Should States Apologize for Slavery?

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National Archives / Time Life / Getty

Rear view of former slave revealing scars on his back from savage whipping, in photo taken after he escaped to become Union soldier during Civil War.

On Monday Maryland became only the second state after Virginia to officially seek atonement for slavery. The state's House of Delegates approved a measure, already passed by the senate and not requiring the governor's signature, expressing "profound regret for the role that Maryland played in instituting and maintaining slavery and for the discrimination that was slavery's legacy."

While the apology for slavery has been grabbing all the headlines, it's the regret for the legacy of slavery that really matters.

Many non-blacks assert that they shouldn't apologize for something they didn't do. There is logic to that thinking: if you didn't own slaves or enable others to own slaves, you aren't culpable. But the U.S. didn't do a very good job of converting its former slaves to full-fledged citizens. Slavery gave way to Jim Crow, lynchings, poll taxes, redlining and educational and job discrimination. Although illegal now, these 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 closing to catching up.

No wonder black people were so appalled when Frank Hargrove, a Virginia legislator who is white, said last month "black citizens should get over" slavery. That notion invalidates the black reality. It essentially says: The discrimination you feel and I benefit from is an illusion — or at least has no historical context.

Ultimately, Hargrove voted for Virginia's apology measure, which was passed in February and acknowledges that abolition was followed by "insidious institutions and practices toward Americans of African descent that were rooted in racism, racial bias and racial misunderstanding." Put more simply, the Maryland resolution seems to imply that discrimination against blacks hurts everyone: "Slavery's legacy has afflicted the citizens of our state down to the present."

These aren't easy things to talk about. It's one thing to say that slavery, so long ago, was wrong; quite another to discuss our complicity in its lingering effects. That's why Delegate Michael L. Vaughn, who sponsored the Maryland House measure, says the apology isn't about reparations but opening a dialogue to bridge the racial divide. "Slavery has had a negative effect on relationships between people of color and non-color to this day," Vaughn, who is black, told me. "When we talk about matters of race, people are uncomfortable. I don't think this resolution is the be-all, end-all, but it gets people talking."

Legislators in a handful of states including Missouri and Georgia are considering their own expressions of regret for slavery, and Rep. Stephen I. Cohen, a white Tennessean, just introduced a resolution for a national apology in the U.S. House that reads, in part, "African-Americans continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow — long after both systems were formally abolished — through enormous damage and loss, both tangible and intangible, including the loss of human dignity and liberty, the frustration of careers and professional lives, and the long-term loss of income and opportunity."

Obviously, not everyone is convinced that the apology is necessary. Maryland Delegate Patrick L. McDonough said he voted against the resolution not only because his ancestors were in Ireland during the time of U.S. slavery, but also because he feels such a stance amounts to meaningless symbolism. "I don't think apologies solve anything," the Baltimore Sun reported McDonough saying. "They're just feel-good superficial measures."

But sometimes feel-good does good. "The first step in healing is to apologize," Vaughn says. "For a young person who is knowledgeable of the effects slavery has had on him and his country — for any of us who have felt discriminated against because of this legacy — you do have a small sense of relief when you hear an apology."