Thu 18 Jun, 2009
Tags: Apologies, Legislation, Racial discrimination, S. Con. Res. 26, Slavery, Tom Harkin, U.S. Senate
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.