Arrow-right Camera


Doing Right Thing Still Controversial

The curious thing is that supporters and opponents agree. They both say the proposed national apology for slavery adds up to nothing.

Mere “symbolism,” is how House Speaker Newt Gingrich sees it. Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, who authored the bill, conceded as much the other night on “Nightline.”

Both sides are right, of course. What would the proposed apology do to rescue a black teen from unemployment, save a black family trapped in a housing project, assure a black lawyer that he’ll never again be taken for a valet, open a segregated neighborhood or close a crack house?


Yet, seldom has “nothing” caused such clamor. For instance, black conservative columnist Thomas Sowell recently penned a bizarre essay in which he argued that because slavery was a worldwide phenomenon and because a small fraction of black freemen owned black slaves, the notion of the nation apologizing for its part in the odious practice is absurd.

I’m at a loss to understand how what happened in Europe or Asia matters here. As for the freemen, many things could be said. But perhaps it’s enough to note that the apology in question is not from whites to blacks, but from Congress - on behalf of the nation - to the descendants of black slaves. So the question of who owned slaves is academic.

As for Gingrich, he’s right. The whole thing is symbolic. So is the Statue of Liberty. Since when is symbolism - particularly noble symbolism - a bad thing?

Not that white men and pundits are the only ones skeptical of the apology bill. Some black lawmakers are cool toward it as well, considering it a waste of precious political capital. They fear a post-apology scenario in which whites declare race matters resolved and become unreceptive to substantive measures to improve the lot of blacks.

I’m still trying to figure out how, exactly, that scenario differs from the one we already face.

Between the pundit and the pols, it’s hard to remember when “nothing” has had so many arguments aligned against it. In fact, the proposed apology has but one argument in its favor: It’s the right thing to do.

Hall has said that was his reasoning when he drafted the bill. He certainly never expected the furor it’s raised. He thought the issue rather simple.

Why shouldn’t he? The facts, after all, are cut and dried: This country countenanced and supported the importation and perpetual subjugation of millions of unoffending Africans and has never officially expressed its regret. Never even offered an explicit acknowledgment that the act was wrong.

The omission is glaring, Hall proposed to fix it. Instant controversy. Small wonder.

Because while an apology ends no discrimination, cleans up no ghetto and eases no unemployment, it does acknowledge that these ills did not rise by accident. It moves us off the dime by finally admitting self-evident truth: The nation bears complicity in the pain of its black children. It’s a simple truth from which many are in full flight. Yet, no matter what theory you embrace to explain black America’s woes, you cannot maneuver around the undeniable fact that they started with slavery.

Without slavery - and the racism that made it possible - no ghettos, no gangstas, no disproportionate poverty, no high crime rate, no big disparity in academic achievement. Without slavery, freedom.

Some white people get upset at me when I say that. “Get over it,” they say. “It happened a long time ago.”

As if the benefits from America’s great crime do not still accrue to whites just as surely as its debits cling to blacks. It stuns me that there are still people naive, self-deluding or flat-out racist enough to think the past does not touch the present and shape the future. That black Americans got this way by some cosmic happenstance in which the rest of the nation stands blameless.

Now, a white man from Ohio thinks it time the United States accepted its blame and expressed its regret, a simple honorable act that costs no one anything, yet has everyone in an uproar. And lays our hypocrisies bare.

If it’s nothing, what is all the shouting about?

Click here to comment on this story »