"We apologize for any involvement in the terrible practice of buying and selling human beings."
July 6, 2000 7:49 AM   Subscribe

"We apologize for any involvement in the terrible practice of buying and selling human beings." The Hartford Courant, the oldest newspaper in continuous publication in the United States, ran a front page apology for slavery on the 4th of July. What will it take for the U.S. Congress to do the same?
posted by sudama (20 comments total)
And what good would that do? The people currently publishing that paper, the people currently serving in local and federal governments had nothing to do with slavery, for pete's sake. It's over. It's been over for a long time. We need to move on - and this talk of apologies and reparations is making things worse, not better.

Or should I apologize for all the racist things every person in my family has ever done? Doesn't it mean more for me to consciously try to eradicate racism here and now, in my own life, in my own community?

Good god, if we should apologize to any group, it should be to American Indians who we still force to live on reservations by a system of economic and chemical slavery.
posted by gsh at 9:22 AM on July 6, 2000

How could an apology make things worse?
posted by sudama at 9:27 AM on July 6, 2000

By prolonging the debate, that's how. A hundred years is long enough (give or take a quarter century). We should all be done with accentuating our differences and be focusing our attentions on our similarities. Let's start with the premise that we're all going to try and treat each other from this point on as equal individuals and let the past remain exactly that.
posted by m.polo at 11:11 AM on July 6, 2000

I am sure I am going to get bashed for this but honestly I feel it is time to just put the slavery issue to rest. Yes it was an unfortunate time in U.S. history and must never be repeated, but do we really need to have this shoved in our faces constantly? Like most Americans my ancestors did not come over to the U.S. until the late 1800's early 1900's and like most new immigrants of the time they came with nothing and faced discrimination, poverty etc..
Should the millions of great grandchildren of a poor Irish/Italian/Slovak etc.. factory workers have to repent for the sins of a handful rich plantation owners? While we are at it shouldn't some blame fall on the west African tribes that sold other Africans to these slave traders? What about the wave of Hispanic and Asian immigrants who like the bulk of Americans also came after the time of slavery?
It is to easy for race baiters like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to place the blame on what they call "white America" over issues like this to help further their own agendas. But I am sorry all this does is create dissention, why can't all of these so called activists white, black, Asian etc.. work for the all Americans on real issues such as poverty, drug abuse, violence etc... which to me is the real core of American societies ill's. It just annoys me that even though the only thing I have in common with those slave owners is the color of my skin, I am forced to assume the guilt in the burden of slavery. I agree with gsh in the fact that if there is anyone we do owe an apology to it is the Native Americans, I am embaressed and appalled at how badly our country continues to treat them. Just my $.02
posted by remo at 11:14 AM on July 6, 2000

The racial injustice that pervades US society today has its roots in slavery. I think it would be appropriate and beneficial for the federal government to acknowledge this with an apology.
posted by sudama at 12:24 PM on July 6, 2000

Didn't the president already apologize?
posted by thirteen at 12:46 PM on July 6, 2000

The racial injustice which pervades US society today has its roots in the fact that people fear that which they are unfamiliar with and when people are afraid, they act stupid.

Convenient as it is, it's desperately inaccurate to point toward slavery as the source of all social ills.

And if a simple apology was all it took to fix those social ills, I think we'd all be bending over backwards to apologize, Sudama. But clearly, it's more complex than that.

How is it you don't understand this simple truth?
posted by gsh at 1:32 PM on July 6, 2000

I'm not clear on exactly what it is the Federal Government has to apologize for. They have already done everything in their power through legislation to abolish slavery in the first place, to recognize the right of all adults - regardless of race or sex - to participate in the democratic process, to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment and a host of other areas of civil life. Good God, what in the world do you think they have to apologize for? Because you need the validation of a bunch of completely unrelated people for something that happened over a century ago? Sudama, I suggest you try living in the present, otherwise I fear that Amistad-sized chip on your shoulder will prevent you from succeeding on your own in the here and now.
posted by m.polo at 1:43 PM on July 6, 2000

Could we try not to make this a personal issue about Sudama please?

I don't understand why an apology is so important to many African-American activists, but I also don't know what it's like to have ancestors who came to the US in chains.

An apology is such a small thing, and it wouldn't set anything back: it would be news for one day and then it would be over, and you'd never have to hear about it again. As it is, we constantly hear activists saying "How can we expect any progress in race relations when we've never even had an apology for slavery-- let alone the forty acres and a mule that were promised to former slaves as reparation."

It's ironic that several people propose that we shouldn't apologize to African-Americans for slavery, since slavery is over, but we should apologize to Native Americans since they're still stuck on reservations. Why can't we do both? And wouldn't it be sickening to apologize to the Native Americans for their treatment... while continuing our current policies toward them?

The reluctance and hostility towards apologizing that are evident here seem to be just as out of proportion (more so, actually) to the issue as Sudama's adamance in favor of the apology.

The Pope apologized for Catholics everywhere for 2000 years of sins, and he was applauded by some while many just shrugged and went about their day. That wasn't a heated, divisive issue... no one angrily argued that they, a modern-day Catholic, weren't to blame for the Inquisition... why is an apology over slavery bringing out so much bile?
posted by wiremommy at 2:28 PM on July 6, 2000

Woah. What's with the personal attack m.polo?ghs, of course I don't think an apology is going to solve the US's problems. I just think it's an appropriate and overdue gesture. It boggles my mind that anyone would waste energy arguing against such a thing.Racial injustice has a lot to do with fear, I agree, but also a lot to do with greed and power. The conditions in which we live today in the US, where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny white elite and as you look at poorer people you inevitably see darker skin, result directly from the slave economy of the 16th through 19th centuries and from government policies that to this day function to maintain the racialized imbalance of wealth and power. If you want facts and references I'll knock you over with them, but the point is that the rhetoric being thrown around in this forum serves no purpose other than to dodge the responsibility we all share for allowing this system to continue functioning the way it does.m.polo, the Federal Government can apologize for establishing slavery, legislating the persistence of slavery and upholding slavery and segregation the courts, to start.And what makes you think I'm having any trouble succeeding on my own?
posted by sudama at 2:39 PM on July 6, 2000

You spoke with the passion of one personally wronged; I made an assumption based on your tone and I apologize for that portion of my post if I assumed, incorrectly, that you are personally affected.

I do not, however, retract the rest of it. I think it would be neither appropriate nor beneficial for the Federal Government - the government who, as I have already pointed out, has in the years since legislatively corrected their errors - to "apologize" for the behavior of private citizens in a world long gone by. Maybe you feel as though you've let this go and live in the present, but judging from the media play this idea gets periodically, there are a lot of people who haven't. You may feel free to redirect the comment I made earlier to them, instead.

posted by m.polo at 4:07 PM on July 6, 2000

As I pointed out, I'm not asking for an apology for the actions of private citizens but for the actions of a public institution by those who represent that institution today. We are all personally affected -- some wronged, and some undeservedly rewarded -- by the legacy of slavery.As for me, I'm having no trouble at all succeeding, but I'm certainly not under the illusion that it's all my own doing.
posted by sudama at 4:59 PM on July 6, 2000

Uhm... At the risk of sounding racist, and that is most definitely not my intent here, my direct superior at work is a black female. Her boss is a black female. It is by no means hard labor, or unfair treatment, but they do make damn sure I get my work done. I don't have a problem with it. I think things have come full circle. They're not blaming me for my ancestor's actions, and I'm generally too busy at work to be concerned with racism, on either side of the table.

At least in the computer industry, things like Affirmative Action notwithstanding, it is by one's actions and efforts that they are measured. Not by one's skin color. Apologies can be asked for and given, but that's not what heals the wounds of the past.

If we treat one another as equals today, tomorrow will take care of itself, and yesterday will remain on the history books and microfilm, for good or ill.
posted by ZachsMind at 6:57 PM on July 6, 2000

From the press release of Congressman Tony Hall (D-Ohio, who incidentally is descended from those poor Europeans alluded to in a previous post):

Why we still need to apologize

Personal Reasons

There are numerous reasons why Congress should apologize for its role in promoting and sustaining slavery. First, it is the right thing to do. If you offend your spouse or a friend, you have to say you are sorry in order to go forward in your relationship. It is so basic that we teach our kids from an early age – say you are sorry, or you can't play anymore; apologize, or you have to go to your room.

These three words – I am sorry – are a foundation for beginning again, a small price to pay for restoring lost trust, and a necessary first step in moving forward constructively.

Others have said it better.

"An apology would show that my government and president believe the enslavement of Africans for national gain was a grave and revolting wrong. It will document in stone for years to come the country's repentance for a tremendous crime. It is the right thing to do," a woman wrote to me in 1997.

"The fact that you want to apologize, says to me personally, that you recognize and accept my pain, the pain of my ancestors, and that you care about it," another letter said, "...in my lifetime, no one has done that."

"A general expression of sorrow is the starting point of any healing process," a journalist for USA Today said. "Of course, an apology has to be followed by serious acts of contrition, but any attempt at reconciliation that begins without one cannot be taken seriously."

I was most heartened by the thoughtful people like Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, whose first reaction was "why should we apologize?" but who came to the conclusion, "why shouldn't we?"

This apology will not solve all of the problems, but it will begin new progress on issues that still divide Americans. It is never too late to admit a wrong and to ask for forgiveness. In giving those our nation wronged the dignity of this honest admission, we might all enjoy some measure of healing. And it will set the right example for our children.

Historical Reasons

Another reason to apologize for slavery is the historical precedent it will set. There have been many public apologies offered in recent years. In 1988, Congress apologized to Japanese-Americans for imprisoning them during World War II. In 1993, Congress offered a formal apology to native Hawaiians for the role the United States played in overthrowing the Kingdom of Hawaii a century before.

Other countries have also apologized: Britain's Prime Minister apologized to Irish people for failing to help the millions of people who suffered and died during the great potato famine of the 19th century. East Germany's legislature issued an apology for the atrocities committed against the Jews during the Holocaust. Japan's emperor formally apologized to Korea for its conduct during its colonial period.

Slavery has been an important focus of recent apologies. In 1993, Pope John Paul II apologized for the Catholic Church's support for slavery, and for the violence of the 16th Century Counter Reformation. In 1994, the State of Florida apologized and paid reparations for its role in the 1923 Rosewood riots. The same year, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for its past support of slavery. In 1999, the United Methodist Church's West Ohio Conference called for white Methodists to apologize for their ancestors' role in slavery.

Unfortunately, America's history is littered with many examples of missed opportunities to address the "peculiar institution" of slavery. When our Founding Fathers declared that "all men are created equal," we could have truly included everyone. When we established the Constitution as the rule of law for our new country, we could have treated slaves as full and equal, instead of treating them as three-fifths of a person.

When the Supreme Court made its rulings, when our nation amended the Constitution, or when Congress wrote Civil Rights laws – at any of these moments in our history, we could have apologized for slavery. But we failed, and now we must go back and finish our history's chapter on slavery.

posted by likorish at 4:30 AM on July 7, 2000

If Germany had as much trouble with the concept of historical guilt as some of the people posting here, the world wouldn't be very impressed.
posted by Mocata at 5:42 AM on July 7, 2000

What I object to, first and foremost, is this misguided, subtextual belief that an apology is going to change anything.

In the face of something so overwhelming as the slave trade, the Holocaust, and other atrocities - I find the very idea of apology to be a mockery.

Apologies should be done with a heavy, regretful heart. Any apology that would be issued by the government would be a political act, a way to silence the argument once and for all.

If you truly desire such an insincere and useless response to the horrors of slavery, then I feel very sorry for you, indeed.
posted by gsh at 7:32 AM on July 7, 2000

Speaking of mockery-- how about expressions of pity deployed as a rhetorical device? "If you disagree with me, I feel sorry for you." What's expressed by that isn't sorrow, it's contempt. Talk about insincerity.
posted by wiremommy at 9:37 AM on July 7, 2000

I think Mocata has brought up a good point. I find it very disturbing that Germany, France, and other places continue to have difficulties coming to terms with the Nazi past -- for instance, expressing the view that Schindler's List was offensive in that it appeared that Americans were lecturing Germans on moral behavior, when we have such a sorry record ourselves. (Incidentally, I'm ethnic German.) But this blithely ignores all the Hollywood films that have dealt with slavery or the slow genocide of Native Americans -- and more important, misses the point that such stories are for all of us, to keep us cognizant of the worst that humans can do. We must not forget. We must not bury the past.

Whenever I hear someone say that an apology, or reparations, or just a plain history lesson, is superfluous, I have to ask what they are threatened by? For myself, as a German-American whose ancestors came here in the 19th century, I feel no personal responsibility for the Holocaust. But I do feel shame for my ethnic heritage. And as a white American citizen whose ancestors held no slaves but instead fought for the Union, I feel no personal responsibility for slavery. But I do feel an institutional shame. This democracy is horribly imperfect and slavery is a stain on our otherwise proud history that can never be erased. How can I be proud of either my bloodline or my government with such a history?

To remove all the richly evocative rhetoric of race and hate from this thread, consider for a moment the case of Richard Jewell. He was wrongly identified as the Olympic bomber, questioned by the government, searched and interrogated, and then lambasted in the world media for weeks. In the end he was released, a free man. Was that enough? Or did the authorities who botched the investigation of this man, an authentic hero, owe him an apology too? What about the news media who simply "reported" what "sources" were saying? Jewell is free, not charged with any crime, but permanently scarred by this experience. If I were any part of any of those institutions, even if I'd done nothing myself, I'd feel an overwhelming need to apologize.

And that man was simply harassed by cameras for several weeks. Now replace that experience with the knowledge that your ancestors were kidnapped, chained into the dark bowels of a ship, left to die as a cheap quality filter, stripped naked in a marketplace, prodded, poked, examined, and sold to the highest bidder, then resigned to a lifetime of forced labor and the certain knowledge that their children could expect nothing better. All this done with the institutional support of a government which made the loftiest of false claims, that it represented all men equally.

I, for one, feel nothing but shame. And I ask you: if you DO NOT feel shame when you think of this, what exactly motivates you to change ANYTHING that is wrong?
posted by dhartung at 10:42 AM on July 7, 2000

Apologizing also establishes the terms of argument. If the government apologizes for slavery, it takes responsibility for it. A new discussion can start, with parties agreeing to the premise of governmental blame. We can then debate the next steps in addressing the legacies of slavery--with the power of public pressure of holding the government to its responsibility. Reparations would be a good place to begin. Where did all the wealth go that slaves produced for white families and white businesses? Into bank accounts and property. Where did that wealth stay after slavery was ended? In white bank accounts and property. And that wealth has been handed down to white descendents over just a few generations--by way of inheretence laws. So two ways to address the legacy of slavery might be to give reparations to descendents of slaves and abolish inheretance laws. That handing down of wealth of course it just the tip of the iceberg of white privilege that still exists, including ongoing criminalization of people of color and the assumption of innocence for white people, "affirmative action" that always exists for white people in hiring and housing and business loans, etc. etc. Our government perpetuates the white privilege established during slavery through current laws and practices. We can do something about it, and the government's apologizing would be one significant step.
posted by hcog at 8:24 AM on July 9, 2000

See, I was waiting for that one. I kept saying to myself "Okay, where's the hidden agenda?" Because there always is one.

I personally don't really have a problem with the congress apologizing for slavery. I do wonder if anyone is going to try and get the religious leaders of Islam and Christianity (the two faiths most involved in perpetrating and perpetuating the slave trade) to apologize for it as well. And the African tribes that helped round up and sell their neighbors into slavery, of course. Sure, they should apologize, too. And while we're at it, perhaps we could hold the people of Rome responsible for the Diaspora, and ask them to apologize to the Jews for 2,000 years of exile.

People will say I'm being facetious here, but I'm not. Why not get every group that's ever perpetuated an atrocity to apologize to every group that's been the victims? The Turkish Government could apologize to Armenians. The Chinese government could apologize to Tibet. The government of Australia could apologize to the Aboriginal inhabitants. Ad Infinitum. And then all our inheritance and property laws could be abolished. Sure, that'll fix things.

So in other words, in order to adress this injustice, we'll simply perpetuate another one. My family's farm will be taken away and sold in order to make reperations to the descendants of slaves. Hmm. Sounds fair. How far back are we going? What about the children of the Children's Crusade who were sold into slavery in Ethiopia? Do their descendants get reparations? What about the thralls of Norway, the Helots of Sparta, the bondsmen of the Sung Dynasty?

If you go back far enough, you'd be surprised to find out how many of us have slave ancestors. Some of them quite recently. I can claim descent to Chinese railroad workers, Dineh alcoholics and yes, even a young slave brought out of Georgia in 1859 by an ancestor of mine, who ended up marrying her (the Morgans were that kind of group, at least the ones I'm descended from.) My inheritance, my real inheritance, was that knowledge, that I am a mongrel, born out of the very people that others who look like me protest.

To say that the wealth generated by slavery stayed in "white" bank accounts is to miss the point, I think. After the Civil War, most former slave owners didn't have two pots to piss in, really. The fact is, the Slave Economy failed. Mechanization defeated it. There is no mysterious 'slave wealth.' Slavery was a poor economic system, which is why it got its ass kicked during the war. As Shelby Foote once put it, In fighting the North, I always had the feeling that the Confederacy was fighting a giant with one hand behind his back, and if things had really started to go their way...that other hand would have just come on out. The North won through determination and electoral victory, because the only way the South could win was through a stunning series of military victories or foreign help, and she didn't get enough of either. The Money is gone.

As far as abolishing inheritance laws, do you have family? Do you want to leave them something? I have two half-brothers, and if I die, I want to leave them the little pittance I have. Granted, I'd like it to be tax free, so changing the inheritance laws so that they benefitted me might be nice for me, but somehow I don't see that happening, just like I don't see England apologizing for a thousand years of pissing on the Irish, just like I don't see Japan apologizing for its bacteriological warfare experiments during WWII on American POW's, just like I don't expect an apology for the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the testing on Bikini Atoll that displaced a people and destroyed an environment. I don't expect the US government to apologize to the people of Utah and Nevada who were exposed to massive doses of radiation during the fifties and sixties and seventies, when we tested our Nuclear Arsenal more or less on them. We're not going to apologize to the people we stole the nation from.

Why? Why not apologize when it does no harm, you say? Well, that's a tough one, but ultimately I think it comes down to this. What apology is possible? When does it end? I know that Faulkner said People talk about the dead past. The past isn't dead. It isn't even past. but in some cases, damn it, you have to kill it. Will an apology kill this, or will it merely open the door to hcog's proposals? I don't want to see the assumption of innocence abolished, but extended to everyone. I'd like to know where these special loans for white people are and why I can't get one. Same with this 'affirmative action' for whites, another example that I somehow seem to have missed. I've lived my whole life a dirt eater from a farm in RI, neither rich nor poor, and my ancestors almost all moved to this counrty after 1920. Except for Black Tom Morgan, who was the fella who married a chinese woman...his father came over as an indentured servant in 1840, and Black Tom's son David moved back to Scotland in time for the Boer War, so through them I suppose I at least have a connection to the events of this nation's past.

However, may I present an alternative to a pointless apology? One with a point. I, Matthew Rossi, descendant of those who have profited at the expense of others, apologize to the descendants of those who were exploited. I apologize for slavery. I apologize for the slaughter of the native inhabitants of this continent. I apologize for Christianity's schismatic wars. I think if we were to all look back at our lines of descent, we could all find ancestors who did likewise, even if they were few and far between.

But as for the rest...no. I don't support the widespread dismantling of inheritances, sorry. I may not get much, but what I get, I want. Without the ability to inherit, I wouldn't even have a house to have grown up in.
posted by Ezrael at 4:27 AM on July 13, 2000

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