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Marking a big loss

William Spriggs | 6/5/2014, 6 a.m.

Last week marked the loss of a powerful voice with Maya Angelou’s death. Fortunately, many in the nation paused to notice her loss. Dancer, actress, poet and teacher, Angelou captured everyone’s attention because of her ability to talk honestly out of her own pain and to get people to empathize, to share in the human experience.

Recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a telling piece for The Atlantic on reparations. As Coates notes, he leaned on the work of many people in writing the piece, including his experience studying history at his alma mater, Howard University. What he did better than others, however, was weaving his argument through the personal experiences of current residents in a Chicago neighborhood.

It was a great attempt to personalize a history of bad policies that others had previously described in abstract form. But perhaps his most telling passage was this: “In America there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife.” This is a concept rooted in memory and a sense of who can claim to be harmed, to have a sense of being wronged, to mourn, a sense of humanity. The passage is potent because it is a powerful way to explain the lack of empathy for the plight of African Americans.

That is one of the reasons Angelou was such an important voice, because not everyone could weave more than a century of biased policies through the lives of one family, as Coates did, and not everyone could be as poetic and powerful as Angelou in bringing empathy to African American lives. But there is a far deeper damage than the case Coates makes about reparations that flows from America’s inability to empathize with the position that bad policies have left African Americans in.

At his commencement address to Howard University’s graduation in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “Negro poverty is not white poverty. Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences — deep, corrosive, obstinate differences — radiating painful roots into the community and into the family and the nature of the individual.

“These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice and present prejudice.”

Johnson’s speech that June day was meant to elicit empathy for African Americans, to connect them as worthy to claim the American Dream. And to do this, he makes clear reference to a history of policies with malice; “not the result of racial differences”- differences in character, culture or morals.

Now, whenever America goes into recession, the fault lines of the policies of the past create crevices into which hundreds of thousands of African Americans fall — compounding poverty through the loss of incomes and savings. But, rather than focus on bad policy, it quickly becomes a story about issues of character, as Congressman Paul Ryan did in explaining American poverty.