Apology, at last, but with an escape clause
Apology, at last, but with an escape clause
June 21, 2009
What if Congress apologized for slavery and nobody cared?
The Senate on Thursday followed the House in voting to apologize for slavery and the Jim Crow segregation that followed it. In other words, it only took almost 150 years and the election of an African-American who is not descended from slavery to move Congress to apologize for slavery.Thanks, senators, but you're a little late.
As "senior black correspondent" Larry Wilmore quipped on "The Daily Show": "I thought [Barack] Obama's election was our apology."
He was joking, but not by much. After all, part of the appeal of Obama's White House victory was its symbolic message of post-racial optimism: We were ready as a diverse nation to stand together as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, put our ugly racial past behind us and look to a better future.
By contrast, the slavery apology issue erupts at a convenient time for Congress but it's an inconvenient distraction, at best, for Obama.
After all, talk of slavery apologies leads inevitably to the more volatile "dollars-and-sense" issue of reparations for the damage slavery left behind. Did somebody say "preferential treatment"? At a time when Obama wants to bring different factions together on many different issues, he does not need to see lawmakers squabbling about who owes 40 acres and a mule to whom.
To ease its passage, the Senate resolution contains a significant escape clause: It is not to serve as a basis for any lawsuit against the United States. That means the measure did not have to address the racially divisive issue of whether we, the descendants of American slavery, are owed any financial reparations.
Minus that thorny issue, the resolution passed so quickly that it almost made papers fly around the room. With no political or monetary cost attached, opposition to slavery is so easy even a bipartisan coalition of senators can do it, especially by a voice vote.
Yet, after a year of work on the resolution, sponsors Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) found reason to celebrate. The House passed a similar measure last July. The Senate passed an apology for Native Americans in February 2008.
Again, it was better late than never, I suppose, but not by much.
The House passed a similar apology last July, but it did not contain a no-reparations clause like the Senate version. That's led to a talk of reconsideration of the measure in the House to conform to the Senate version. The House will address it this week.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus oppose the change. That could lead to an awkward situation of black members of Congress opposing a slavery apology. That's what you get, ladies and gentlemen, for trying to score good feelings on the cheap.
Since the resolution does not require the president's signature, each house of Congress probably would be best off passing its own version. The senators and congressmen can pose for pictures, smile and quietly forget about their resolutions as they move on to issues that are affecting people's lives today -- like jobs, the financial markets, health care, global warming and, oh yes, two wars.
The reparations issue is becoming more trouble than it is worth, partly because most of my fellow descendants of slavery don't have much agreement on what our reparations ought to be.
Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, a consultant for the Senate resolution, has helped wage successful lawsuits aimed at insurance companies, universities and others who profited from slavery. The courts are a better recourse than Congress when you have specific offenders and the paperwork to back up your case. But most of slavery's legacy is not so conveniently documented.
This long after the offense, it is not easy to assess damages. The original victims of slavery are long dead. With each passing year, it is more difficult to trace whose descendants might be owed what.
Reparations for segregation are no less problematic. Some of us are old enough to remember legal segregation of schools, jobs, housing, hotels, public restrooms and drinking fountains.
But how do you put a price on that?
Obama's got the right idea. The damage of slavery and segregation can best be undone by Americans keeping our promises to the next generations. We need to help every American child have access to decent schools, housing and nutrition -- regardless of race, creed or ancestral conditions of servitude.
Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage
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