Harry ReidSenate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been taking heat since yesterday for his remarks on the Senate floor comparing the opponents of health care reform to those who opposed ending slavery.

As I’ll explain below, I believe the criticism over Reid’s remarks is misplaced at best, and political gamesmanship at worst. However, I also think his comment was not merely impolitic, but an unfortunate contribution to our overheated political climate and, more importantly, mischaracterizes our nation’s history on slavery and race.

I am saddened at Reid’s perpetration of a damaging historical myth about our nation’s involvement in slavery, and as the sesquicentennial of the Civil War approaches, I believe it is imperative that we combat such false narratives about our nation’s past.

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As I previewed last month, the Massachusetts state legislature held a hearing yesterday on state representative Byron Rushing’s proposed slavery-era disclosure law.

Update: Governor Deval Patrick has commented that while he hasn’t read the bill, he agrees that “we have some unfinished work about some injustices that goes back generations.”

H 3148 would make Massachusetts the fifth state to enact a law intended to pry open corporate records on their involvement in slavery and the slave trade. As I’ve indicated in the blog posts I’ve linked to above, I think these laws offer significant benefits in addressing our nation’s pervasive amnesia regarding the centrality of slavery to our history and its relevance to our present circumstances.

The extent of the nation’s historical amnesia over slavery, particularly in the northern states, is strikingly illustrated by yesterday’s Associated Press story in advance of the hearing.

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Earlier this year, I wrote about Massachusetts State Representative Byron Rushing’s proposed slavery-era disclosure law. At that time, I indicated that Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts & Cultural Development should hold a public hearing later in the year.

The committee has now scheduled a public hearing for Monday, October 5 at 1:00pm at which testimony will be heard on Rushing’s bill, H 3148. The hearing will be held at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester.

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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.

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I’m often asked, when discussing apologies, reparations, or other proposals for addressing the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, whether or not such measures have been taken for other historical events.

In weighing how to respond to historic injustices, a problem for which we have no widely-accepted and time-tested solutions, it seems to help people to know what precedents exist. It matters, for instance, that the U.S. apologized and offered reparations for interning Japanese-Americans in concentration camps in WWII, even though it took a half-century—and, in some cases, reparations had to be paid to descendants of the original victims. There are other examples, including the 1993 congressional apology to native Hawaiians and apologies for slavery by the U.S. House and eight state legislatures in the last two years. Other apologies are currently being considered, including ones in the U.S. Senate for slavery and the treatment of Native Americans.

Today, another potential precedent has emerged: Next week, the California State Assembly is scheduled to consider a measure which would apologize for discrimination against Chinese immigrants and their descendants in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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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.

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Connecticut has become the first state in New England to apologize for its role in centuries of slavery and racial discrimination.

Late last night, as the 2009 regular legislative session was about to end, the state Senate voted unanimously to approve the joint resolution of apology which was passed by the state’s House of Representatives two weeks ago.

Connecticut thus becomes the eighth state to apologize for slavery in the past two years, joining Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and New Jersey. Expressions of apology have also been considered in a number of other states, and Connecticut is not expected to be the last state to offer an apology.

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Yesterday, I wrote about the slavery apology passed by the Connecticut House of Representatives and, because it was a breaking story, had to settle for linking to the A.P. wire story on the site of the Hartford Courant.

This morning, the Courant has its own story about the vote, which begins:

More than 200 years after the fact, the state House of Representatives voted Thursday to formally apologize for slavery in Connecticut.

I think this opening line powerfully illustrates the importance of finally, and fully, acknowledging our society’s sordid history around slavery and race.

Just what does the reporter believe happened in Connecticut more than 200 years ago?

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The Connecticut House of Representatives voted unanimously today in favor of a resolution declaring “profound contrition” for the state legislature’s historic role in slavery and racial discrimination.

Connecticut would become the second northern state, after New Jersey, and the first state in New England, to apologize for its role in slavery and discrimination.

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On Monday, the State of Connecticut will begin debating an apology for its role in slavery and and racial discrimination.

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