That is a logical question as state legislatures across the country weigh resolutions apologizing for their states’ role in perpetuating slavery, abolished in the United States 140 years ago. Maryland’s General Assembly, voting March 26, became only the second state after Virginia to officially express “profound regret for Maryland’s role in instituting and maintaining slavery.”
Now Georgia, Delaware, New York, Missouri, Massachusetts and Vermont are considering similar measures. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) has introduced a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives. Atonement for slavery has been a theme in Great Britain’s celebration this month of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.
Some argue that these apologies pre-empt actions such as reparations by the federal government for the unpaid labor of millions of slaves that generated capital to make the U.S. a world economic powerhouse today.
But we agree with Edward DuBose, president of the Georgia NAACP: “How can you understand the disparity around us without understanding the reasons for it?” After an apology, he said, “the next logical step could be reparations for slave descendants.” The apology does not close the door on an “inconvenient truth.” It opens up the issue of how best to make whole an entire people who continue to suffer the lash of the racist whip.
In an article on the apology movement, Time magazine reminds us that “slavery gave way to Jim Crow, lynchings, poll taxes, redlining and education and job discrimination. Although illegal now, those tools perpetuated a racial hierarchy that affects every American today no matter how subtly. Just compare any rates of achievement, poverty, imprisonment by race; Blacks are nowhere close to catching up.”
We would add that the reason it is so difficult to eradicate racism and discrimination is that, under our capitalist system, it is a source of hundreds of billions in corporate superprofits every year. Hopefully, the debate over apologies for slavery will shine a spotlight on deeply institutionalized racist discrimination and the need for radical measures to end that oppression.