Books by philosophy professors seldom draw much attention. But, boy, it is the opposite when the book is from Professor Jason D. Hill at DePaul University in Chicago. It is an intellectual provocation.
Vivid readers lament that very few books have original ideas. Even those that do, often contain one puffed-up thought worthy of an essay. It is not the case in Professor Hill’s writings. With every paragraph, he thrusts up challenging ideas, urging the reader to pause and reexamine what we have considered the irrefutable truth.
There is an issue with Professor Hill’s book because he does not write about ancient philosophical dilemmas but about racism in the United States today. He does not mince his words, demystifying almost everything most Americans read and hear in the mainstream media. The title asks: “What Do White Americans Owe Black People?” One may guess the answer, but the intellectual delight is in the journey through 256 pages.
In discussions about racism, the differences of opinions often align with the race of the debater. Black people usually insist that a white person cannot grasp the racism they experience. Professor Hill wrote about racism not as a black person but as a person. He has achieved what so many say is unattainable; he has ascended above the pettiness of human prejudices. In the book, he rejects the ongoing mantra in the American media that because of underlying racism, blacks face more hardship in their advancement than penurious whites or immigrants from impoverished countries. For him, people are defined by their achievements, not by the flaws of others, racial intolerances among them.
One can perceive this book as a treatise about our civilization’s progress using the example of slavery. There was no evil intention of white men in enslaving Africans. At that time, various forms of enslavement were the norm. Able persons always used the powers of their minds, their arms, and their money to subdue nature. Uncivilized people living in harmony with nature were part of nature.
Today, we often hear romanticized versions of primitive cultures living in a divine unity with nature. But behind that blissfulness was the merciless surrender to the forces of nature. Civilization started with people becoming masters of nature. In the beginning, only the affluent were the masters exploring others. With literacy in Western Europe, people were reaching self-awareness in medieval times and demanding equal rights. It took some time for enslaved blacks to realize that they were equally human as their white masters. As awful as it was, it was their path of joining the civilization.
Reading that rationale as a Pole who grew up in a racially monolithic country, I found a connection. The roots of the Western European civilization fall 5,000 years back into the Mediterranean cultures. Poland, as a nation, emerged about 1,000 years ago. Primitive tribes living in the marshlands organized to fend off the Germans’ expansion. There was no written language and only rudimentary technology compared to what the Germans had already learned from the Romans. For the first 500 years, Latin was the official language, and German was the language of trade. Then, Poles realized they were not geese and had their own language, as one of the first Polish poets phrased it. The first Polish language drama was written about 2,000 years after Sophocles wrote “Antigone.” And it was not about Poland but the Trojan War in Greek mythology.
As one might guess, there were attempts to romanticize prehistoric times in Poland. Fortunately, they came late, when Poland already had a well-established identity. No one negates today that Poland rose from the tradition of ancient Greek and Roman cultures by following the technological advancements of Germany. I presume that a few hundred years down the road, blacks will not glamorize their ancient African past but will be proud of their contribution to the civilization they adopted.
The original sin of the United States is in excluding the slaves from the fundamental principle that “all men are created equal.” Professor Hill accepts that it was pragmatic politics; the vote of the Southern states was needed to form the union. In defense of the Founding Fathers, he points out that there was no need to change the Constitution to end slavery. Also, the same Constitution sufficed to outlaw all forms of racial discrimination in the 1960s.
Professor Hill, in his youth, immigrated to the United States from Jamaica. On several occasions, he circles back to the freedoms that the American political system provides. As an immigrant myself, I see many Americans do not value the liberties that were given to them; immigrants are more appreciative. I sensed that tone in the book as well. The primary message is that so much focus on racism comes when all institutional forms of racism are long gone. To overcome any real or perceived racial harms, one should take advantage of the opportunities that the United States offers. The author never says it, but his life attainments and the excellence of his writing send a bold message that if he could succeed, others have no excuse.
A few critical reviewers on Amazon complained they needed to keep a dictionary open to get through the book due to “sophisticated language” and “fancy words.” It could be true that learning 1,000 words would suffice to communicate in English. Mass media outlets blast out messages that a fifth-grader can comprehend. But one needs more than that. For language aficionados, this book is a marvel. Reaching for the dictionary, one can enjoy the subtleties of the message.
I agree with one of the Amazon commentators that this is a “once in a generation” book. One may wonder why it is not all over the media. I got a hint when praising this book in a private chat with a liberally-leaning person. That individual heard about the book, did not read it, and unlikely will. But my rave disheartened that person.
The best answer I received came from a strange, young black man on the internet. Seeing his post about white privilege, I suggested the book to him. He responded that he would not be buying this book even though he enjoys hearing views from opposite sides. He said his priority is to pay for content that reinforces his beliefs, and because the author seems to negate the concerns of millions of people. The millions who should read this book but would prefer that it had never been written.