A smirk spread across my face when I watched CNN's Wolf Blitzer give the "Breaking News" this week that the U.S. Senate issued a formal apology to African Americans for Slavery and the era of Jim Crow.
It is obvious the election of President Obama helped to usher that through. However, what does it really mean? I guess we can all feel relieved there is an official acknowledgment that something terrible was done to black people. Yet the reality is way too much time has passed for this apology to really mean anything.
Symbolic gestures like these are most efficacious when public diplomacy is at stake. For example in 1988 the U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly to formally apologize to Japanese Americans who were driven from their homes in World War II to internment camps in California. Former and late President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation ending this "Civil Rights Disaster" by also giving each of the 60,000 Japanese Americans who survived these camps $20,000.
The $1.2 billion dollars gave Japanese Americans and the Japanese in Japan a "collective sigh of relief," due to the 46-years of pain and shame they suffered. This act helped to strengthen diplomatic ties with Japan. It also gave Japanese Americans a legitimate place in American history; they finally belonged. Japanese Americans felt the U.S. apology was sincere.
Germany, after WWII, not only apologized for its evil acts of the past against Jews and other victims, they also paid over € 63-billion in reparations for a myriad crimes, murders and human rights abuses. Millions more continue to be paid to Jews in Israel and in Eastern Europe.
As a reminder of Germany's dreadful past and also so the country won't repeat its sins ever again, the German government commemorates the Holocaust. Recently, German Chancellor Andrea Merkel with President Obama and Noble Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel placed white roses at the concentration and extermination camp of Buchenwald.
If African Americans think for one second they are getting any money, they better think again. No money is coming; not even the 40-acres and a mule.
Sixteen years ago, Congress apologized for the "grave injustice" of overthrowing the Kingdom of Hawaii a century earlier, but they did not get any money.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs gave an apology to Native Americans in 2005. However, Native Americans are still awaiting for their formal apology from Congress for the American genocide their ancestors experienced.Their resolution, introduced again on April 30 in both chambers, aims "to acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the United States Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States." There ain't any money attached to this one either.
Based upon their resolution, Native Americans want some additional wording in there that acknowledges the treatment and hardship they are experiencing right now. Now you know why their resolution has not passed yet -- that's way too much because that could lead to money and the American government does not have it to give. It's called recession!
Perhaps one should look at the slavery apology as an opportunity for all Americans to finally close a painful chapter in history, but it does not do that. A white supremacist came to the Holocaust Museum two weeks ago to kill Jews and shot a black man. These are the reminders that we too like the Jews can't forget.
Other countries such as Belgium might have apologized in 1961 for its role in the assassination of Congo's first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba giving a measly $3.5 million for a fund in Lumumba's name to promote Democracy, but that did not stop them from later coming back to play a more heinous role in ignoring the genocide in Rwanda. In 1994, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt publicly apologized to Rwanda for Belgium's part in failing to prevent the 1994 genocide, but it appears no money came or will come. However, he did unveil a memorial for ten peacekeepers that were slaughtered by the Rwandan army.
Apologies are meaningful, when they come with something. I don't begrudge groups that received money for their pain and suffering. They mostly certainly deserve it. In the case of human atrocities of the past, money is probably the only thing that brings about some restitution for the sins in times of yore. There is no way one could put a financial cost on the grief and sacrifice of my ancestors. It would clearly bankrupt the United States of America, all of North America and half of Europe.
Perhaps what African Americans can do with the apology is take pride in knowing that we are the survivors of a great Maafa (Swahili for disaster or terrible occurrence) and despite the current challenges of racism today, we are not victims. We are alive, surviving and thriving -- with the success of so many throughout our history culminating in the first African American President, we are still rising.
Senators, I accept your apology on behalf of America, but I don't need it to be free to achieve the American Dream!
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