Politics & Government

Congress' apology for slavery just proves it's hard to say sorry


WASHINGTON — Lawmakers here are learning the hard way that trying to apologize for historic injustices isn't as easy as saying "I'm sorry."

The Senate found that out two weeks ago when it passed a resolution calling on the U.S. to apologize formally for more than three centuries of enslavement and segregation of African-Americans.

Senators thought they'd done the right thing. The feel-good moment was short-lived, however, after several members of the Congressional Black Caucus vowed to fight the measure when it reached the House of Representatives. They object because it contains a disclaimer saying that the resolution can't be used to support legal claims against the U.S. by those seeking reparations, or cash compensation for the suffering endured by blacks.

So instead of an elaborate July 7 signing ceremony in the stately Capitol Rotunda with Senate and House leaders delivering an apology, lawmakers are struggling to find common ground that would soothe Black Caucus members while satisfying senators that the nation is sufficiently protected against lawsuits.

"Apologies are never easy," said Melissa Nobles, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political science professor and author of "The Politics of Official Apologies." "These things are always hard-fought, never mind the political stuff, the implications of what they mean down the line, and who's sponsoring the resolution."

The slavery apology resolution is one in a long line of recent measures written by Senate and House members seeking to acknowledge the government's role in some of the most painful episodes in U.S. history.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., introduced companion bills last month calling for the placement of a marker in the Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall to acknowledge that the Capitol was built on the backs of slave labor.

The House and Senate also recently passed bills to award the Women's Airforce Service Pilots the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor. The women were civilian pilots employed to fly military aircraft during World War II by the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Though they were flying military missions and aircraft, the female pilots were denied full military status and benefits, and their records sealed and classified for more than 30 years.

They will join the World War II-era Tuskegee Airmen as gold medal recipients. Surviving members of that barrier-breaking African-American flying squadron received their medals from former President George W. Bush in 2007.

The moves to honor those discriminated against while in service to their country reflects generational change and a desire to honor these group members while some are still alive, Nobles said.

Apologies by governments for long-standing, deep-seated grievances, however, are a tougher proposition, scholars say.

"Politically, you have issues of who's the best person to make the apologies, to whom?" said Brian Weiner, a University of San Francisco politics professor and author of "Sins of the Parents: The Politics of National Apologies in the United States."

"What's really key is some sense of sincerity. Part of the sincerity — with lovers and friends — you can see face-to-face. But in the political realm, how can you test the sincerity of the U.S. government? In that case, it usually comes to money, and that's a problem politically."

The issue of reparations has been divisive and one that's a non-starter for many politicians, including President Barack Obama.

A 2002 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll found that nine out of 10 whites opposed reparations payments to descendants of slaves, while more than half of African-Americans supported such payments.

Former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., addressing Native American leaders last year, suggested that fear of reparations contributed to the demise of congressional resolutions in 2008 that called on the government to apologize to tribal governments and Native Americans nationwide.

The word "reparations" doesn't appear in the Senate's slavery apology resolution. Senate aides, however, said the disclaimer was added to satisfy senators who worried that the resolution could open the door to claims against the nation. The resolution wouldn't have passed without the disclaimer, the aides say.

Supporters of a slavery apology insist that the disclaimer, in a resolution that doesn't have the force of law, wouldn't bar slave descendants from seeking reparations.

Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, said the venerable civil rights group has no problem with the resolution and the disclaimer. The group is looking forward to some sort of ceremony during a historically significant year for blacks that includes the NAACP's 100th anniversary, the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and year one of the nation's first African-American president.

"It opens up a discussion, an opportunity for Americans to start a healing process," Shelton said. "There are those who would like to see us move quickly in the House and have a ceremony."

However, he quickly added that concerned Black Caucus members should take their time if they "need a moment" to thoroughly study the resolution before making a decision whether or not to try and block it.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said he's done that.

"Respectfully, all of us are members of the NAACP, probably," Thompson said of the Black Caucus membership. "But the vote is vested with us, members of Congress. If they bring the resolution up and it still reads as it does, I'm going to vote against it."

MIT's Nobles thinks that the worries of some African-American lawmakers might yield to the significance of the moment and the impact of Obama's election.

"The country may now be able to look back at its history honestly," she said. "We can look back and say we've overcome things. We have a triumphant ending to the story instead of a painful one."


The poll surveyed 1,001 adults — 820 of them white and 146 black — February 8-10, 2002. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 9 percentage points for black respondents and plus or minus 4 percent points for white respondents. The percentages differ because of the difference in the number of people surveyed.


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