Saturday, July 12, 2003

Where's the apology?

Rather than a empty diatribe against the evils of slavery, what would an apology from George Bush have meant last week? Derrick Jackson of the Boston Globe has an answer:

An apology would be the start of a new America. Anyone can acknowledge that evil existed. An apology is personal. If a white president of the United States were to apologize for slavery, it would say that the nation officially recognizes that white wealth before the Civil War came from what this nation did to black people (and Native Americans in the process).

It would officially recognize that European-Americans, whether they come from a long line of American citizens or whether their parents came over dirt poor from Europe in the 20th century, continue to benefit from a white privilege that allowed them to move up the ladder into the suburbs. Meanwhile, slavery's replacement, segregation, blocked generations of African-Americans from building up wealth because of redlining, intellectual capital through inferior public schools, and political capital through disenfranchisement.

As Bush came amazingly close to saying - perhaps because he said it from the safety of his safari and not in front of racist Bob Jones University in the 2000 campaign or while filing a Supreme Court brief against affirmative action - racial bigotry is not over. Because of that, an apology would mark the official end to the I-didn't-own-any-slaves denial of this country. An apology would say not only yesterday's wealth, but today's wealth, was built on yesterday's evil.

An apology would acknowledge that slavery's damage still requires repair. To some people, the repair would be cash reparations to black people. Some call it fully funded public schools. Some call it affirmative action. Some call it serious enforcement of antidiscrimination laws. Whatever form the repair takes, the president needs to deliver his message in America, not just Africa, to Americans, not just Africans.

Calling slavery evil is as old as the Founding Fathers. It would be original to tell America that the white privileges bestowed by the tragic mistake of the Founding Fathers are over. The reason one of the greatest crimes in history has not yet resulted in a great apology is because the reward for the crime remains too great.