U.S. Apology for Slavery-Apparently Not Front Page News

By Osel, Ananda S. | The Humanist, November-December 2008 | Go to article overview

U.S. Apology for Slavery-Apparently Not Front Page News


Osel, Ananda S., The Humanist


IN CASE you missed it, which you very likely could have given the press coverage, on July 29 the U.S. House of Representatives officially apologized for slavery and for the injustices perpetrated against African Americans under the Jim Crow laws of the past.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

While the approval of the non-binding resolution, which represents a formal government apology, was briefly covered on most major networks and in most major newspapers, the following acknowledgment contained in the resolution was almost entirely overlooked by the mainstream press:

   African-Americans continue to suffer from the consequences of
   slavery and Jim Crow--long after both systems were formally
   abolished--through enormous damage and loss, both tangible and
   intangible, including the loss of human dignity and liberty, the
   frustration of careers and professional lives, and the long-term
   loss of income and opportunity.

When considering the high correlation between poverty, lack of education, and crime, this acknowledgement becomes even more startling. People of color are disproportionately impoverished, undereducated, and imprisoned--a direct result of the systematic racism which is so prevalent in this country's history.

The resolution was sponsored by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a white Jew who represents a majority-black district in Memphis. Joining him as co-sponsors were forty-two members of the Congressional Black Caucus, plus another seventy-eight members of Congress (only two of whom are Republicans). Earlier this year the Senate (which may have a chance to consider a companion measure to the House apology for slavery) issued a formal apology for atrocities committed against Native Americans, and in 2005 apologized to lynching victims and their families for the Senate's failure to enact federal anti-lynching legislation in the early 1900s.

While some may find it surprising that it's taken nearly 150 years since the passage of the thirteenth amendment for the United States to apologize, others do not. "I find it completely ridiculous and also completely realistic given the nature of politics in this country" said Vanessa Wilken, a biracial graduate student at the University of Washington with a degree in American Ethnic Studies.

Wilken isn't alone in her cynicism. Hilary Shelton of the NAACP says the apology is "hollow" unless it leads to a remedy for African Americans, who still suffer economically and educationally from the after-effects of slavery and segregation.

Others counter, saying that an apology serves no legitimate purpose since the perpetrators and victims of slavery are long dead, and that a resolution of apology instead keeps racial wounds and tensions alive. Although this type of reasoning is often used it fails to take into account the fact that ancestors of slaves still suffer the consequences, unintended and intended, of laws whose sole purpose was to foster inequality between races and give systematic privileges to whites.

Of course it's hardly the American slavery of the past that is the issue here. An apology for slavery, in truth, doesn't really change anything; it's only a morose afterthought. Following the abolition of slavery in 1863 American blacks endured over 100 years of legalized discrimination and segregation. It wasn't until the very recent passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965, respectively, that black Americans began to gain the rights that their white counterparts had been enjoying for centuries. It's here that the question of reparations arises.

The argument for reparations is really quite simple. If emancipated slaves had been allowed to retain the profits of their labor, their descendants might now control a much larger share of U.S. social and monetary wealth. …

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U.S. Apology for Slavery-Apparently Not Front Page News
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