This morning, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to debate and vote on the apology for slavery and racial discrimination offered by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Debate on the resolution should begin around 10:30am (Eastern time), following a period of morning business which begins at 9:45am and could last up to an hour, and will be broadcast live on C-SPAN2.

Update: The Senate is now debating the resolution, beginning with a reading of the full text, including its recitation of the dark history of U.S. slavery and racial discrimination.

Update 2: The Senate has passed S. Con. Res. 26. by voice vote and without dissent. The resolution will now move to the House, where Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) is expected to shepherd the resolution.

The Senate, operating under unanimous consent, has set aside up to an hour for debate on the apology resolution. No amendments will be permitted, and following the debate, the Senate is expected to pass the apology by voice vote.

If the apology passes in the Senate today, it will then go to the House. If the concurrent resolution is approved by the House as well, it will then formally become a joint statement expressing the sentiment of Congress.

In addition to the bipartisan group of eight original co-sponsors, the resolution has attracted an additional thirteen Democrats as co-sponsors in the last three days: Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Sen. Mark Begich (D-Ark.), Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fl.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Acknowledging our past

I strongly support the measure being considered by the Senate this morning, not because I necessarily believe that an apology is required, but because I believe that acknowledgment of this history, and its legacy, are long overdue.

Most Americans are not only woefully unaware of the history and legacy of slavery in this country, but they find it impossible to believe that history and legacy when they are confronted with the facts.

Sen. Harkin’s resolution is unsparing in reciting the essentials of this history: It “acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws.” It describes slavery as a system under which people were “brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized, and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage.”

The resolution further notes that following the Civil War, Americans who had been slaves, or who were descended from former slaves:

soon saw the fleeting political, social, and economic gains they made during Reconstruction eviscerated by virulent racism, lynchings, disenfranchisement, Black Codes, and racial segregation laws that imposed a rigid system of officially sanctioned racial segregation in virtually all areas of life.

Most importantly, the resolution addresses the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow-era discrimination:

African-Americans 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.

These historical facts, and their implications for the present day, are exactly what Americans need to understand, if they are to properly appreciate our nation’s history—both good and bad—and how to begin to understand where our society stands in terms of race today.

Why apologies can be troublesome

S. Con. Res. 26 does not merely “acknowledge” this history and its legacy, however. The resolution also “apologizes” for what happened.

Apologies for historic injustices can have tremendous value as a means of acknowledging injustice and moving forward. They can serve as important symbols of changing attitudes, and can generate a commitment to further change.

However, the symbolism of an apology can also be problematic. An apology risks being taken as a mere symbol and nothing more, and can therefore offend those for whom it is intended. The act of apologizing can also distract from the important business of addressing the legacy of wrongdoing, whether in material or in non-material terms.

An apology for historic wrongs also raises other difficult issues which can distract from what is intended. Who is being apologized to? Who is doing the apologizing? The answers to these questions can easily determine how successful the apology is, and poor choices can raise charges of belief in collective guilt, racialized thinking, or even racism.

In this case, the resolution offers an apology not on behalf of the U.S. Congress, which as an institution was historically complicit in the history being discussed, but “on behalf of the people of the United States.” Most slavery apologies to date have been issued on behalf of a state or its legislature, and not on behalf of “the people” of that state. It is more difficult to see how an institution can apologize on behalf of a society or a nation than on behalf of itself, and fewer people are likely to accept this formulation as legitimate. Moreover, the phrase “the people of the United States” can easily be misinterpreted as representing an apology on behalf of those alive today, and apologies for slavery always raise fierce objections that they imply that people alive today have inherited the guilt for what others of their race did in earlier centuries.

This apology is also offered “to African-Americans.” This sentiment, too, is well-intentioned and is likely to be well-received by many people. However, many black Americans object to apologies for slavery which are explicitly offered to them. They may object that the apology should be offered to those who suffered from the historical events at issue, or that they should not receive an apology merely because of their race. They may object that they are not the descendants of those who were harmed, or that they are descended from both perpetrators and victims, or just from perpetrators (as is the case with President Obama). They may even object that they belong to “the people of the United States” as much as anyone else, and are therefore both giving and receiving the apology.

None of this changes the fact that black Americans have, in large measure, inherited burdens as a result of this history, and all black Americans have personally endured at least some measure of the racial discrimination covered by this apology. Nor does it change the fact that all of the people of the United States today have inherited, to one degree or another, the fruits of slavery and discrimination. However, it does point out the difficulties inherent in any attempt to formulate an apology for actions committed generations ago.

A final issue with apologies is that they tend to leave open the question of what comes next. Opponents of apologies for slavery often object that they are intended merely to open the door to reparations or similar measures, and this is often exactly what supporters of apologies intend. In this case, the resolution explicitly states that it cannot serve as a basis for a claim for reparations—but it also explicitly states that the apology does not end any such claims, either.

The history of slavery apologies

I often hear that the U.S. has already “apologized enough” for slavery. In fact, the U.S. has never done so.

In 1998, while visiting Uganda, President Bill Clinton thought about apologizing, but instead merely said that “we were wrong.” In 2003, President George W. Bush came closer during a visit to Goree Island, calling the slave trade “one of the greatest crimes of history.”

The U.S. Congress has also considered slavery apologies in the past. In 1997, Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) introduced an apology into the House, but the measure died without a vote. In 2008, the House did pass an apology resolution offered by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), but until today, that apology remained merely an expression by one house of Congress.

10 Responses to “U.S. Senate votes on slavery apology”

  1. Senator Harkin introduces apology for slavery and racism | The Living Consequences says:

    […] The Senate has passed this apology for slavery. See my full blog post on the […]

  2. Traces of the Trade » Senate passes apology for slavery says:

    […] The U.S. Senate has passed a resolution apologizing for the nation’s history of slavery and racial discrimination. […]

  3. John B says:

    James writes: An apology for historic wrongs also raises other difficult issues which can distract from what is intended. Who is being apologized to? Who is doing the apologizing? The answers to these questions can easily determine how successful the apology is, and poor choices can raise charges of belief in collective guilt, racialized thinking, or even racism.

    My question: what is a "successful" apolgy? The awswer may require as nuanced and multifaceted an analysis as you've offered in discussing the apolgy itself, and I'd welcome your thoughts about defining and measuring a successful apoligy or degrees of success.

  4. Inheriting the Trade | U.S. Senate Apology for Slavery: what’s the point? says:

    […] June 15. Read my post here. Also read my cousin James DeWolf Perry’s excellent post here about why apologies are both important and […]

  5. Professor MOmOh says:

    Senator, did it ever come to your mind that there's a connection between individual human integrity, I mean the way in which you assess your own potentialities, and the laws that interpret those potentialities in accordance with your stability, quality of life and well being? Suppose those laws, right from the start, were set with no regards to your inclusion in how your potentialities could be valued? There's a lot to say, but here's the point. The United States Constitution was designed by people whose links with English Common Law is undeniably poignant, and indeed, very significant. The English Common Law had no inclusion of the integrity of the English peasant, and so AfRAkans could not even be a part of it. That law continues today in its many maneuvered underpinnings. I want you to seriously consider this and to share it with your fellow law makers. Your intentions are very good and need to be applauded. But, are you seeking momentary applause, or eternal acknowledgment, where your great-great grandchildren and mine will say, "At long last, it was our great-great grandpa senator Tom Harkin, who cleared the hidden separatist codes that had kept certain humans in bondage, and today, all humans are truly equal in every sense of the word!"

    Senator, until the English Common Law is decoded and the hidden evils bulldozed out of it, no amount of apology for anything will suffice. Because, like a spreading cancer, surgery and chemotherapy will only increase the patient's demise, by increasing his survivability with more and more pain.

    I hope you will find the web site interesting. I wish you a good vacation and continued success.

    Professor MOmOh

    Founder, The Dohgon University of Thought

  6. the sad red earth » Historical Identity and Cultural Responsibility says:

    […] well-named The Living Consequences blog has an excellent, complex consideration of the slavery apology that has so far passed the […]

  7. Katrina Browne on slavery apology at | The Living Consequences says:

    […] her commentary, Katrina writes about the significance of the U.S. Senate’s apology this summer for the nation’s history of slavery and racial discrimination. She discusses how […]

  8. rachel says:

    i really hope that this will be passed. i am african american and i think it's amazing how they are apoligizing. we have come so far from all this hate and now we are at this point. i am greatly honored to be african american

  9. malik says:

    the apology is well over due also we need our correct last names also

  10. Links and Events Roundup | POV Blog | PBS says:

    […] The American Museum of Natural History’s Margaret Mead Festival is the longest-running showcase for international documentaries in the United States. We’ve just gotten notice that they have extended the deadline for their 2009 call for entries. Entries must be postmarked by June 26, 2009. The festival accepts a range of non-narrative works including: documentaries, animation, indigenous media, experimental works, and essay films. The theme for this year’s program is Silk Road, but they will review films on all topics. Learn more about the Margaret Mead Festival and get all the details on submitting work on the Mead website. Yesterday, the Senate passed an historic resolution to apologize for slavery and discrimination towards the nation’s black citizens. Viewers who watched Katrina Browne‘s Traces of the Trade last summer may remember James DeWolfe Perry as one of the cousins who retraced their ancestors’ route along the Triangle Trade. Check out his commentary on the filmmaker’s website and on his blog. […]

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