Skip Navigation

Apologizing for Slavery: Part 1

April 1, 2005
By Carol M. Swain

In a few years, the Smithsonian Institution will include a National Museum of African American History and Culture devoted exclusively to documenting the “life, art, history, and culture” of black people in America.

gavel and book

In a few years, the Smithsonian Institution will include a National Museum of African American History and Culture devoted exclusively to documenting the “life, art, history, and culture” of black people in America. Spearheaded by Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), the legislation authorizing the creation and funding of the museum garnered the endorsements of a bipartisan group of 54 cosponsors.

Individuals such as Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) have dreamed of such a museum for more than a decade. This monumental act by a majority Republican Senate represents a significant step forward in the black struggle for recognition.

Unlike discussions of a national apology for slavery and any mention of reparations for slavery, the proposed National Museum has not yet encountered the kind of sustained opposition that would doom the project. The major debate in the House of Representatives has been over whether the Museum should be placed on the National Mall with the other Smithsonian Museums or in a nearby location.

The Black Museum represents a small portion of a much larger political and social agenda. In addition to the Museum, Brownback--who is a devout Christian--would also like to see a national apology for slavery and the establishment of a temporary committee to study race relations. The committee would be charged with identifying the source of continuing economic and educational disparities between blacks and other groups.


Reparations for Slavery

Its recommendations could include the payment of monetary reparations for slavery. That is a goal of Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Michigan). Since 1988, he has introduced H.R. 40 in every Congress, with its number “40" symbolic of the failure of the nation to give the newly emancipated slaves “forty acres and a mule.”

Proponents of slave reparations argue that all white Americans have derived benefits from their whiteness and from wealth that slave labor brought to the nation. According to University of Houston Professor Steven Mintz, “a majority of the 650 workers who built the White House and the U.S. Capitol were enslaved African Americans. Slave-grown cotton constituted 75 percent of the value of the nation’s exports in the decades before the Civil War, and paid for the capital that financed canals, railroads, and textile factories.”

Mintz argues that the vestiges of slavery are substandard education and housing, employment discrimination, racial profiling, and economic inequalities. Other scholars have made similar connections. In Black Wealth, White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality, sociologists Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro document the role that the federal government’s discriminatory policies have played in accentuating and perpetuating racial disparities through its lending policies, housing programs, and its initial eligibility requirements for Social Security.

Proponents of slave reparations argue that white America’s oppression of blacks continued long after emancipation and it did not officially end until after the passage of three major civil rights bills during the 1960s: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Open Housing Act of 1968.

New life was breathed into the reparations debate in 2001 when Randall Robinson’s book, The Debt: What America Owes Blacks, was released. It reenergized the debate and spurred the filing of lawsuits on behalf of African Americans seeking compensation from governments and corporations loosely tied to the slave trade.

Whenever the issue of an apology for slavery or monetary reparations for slavery is raised, it is not uncommon for people to respond with vehemence towards both proposals. In fact, Senator Brownback was widely criticized when he first raised these issues as one means of improving the moribund relationship between blacks and Republicans.


Objections to Apology

The objections to an apology for slavery and the payment for reparations can take many forms. David Horowitz, president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture and author of Uncivil Wars: The Controversy Over Slave Reparation, has argued vehemently against the government making any additional overtures towards blacks.

In an e-mail communication with me, he argued that blacks have benefited from over 50 years of special attention from government and that they have failed to express any measurable gratitude to whites for the fact that they are “richer and freer” than blacks anywhere else in the world. To support the claim that reparations have already been paid to blacks, Horowitz cites welfare, affirmative action, and other social programs as the evidence. Horowitz argues that even a conciliatory gesture--an apology to blacks, Mexicans, and American Indians, the “politically correct” victimized groups--would be a colossal mistake because other groups have been harmed as well by governmental actions, including the Jews, the Irish, and the Catholics.

Robert W. Tracinski of the Ayn Rand Institute delineates some of the more common arguments against an apology for slavery. Tracinski argues that “an apology for slavery on behalf of the nation presumes that whites today, who predominantly oppose racism, and never owned slaves, and who bear no personal responsibility for slavery, still bear a collective responsibility--a guilt they bear simply by belonging to the same race as the slave-holders of the Old South.

“Such an apology promotes the very idea at the root of slavery: racial collectivism,” continues Tracinski. “The only justification for such an approach is the idea that each member of the race can be blamed for the actions of every other member, that we are all just interchangeable cells of the racial collective.” Americans whose ancestors arrived after slavery had ended or whose relatives fought on the side of the Union army often share Tracinski’s position.

It is clear that many white Americans see a history of well-meaning and often-misguided governmental efforts to improve the lives of racial and ethnic minorities. Perhaps as a consequence, whenever the idea of an apology is raised it, like reparations, often meets with strong opposition and much skepticism.

When I first raised the notion of a national apology to blacks, Mexican Americans, and American Indians, some welcomed the idea, while others like David Horowitz responded with much disdain and horror. “The idea that an apology takes away the ‘excuse’ for black leaders to do what they do is absurd,” he argued.

“Jesse Jackson is not a racial extortionist because white people haven’t apologized for racism and slavery (in fact, they have--over and over again),” Horowitz said. “He’s a racial extortionist because it made him a millionaire and this proposal would just feed his appetite.”

An angry white woman wrote to me: “Why should we apologize for something we did not do? We are innocent and the black leaders need to get out of the past, drop the baggage and walk away and stop causing race problems.”

Notwithstanding all of these strong objections, I believe that a national apology for slavery offers many benefits for the nation and that it is the next logical step for promoting racial justice and reconciliation. A national apology need not place any blame on individual whites. Nor should it be avoided because of what traditional black leaders might say and do.

Ecclesiastes 3:1 states, “to every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Perhaps, this is the season for an apology.

Next issue: the power of apology


Carol M. Swain (swaincm@princeton.edu) is professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University Law School and founding director of the Veritas Institute for racial justice and reconciliation. She and New Coalition President Lee Walker served together on a Philadelphia Society panel in August 2004 addressing “Black History and Conservative Principles.”

Article Tags
Law