Between January 2007 and March 2008, six state legislatures passed resolutions of apology for their states’ involvement in America’s original sin of slavery. Five were Southern— Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Alabama, and Florida. The sixth was New Jersey.
Why have these apologies come so late? For the five Southern states, the resolutions came only after the election of significant numbers of African Americans to state legislatures. In Alabama, for example, at the time of the 1965 Selma civil rights marches, there was not a single African American in the state assembly. Thanks in part to that year’s voting rights bill, by 2007 African Americans made up 25 percent of the body’s membership.
Some of the apologies’ key words—regret, contrition, acknowledgment, repentance, apology, reconciliation, healing—are central to Christian traditions. No serious Christian can doubt that sin has to be confessed to be forgiven. Legislatures need to confess that their predecessors put the seal of legality on slavery.
But an apology is only one element of healing in any fractured human relationship. The collective sin of slavery cries out for signals of collective repentance. As Maryland State Sen. Nathaniel Exum put it, “Once we have come to that recognition [of slavery], maybe we will also recognize steps we need to do to get rid of the lingering effects of it on the people.” In saying that, he was contradicting the often-made argument that an apology does not, in the explicit words of the Virginia resolution, “justify the imposition of new benefits or burdens”—that is, monetary reparations.
Getting rid of slavery’s “lingering effects” is a matter many whites in America prefer to overlook. As one opponent of the Alabama resolution put it, “It’s time to move forward.” Yes, but not so fast: The chains of America’s racist past still rattle in the lives of many descendants of those slaves.
To apologize for a wrong entails some obligation to seek repair of its effects. Over the past century, America has done some repairing. The country has in many ways finally become serious about civil rights, and has offered episodic government remedies of past job and educational discrimination. Affirmative action has been an active form of reparation, touching the realities of unequal opportunity.
But there is much left to repair. Consider the challenge of enabling young black men to graduate from high school and to enter college in proportions equivalent to that of whites. That alone could be an important focus of reparations.
At the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. identified poverty, along with war, as the great unaddressed example of injustice in America. Not by coincidence, he noted, were young African Americans getting drafted to fight in Vietnam in numbers twice the proportion of blacks in the national population. As “employment opportunity” for the poor, war is a bad deal. Much better would be a program of public works, job training, and education for that most neglected category of residents in our urban areas: the half of young black men who do not finish high school.
Of the 1.5 million U.S. citizens in state and federal prison—a scandalously high number—about 38 percent are African Americans, most of them young. One in nine black males between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, compared to one in 30 for the general population. Start putting as much money into education, medical care, and recovery from drug addiction as we put into building new prisons, and many of the lingering effects of our racist past might be tangibly addressed.
Perhaps the example of the states’ apologies for slavery may encourage the U.S. Congress to follow suit. There, Rep. John Conyers’ resolution H.R. 40—so numbered in memory of that body’s failure to deliver “forty acres and a mule” to emancipated slaves—has been stuck in committee for almost 20 years. The resolution calls for a commission to study slavery and subsequent racial and economic discrimination against freed slaves, as well as the impact on African Americans today and possible remedies. Conyer’s proposal is modeled on the commission Congress set up in 1980 to study the injustices done to Japanese Americans in the infamous internment camps during World War II. Eventually, each camp survivor was awarded $20,000.
Like Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, Conyers wants the question of reparations to be discussed and thought about among Americans—all of them. Public apology may be the beginning of telling the story and repairing the damage, but it should not be the end.
Donald W. Shriver Jr. is president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in New York.