally started my education at a Rosenwald school in my hometown, Dayton, Texas. This prompted one of the students, a bright ninth-grader, to interrupt.

“Wait a minute: You mean you were alive during segregation?” he asked, a tone of incredulity in his voice.

“Absolutely,” I replied. And, pointing to several other members of the 100 Black Men whose thinning gray hair and wrinkles suggested they were probably about my age (70), I added, “I suspect many of the men here today were alive” when segregation was legal.

Coming from a child of 13 or 14, that display of naive ignorance struck me as a bit amusing — and a pleasant indication of how far we have progressed racially. It reminded me of when, toward the end of my working life, I taught journalism to college students and had to remind myself repeatedly that certain topical references — “the war,” for example, for the Vietnam War — might carry a different meaning for them than it did for me (and as it did for my parents, to whom it meant World War II). How many wars has America been involved in since Vietnam?

But if my Freedman Academy student’s naivete could be excused on grounds of youth, what about the grownups who espouse similarly ill-informed ideas? On Feb. 3, the Chicago Tribune published an opinion piece by Jeff Bust, who expressed concerns about the state of our union, especially our national debt, which he seems to think grows in direct proportion to Democratic guilt over slavery and segregation.

Bust decried the debt being accrued by the “free spenders, organizers, race-baiters, intellectuals, tree huggers and professional value arbitrators,” because it will have to be paid off by his (and presumably a few others’) grandchildren.

“My view is that this country does not have the right to spend future taxpayers’ money without their consent,” he wrote. “I understand that Democrats feel the need to atone for their party’s defense of slavery before the Civil War, opposition to reconstruction immediately after the Civil War and support of Southern racial segregation until the 1960s, but I don’t want my grandchildren’s money spent trying to make this right.”

Where to begin? First: How is the nation to obtain the consent of “future taxpayers”? And what would it mean for money to belong to those who do not yet exist? And if we did not borrow to accomplish a public good, such as rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, how would our grandchildren feel about inheriting a degraded, decrepit nation that we had failed to renew for them?

Second: On the question of slavery and segregation, Bust does not want his “grandchildren’s money spent trying to make this right.” Yet it was under the auspices of the U.S. government, and by virtue of its Constitution and laws, that slavery existed and enjoyed legal protection; that Reconstruction was ended (thank you, President Rutherford B.Hayes); that racial segregation wasgiven legal sanction (remember Plessyv. Ferguson).

The bill for such governmental actions must properly go not to the Democratic Party, which, after all, is nothing but another interest group. Rather, it should go to the United States of America, which is to say, to all the taxpayers. And, like any other obligation of the United States of America, that bill continues to exist until it is paid. It survives changes of generation, of administration, of political party. And being “tired” of it, as so many say they are, doesn’t make it go away.

It was that debt of which Abraham Lincoln was speaking when, in his second Inaugural Address, he described the woe brought on by the Civil War as God’s judgment for “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil” and “every drop of blood drawn with the lash … paid by another drawn with the sword.”

That is a debt incurred by this generation’s ancestors, and one that, I think we can safely predict, will remain on the books when all our grandchildren reach adulthood.

Wycliff formerly was editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune and a member of the New York Times editorial board.