Congress' slavery apology draws mixed reactions

Tuesday the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution apologizing to African-Americans for the "fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity" of slavery and Jim Crow segregation laws. The apology has drawn mixed reactions across the country.

Since it was the first time that the federal government has publicly and formally apologized for the hundreds of years of human rights injustices against African-Americans, many people like Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, praised it as a milestone in "our nation's efforts to remedy the ills of our past." Others saw it as "too little too late." While others criticized it as a ploy by Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen, who introduced the resolution, to garner black votes in his reelection bid. Rep. Cohen is the only white lawmaker to represent a majority black district and he faces a formidable black challenger in the Memphis primary face-off next week, reports the Associated Press.

Here is a sampling of reactions:

UK Guardian columnist Lola Adesioye argues that while this long-overdue apology is an important step, it does not go far enough. She says that without real programs to help African-Americans, Congress' apology for slavery and Jim Crow is an empty gesture, explaining:

While the resolution expresses a commitment "to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow and to stop the occurrence of human rights violations in the future" it does not set out when, how and in what form this will take place.

Keith Josef Adkins over at The Root, had these words for black Americans:

I'm not a singing victim, or ungrateful cynic. I'm just not convinced that a Federal apology has any weight. I'm certainly interested in how they're going to "rectify...", but in the end the real work must happen at home. We must tell our own stories, retell our own histories, honestly and courageously. We must challenge ourselves and attempt to end the intra-dismissiveness and emotional abuse. We must advocate for stronger policy to correct education and garner stronger leadership.

A columnist in a local Tennessee daily, The Paris Post-Intelligencer, asked:

Is [an apology] enough to atone for centuries of shame? Of course not. The scales can never be balanced, because we can't change history. The best we can do is to work to stamp out vestiges of unequal treatment under the law...the best atonement for centuries of injustice is centuries of justice. That's the task before us.

Over at New America Media, columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson argues that the United States has yet to shake its legacy of slavery and points out:

The resolutions the states and Congress passed were mild, innocuous, and ultimately toothless. In truth that's all they were supposed to be. But the House resolution was still important. It was tacit acknowledgement of something that the slavery apology opponents vehemently deny and that is that slavery was not just the evil doings of greedy Southern planters.

Five states have issued apologies for slavery, but past proposals in Congress have stalled, partly over concerns that an apology would lead to demands for reparations. While Cohen's resolution does not mention reparations, it commits the House to rectifying "the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow" since African-Americans today continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow laws that fostered discrimination and segregation.

Some people hope that the resolution can open the door to a serious dialogue on reparations. According to a 2005 survey, 89% of African-Americans believe the government should provide slavery reparations. Syracuse University professor Boyce Watkins told

When you admit to guilt, the next thing people say is, 'what are you going to do to make it right? If you admit something was stolen, you have to give something back. It opens the door for additional conversation about reparations.

The U.S. House deserves credit for taking this step, but the proof is in the potato salad. If you don't follow the apology with action, talk is cheap. Talk is less expensive than reparations.

Congressman John Conyers has reintroduced his reparations resolution every year since 1989. His resolution argues for the establishment of a commission to study the impact of slavery and the feasibility of paying reparations to blacks. But most agree the resolution has little chance. As Hutchinson underscores:

The Conyers' bill will likely continue to be stillborn in Congress. Reparations is simply too risky, divisive, and distracting for Congress to seriously consider. Both presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain oppose reparations.

The brutal truth is that a mainstay of America's continuing racial divide is its harsh and continuing mistreatment of poor blacks. This can be directly traced to the persistent and pernicious legacy of slavery. The House's symbolic apology was a good thing, but it's just not enough.