"You wonder why we didn't do it 100 years ago," said Iowa Sen.
Tom Harkin, after the Senate voted June 18 to endorse a national
apology for slavery. "It is important to have a collective response
to a collective injustice." And considering the scale and brutality
of slavery in American history, Senator Harkin could not be more
Abraham Lincoln described slavery as "the one retrograde
institution in America," and told a delegation of black leaders in
1862 that "your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest
wrong inflicted on any people."
But one reason why we have waited so long has to do with what
many advocates of the apology regard as the necessary next step -
reparations to African-Americans by the federal government.
Significantly, that's a step the Senate's apology resolution refused
"Nothing in this resolution," said Concurrent Resolution 26,
"authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or
serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States."
That refusal will inject new acrimony into a slow-burning debate
over reparations that has been going on for 40 years. "There are
going to be African-Americans who think that [the apology] is not
reparations, and it's not action," admitted Tennessee Rep. Stephen
Cohen (D), who has been a longtime backer of the apology.
And indeed there are. Randall Robinson, whose book, "The Debt:
What America Owes to Blacks" (2000), demanded "massive restitutions"
to American blacks for slavery, insists that an apology is
meaningless without reparations payments to African-Americans. "Much
is owed, and it is very quantifiable," Mr. Robinson said after the
Senate vote. "It is owed as one would owe for any labor that one has
not paid for, and until steps are taken in that direction we haven't
Illinois Sen. Roland Burris (D) added: "I want to go on record
making sure that that disclaimer in no way would eliminate future
actions that may be brought before this body that may deal with
And on the surface, the case for reparations to African-
Americans has all the legal simplicity of an ordinary tort. A wrong
was committed; therefore, compensation is due to those who were
wronged. But just below that surface is a nest of disturbing
complications that undercut the ease with which Robinson, Mr.
Burris, and other reparations activists have put their case.
1. Who was legally responsible for slavery? Not the federal
government. Slavery was always a matter of individual state
enactments, which is what made Lincoln's initial attempts to free
the slaves so difficult.
When it was written in 1787, the Constitution only obliquely
recognized the existence of legalized slavery in the states, and
only mentioned it directly when it provided for the termination of
the transatlantic slave trade in 1808. Congress twice passed laws
regulating the capture of fugitive slaves. But there was no federal
slave code and no federal statute legalizing slavery.
Nor was slavery confined only to the 11 Southern states of the
old Confederacy. It was legal in New York, Pennsylvania, and New
Jersey as late as the 1820s. …