Buddhist concepts are deep and subtle. Terms like “karma” get tossed around, sometimes coming close to the idea and sometimes wide of the mark. The term I want to add here is “dependent origination”, which is related to what people mean when they say “karma”.
From The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism:
Kamma: In Sanskrit, “action”; in its inflected form “karma,” it is now accepted as an English word; a term used to refer to the doctrine of action and its corresponding “ripening” or “fruition”, according to which virtuous deeds of body, speech, and mind produce happiness in the future (in this life or subsequent lives), while nonvirtuous deeds lead instead to suffering.
Dependent origination: In one of the earliest summaries of the Buddha’s teachings (which is said to have been enough to bring Sariputra to enlightenment), the Buddha is said to have taught: “When this is present, that comes to be. / From the arising of this, that arises. / When this is absent, that does not come to be. / From the cessation of this, that ceases.”
Choose whichever one speaks to you, or both. The point is that you cannot distance yourself from consequence by saying “I’m not one of them” or “I didn’t do that.” The term “accountability” is being used a lot this week, and we do want to attach individual wrongdoing to consequences. But as Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Few are guilty but all are responsible.”
It is common in some quarters to hear slavery described as America’s “original sin.” This might send us back to thinking about the religiously applied original “original sin”, that is, the storied transgression of Adam and Eve. Stripped of its theological trappings, it is part of a greater story about action and lasting consequence. The bad actions, or the lack of good actions, echo down eternity, and do not think you will escape them, even if you had nothing to do with the original phenomenon.
Does this mean that you are guilty for the perpetuation of racism, or for the incompetence of leaders in managing a plague, or in the devolution of American government and politics that led to an insurrection? Depending on your particular role in all these, maybe not. But neither are you an insulated observer. “When this is present, that comes to be. / From the arising of this, that arises. / When this is absent, that does not come to be. / From the cessation of this, that ceases.”