U.S. Government apologies for slavery

The United States House of Representatives has issued an apology for slavery and Jim Crow.

Congress has issued apologies before — to Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II and to native Hawaiians for the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893. In 2005, the Senate apologized for failing to pass anti-lynching laws.
Five states have issued apologies for slavery, but past proposals in Congress have stalled, partly over concerns that an apology would lead to demands for reparations — payment for damages.
The Cohen resolution does not mention reparations. It does commit the House to rectifying “the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow.”

I really like what Melissa Harris-Lacewell (who I have a tremendous intellectual crush on) had to say about it:

Here is my problem with this apology. It states that “slavery and Jim Crow are stains upon the what is the greatest nation on earth and the greatest government ever conceived by man.” While I appreciate the effort Representative Cohen, that just does not even come close to capturing it.
White supremacy is not a stain on the fabric of the nation, it is the binding thread woven into America’s fabric. Slavery was not an accidental oversight that simply took another few decades to fix; slavery cleared the virgin forests of the South and made them arable land; slavery was the basis of the new nation’s international trade; slavery made profit possible; slavery enriched millions of white Americans through its intergenerational transmission of ill gotten gains. Agricultural bondage through sharecropping kept blacks effectively re-enslaved in the South until the middle of the 20th century. A system of convict leasing turned black men into free labor for Northern industries well into the 1950s, making their massive profits possible. Medical experimentation on black bodies served as the basis for the growth of modern medicine and pharmaceuticals. Slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy are what made the greatness of America possible for so many others. It is not the stain on America. It is America.

Can’t really add much to that, can I? Make sure to read her whole post. NPR also has the story.

Join the Conversation

  • SociologicalMe

    I second your intellectual crush, Jessica. That was a dead-on, awesome analysis. I was assisting a college-level course last spring in which the students had a debate about racial reparations, and the topic of a formal governmental apology was a major part of that debate. I’m interested and unsurprised and more than a little depressed to see that they managed to pull it off while still being offensive and dismissive.

  • MLEmac

    I’d give them points for trying, but I can already hear the asshats going “see, racism isn’t a problem in American anymore!”

  • http://www.spinsterzine.com Carmen Seaby

    It’s always sad when what could have been a very special moment gets ruined by people who just don’t get it. Earlier this year Australia apologised to its Indigenous people for the Stolen generations and I found it very moving. The previous government had refused to apologise for ten years. The government changed last November and it was the first motion of the new parliament. Of course, it will be meaningless if the huge gaps in life expectancy, infant mortality, alcoholism, unemployment, access to healthcare and education between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia doesn’t change.

  • Holly

    What a brilliant post! I feel an intellectual crush brewing.

  • http://www.womanist-musings.com/ Renee

    When someone makes an apology along with acknowledging a wrong they also attempt to repair the damage. An apology with reparations is meaningless to POC. What good is I’m sorry when schools are in the conditions that they are, when black overwhelming live in poverty, when blacks are over represented in prison. The way to say your sorry is to work towards mitigating damages not just hollow words.

  • wax_ghost

    Ugh, yeah, what a slap in the face. It’s like, “Geez, we’re really sorry that happened. Now will you just get over it already?” How about some real change?

  • katemoore

    I’m just shocked it took this long – and I realize that it’s part of my privilege that I hadn’t thought about it before.

  • spike the cat

    Amazing. I’m glad the distinction is being made between slavery and Jim Crow.
    I truly believe that having a built-in slave class and then a virtually unchanging lower class marked by skin color (thanks to Jim Crow), is one of the reasons this country was able to build up and distribute such massive of amount of wealth to it’s upper classes.
    I’m reading a book called Rogue Economics, which basically claims that whenever new “democracy” tries to establish itself or when economies open up, slavery actually thrives. It’s because the economic engine (read capitalism) is often faster than moral or legal/economic oversight.
    She points to the levels of slavery that have ballooned after the loosening/demise of communism in Europe; and the run on natural materials from a more economically open China and India, which drives slavery particularly for mined natural resources. And of course our part as American consumers is mentioned as well.
    I guess my point in this rambling, is that we are all connected. Under the current global economic system we have today, the western standard of living has benefited greatly from slavery. And this is still true today. And we need to acknowledge this.
    And yet it’s a double slap in the face and insult to everyone’s intelligence when folks (individuals, certain groups, and whole populations) overemphasize personal choice and ethics as the primary factor in their prosperity.

  • Fionnabhair

    spike_the_cat, another book on a similar topic is Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. It mentions a lot of the same post-Communist economic nightmares, as well as the results of lassiez-faire capitalist experiments in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and others. If you’re intersted in the subject, I highly recommend it. I’m reading it, myself.
    As for the original post… wow. Melissa nailed it. Though, like katemoore said, I didn’t know such an apology had never been issued, before. I also agree with others who have been saying that this does not mean the American Government has made sufficient repariations for so many years of racism. We’re not even close to racial equality, yet.

  • Lala

    I am such a huge fan of Melissa Haris-Lacewell. I see I am not alone.

  • A male

    Thank you for including the apologies to Japanese-Americans and the overthrow of the legitimately recognized Kingdom of Hawaii.
    Indeed. And what is to be done about it? Interned Japanese-Americans who chose to take it, could receive $20,000 ($1.6 billion in total), for which they and all Japanese-Americans were judged by racists.
    I later learned that this represented a claimed ten cents on the dollar compensation for the loss of e.g., homes, farms and possessions during the relocation. Try replacing your home or farm (anything that could not fit into a single suitcase) with a modern $20,000. Would you accept living as interned JAs did during the war, for $20,000? It is simply a blessing that modern JAs do not face the hardships or degree of discrimination previous generations did.
    I have heard numbers reaching into the trillions of dollars for what would be required to reform US society to make it equal for black people, and anyone who would protest that black people today did not live under 19th century slavery, and possibly not descended from slaves, and are thus undeserving, needs a reality check:
    “White median family income is more than twice Black median family income For every dollar of White wealth, people of color have 15 cents”
    Foreclosed: State of the Dream 2008
    By Amaad Rivera, Brenda Cotto-Escalera, Anisha Desai, Jeannette Huezo, and Dedrick Muhammad (Institute for Policy Studies)
    All that situation leads to is a perpetual and ever widening gap between whites, and black people who are not given an equal opportunity, from birth.
    It’s one thing to say one is in favor of reparation. I’ll wait to see how much reallocation of American wealth or dismantling of white privilege is actually accepted by the general public.

  • Nimue

    I’ve been thinking lately of what I consider the new Jim Crow laws — those that allow discrimination against women. For example, how are those “pro-life pharmacies” much different? They simply come out and say that they discriminate against a certain group. How long until such laws are unthinkable? When do women get our apology?
    I certainly don’t mean any of this to diminish the suffering of African-Americans. I simply find it ironic that the government can apologize for a set of discriminatory laws while simultaneously creating a brand-new set.

  • http://theelephantschild.blogspot.com/ rachel

    i dunno why this is ‘shocking’ or a ‘slap in the face’. Its not like the government is saying we apologized, its over. They didnt say it was a mistake – they said it was a stain, like a tint, a coloring, which implies more of an integrated part of history than just a simple oops.
    And does our race relations disqualify us from being the greatest nation on earth? we have obama. not like that doesnt mean racism is part of the fabric of this country, but we are still a pretty amazing, unique and groovy place.
    ps. an interesting link: http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6573995.html?industryid=47057

  • A male

    What standards are being used for this determination, greatest nation on earth? I’m proud of my country and being American, but that’s the result of 39 years of acculturation and conditioning. North Koreans love their own country, despite an estimated 10% dying of starvation in the period 1995-97, and being under the thumb of a two generation hereditary authoritarian regime. Even free North Koreans in Japan who know only the world outside take great pride in their heritage.
    I hear great things about Canada, the Netherlands, Iceland and Finland, for example, and wish the US could emulate aspects of those countries. Safety, for one. Excellent social services for another. World leading ratings for livability and respect for human rights from the UN. I know readers are interested in the greater gender equality. They don’t have the world’s biggest economy, but they still match or exceed the US for standard of living. They don’t have the world’s largest or most powerful military, but they don’t need it, because people don’t hate them.