No More Apologies for Slavery, Please
Two weeks ago, I received an apology I wasn’t expecting. To be completely honest, it was one I never even wanted.
“I’m sorry for what my ancestors did to your ancestors,” the man facing me said.
I’ve heard a lot of lines in my time, but that was one I never thought I’d hear outside of a “queer” café/bar in Prague… from a black man. I assumed he was referring not to what happened on the plantations of the old U.S. South but to what went down before my forefathers arrived in the Americas. (My ancestors were likely slaves on the Caribbean islands, not the U.S. mainland.)
He was offering sincere regrets on behalf of the Africans who acted as proprietors in the slave trade during the 15th to 19th centuries. In selling their fellow Africans to Europeans and American colonists, they were as complicit as their white European and American customers in centuries of brutal servitude and the racism that rode its coattails into the present day.
I lived in the United States for my first 37 years, and I can’t recall a white person ever apologizing to me for the sins of their ancestors, not that I needed any of them to do so. But when the man from Ghana approached me outside of Patra, where I was visiting the bartender before the early evening crowd made their mass descent, it got me thinking about all of the apologies I never received and never wanted back home.
And that was before the Ghanaian turned to my Czech friend (the aforementioned bartender) and declared white Europeans the most corrupt people on earth for their history of land-grabbing colonialism, usually at the expense of darker-skinned natives.
Past acts of political and military aggression by European nations in faraway lands is a subject I hadn’t thought to broach while traveling around the continent these past 14 months, but I’d had the sins-of-your-forefathers conversation before. I’ve heard white American try to excuse their forefathers for their crimes against black Americans because, as some have pointed out, black Americans owned slaves, too, or because the U.S. government abolished slavery 153 years ago.
Recently, after a latest incident of a white cop shooting an unarmed black man incited public outrage, a former middle school and high school classmate reacted on Facebook with a post that read: I don’t know any black people who have ever been slaves. And I don’t know any white people who have ever owned slaves. Can we just get over the past?
Although I usually avoid responding to such clichéd Republicanism on Facebook, I rebuked her in the comments: If you think today’s racial tension is all about slavery, then you haven’t learned a thing since high school. In echoing the sentiment expressed by Rodney King in 1992 to quell black rage after three of the cops caught beating him on video were acquitted (“Can we all get along?”), my ex-classmate completely missed the point and veered way off the plot.
If you think today’s racial tension is all about slavery, then you haven’t learned a thing since high school.
Black rage today isn’t just about slavery. It’s also about what happened afterwards and what’s still happening. The United States got off to a terrible start when it comes to race, with multitudes of blacks in chains, counted as three-fifths of a person in The Constitution. But the U.S.’s legacy of racism isn’t confined to the 89 years before the Civil War ended in 1865.
In fact, America’s black and white problem didn’t really explode until after the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments made black men the equals of white men in the eyes of the government. During the slavery era, to be black in America meant being regarded as human property, or being free but exempt from “All men are created equal.” As long as whites could keep blacks in their place (on the plantation and on the lowest rungs of the social ladder), they posed no threat to the racial status quo.
The Civil War, however, upset the balance of power, and the fall of the Confederacy fueled racial unrest to unprecedented proportions, beginning with the murder of the 16th President by a white-supremacist actor. The fighting may have ended, but blacks continued to struggle under white oppression, most infamously via Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan, for the next century and beyond.
The failure of Reconstruction
If Reconstruction hadn’t been dropped before it had a chance to be effective, if the U.S. had made a more diligent effort to integrate blacks into society and make them eligible for the American Dream a century before Civil Rights, we might be enjoying considerable racial harmony today. The failure of Reconstruction played as much of a role as slavery, if not a bigger one, in establishing the racial dynamic that still haunts the U.S.
The United States government didn’t formally apologize for slavery and Jim Crow until 2008, via The House of Representatives. It was belated as hell, coming nearly a century and a half after the abolition of slavery and 20 years after President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which issued an apology and $20,000 to every Japanese-American imprisoned in internment camps during World War II. (The Senate apologized for slavery and Jim Crow one year after the House did, but the Execute Branch has yet to do so officially.)
Sincere as the Legislative Branch’s moves may have been (even without a penny going to still-living blacks who suffered under Jim Crow), what difference did they make? In the decade since, race relations have become dramatically more strained. The House and the Senate could have saved their apologies and devoted their efforts to more consequential stuff for black Americans.
I don’t expect or want “I’m sorry” from whites outside of government either. I love my white friends, and they’ve never had to answer to me for the actions of earlier generations. They prove their value by listening to me, by trying to understand my frustration as a black man and learn from it rather than attempting to stifle it with inane Facebook posts and blame-shifting to absolve white guilt.
I pray that someday we’ll enjoy the racial harmony in the U.S. that we were cheated out of after Abraham Lincoln’s death, but “I’m sorry” won’t change our history. Despite attempts by some to rewrite it with blacks as villains, our past is a done deal. There’s no massaging culpability. The hands on the whip were usually white, and so were the ones that tied the noose. Getting away with murder was an art form perfected by white Americans.
After more than 200 failed tries over the last 100 years, the U.S. only passed its first anti-lynching bill this month, finally making it a federal offense. What took them so long to recognize the hanging of blacks for being black as the “hate crime” that it’s always been? In 2005, the Senate apologized for failing repeatedly to pass anti-lynching legislation but still neglected to take the obvious next step, proving the pointlessness of “I’m sorry” without actions to back it up.
The bill is little more than a symbolic gesture at this point. It won’t end police brutality against black people. It doesn’t mean blacks will no longer be mistaken for intruders in their own apartment buildings, or in their own homes, possibly being shot to death by white cops for trespassing in their own kitchens?
Blacks haven’t always been good to each other. Even today, we can be our own worst enemy — but not when the hand on the trigger is white. And too often, it still is.