When Ohio Congressman Tony Hall introduced two resolutions in 1997 and 2000 asking Congress to officially apologize for slavery, he was blasted from pillar to post. Irate whites called the resolution wasteful and racist. Many blacks ridiculed it as much too little and much too late. But the slavery issue refused to go away. Virginia is the latest to deal with it when both houses unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for slavery. The resolution was mild, innocuous, and ultimately toothless, but at least it acknowledged the monstrous wrong of slavery.
Now Congress should follow Virginia's lead and apologize for slavery. And it's not just a matter of doing the morally right thing. The U.S. government, not just a handful of evil Southern planters encoded slavery in the Constitution, and protected and nourished it for a century. Traders, insurance companies, bankers, shippers, and landowners, made billions off of it. Their ill-gotten profits fueled America's industrial and agricultural might. For decades after slavery's end, white trade unions excluded blacks and confined them to the dirtiest, poorest paying jobs.
While it's true that many whites and non-white immigrants came to America after the Civil War they were not subjected to the decades of relentless racial terror and legal segregation, as were blacks. Through the decades of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, African-Americans were transformed into the poster group for racial deviancy. The image of blacks as lazy, crime and violence prone, irresponsible, and sexual predators has stoked white fears and hostility and served as the standard rationale for more than 4,000 documented lynchings, as well as the countless racial assaults, and acts of hate crime violence.
Though some blacks earn more and live better than ever today, and have gotten boosts from welfare, social and education programs, civil rights legislation, and affirmative action programs, that does not mean that America has shaken the hideous legacy of slavery. The Urban League in its annual State of Black America reports yearly finds that young blacks are far likelier than whites to be imprisoned, serve longer terms, and are more likely to receive the death penalty even when their crimes are similar.
Blacks continue to have the highest rates of poverty, infant mortality, violence victimization rates, and health care disparities than any other group in America. They are still more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods, be refused business and home loans, their children attend failed public schools than any other group, and are more likely to be racially profiled on America's urban streets.
Also, there is nothing new about state and federal governments issuing apologies and payments for past wrongs committed against African-Americans. The U.S. government admitted it was legally liable in 1997 to pay the black survivors and family members of the two-decade long syphilis experiment begun in the 1930's by the U.S. Public Health Service that turned black patients into human guinea pigs. The survivors got $10 million from the government and an apology from President Clinton They were the victims of a blatant medical atrocity conducted with the full knowledge and approval of the U.S. government.
The state legislature in Florida in 1994 agreed to make payments to the survivors and relatives of those who lost their lives and property when a white mob destroyed the all-black town of Rosewood in 1923. This was a specific act of mob carnage that was tacitly condoned by some public officials and law enforcement officers. Florida was liable for the violence and was duty bound to apologize and pay. The Oklahoma state legislature has agreed at least in principle that reparations and apology should be made to the survivors of the dozens of blacks killed, and the hundreds more that had their homes and businesses destroyed by white mobs with the complicity of law enforcement in the Tulsa massacre of 1921. There's even a bill by Michigan Congressman John Conyers that has kicked around Congress since 1989 would establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and the feasibility of paying reparations to blacks.
The ugly truth is that a mainstay of America's continuing racial divide is its harsh and continuing mistreatment of poor blacks. This can be directly traced to the persistent and pernicious legacy of slavery. Virginia took a light stab at confronting the state's hideous racial past. Congress should do even better by apologizing for slavery, and putting teeth behind the apology by passing the Conyers bill. If the commission deems that more needs to be done to help end discrimination and black poverty that's a byproduct of the legacy of slavery, it should do that too. Virginia did the right thing on this too. It created a scholarship fund for blacks whose schools were closed during the state's massive resistance campaign to integration from the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s. But it all starts with the apology. If Virginia can apologize so should Congress.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006). firstname.lastname@example.org