Sun 14 Jun, 2009
Tags: Apologies, Legislation, Racial discrimination, S. Con. Res. 26, Slavery, Tom Harkin, U.S. Senate
U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has introduced a bipartisan resolution into the U.S. Senate apologizing for the nation’s history of slavery and racism.
The resolution, S. Con. Res. 26, would have the U.S. Congress acknowledge the nation’s long and brutal history of slavery and racial discrimination, and apologize “on behalf of the people of the United States” to black Americans “for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors” under slavery and Jim Crow.
Update: The Senate has passed this apology for slavery. See my full blog post on the subject.
As readers of this blog are well aware, I strongly support efforts like this to acknowledge our nation’s history of slavery and racial discrimination and the “living consequences” of that history today.
The text minces no words in summarizing the inhumanity of slavery in this country, and explains that the immediate result of the abolition of slavery in 1865 was merely to lead black Americans from one form of debilitating servitude into another. The resolution notes that Jim Crow lasted for a century following the Civil War, and that the 1960s did not end that system of segregation and discrimination, but merely weakened it so that “the vestiges of Jim Crow continue to this day.”
Most importantly, the resolution highlights the living consequences of that history, saying that blacks
continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow laws–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 resolution goes on to argue that “the story of the enslavement and de jure segregation of African-Americans and the dehumanizing atrocities committed against them should not be purged from or minimized in the telling of the history of the United States.”
Apologies for slavery
I am not a particularly strong supporter of apologies as a means of addressing this history, as opposed to efforts to acknowledge the history and to take responsibility for its consequences. This is especially true when an apology is being issued in the name of individuals who were not personally responsible for what happened. So I may have something to say later about the fact that this congressional apology would not be issued in the name of Congress, an institution which was directly responsible for much of our history of slavery, but instead in the name of “the people of the United States.”
However, I am struck by the thoughtful nature of this particular apology:
… an apology for centuries of brutal dehumanization and injustices cannot erase the past, but confession of the wrongs committed and a formal apology to African-Americans will help bind the wounds of the Nation that are rooted in slavery and can speed racial healing and reconciliation and help the people of the United States understand the past and honor the history of all people of the United States ….
Reparations for slavery
The resolution expressly provides that it does not support any claim against the United States, nor that it provides a settlement of any such claim. This is obviously a reference to claims for reparations for slavery and discrimination. Disclaiming any connection to reparations has become standard for apologies issued by states in recent years, and serves to head off criticism that an apology will lead to reparations. Unlike those apologies, however, this resolution also insists that an apology would not satisfy a claim for reparations, seeming to acknowledge the validity, or at least the plausibility, of such claims.
There are significant differences between this proposed congressional apology and the apology passed by the U.S. House last year. The House apology did not trouble to say that it could not serve as a basis for a legal claim for reparations. Furthermore, that apology also committed the House “to rectify the lingering consequences” of slavery and discrimination, which comes remarkably close to calling for reparations for slavery.
Status of the resolution
The resolution was introduced with eight co-sponsors: Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).
The resolution is entitled “A concurrent resolution apologizing for the enslavement and racial segregation of African Americans.” As a concurrent resolution, the apology would be voted on by the Senate and then the House, becoming a joint statement of Congress if approved by both chambers. A concurrent resolution expresses the sentiments of both houses of Congress; unlike a joint resolution, a concurrent resolution is not submitted to the president and does not have the force of law.