Expiating America’s ‘Original Sin’

The case for a national apology for slavery.

Daniel Lucich Mark Medish
20 August 2019, 11.56am
Pixabay/orythys. Pixabay licence.

The raging national debate over reparations for slavery and its aftermath is proof of Faulkner’s insight that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It has been a hot topic among 2020 presidential candidates. Some, like Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), have supported payments, while others, like South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have reserved on the issue of cash transfers while advocating steps to address persistent racial inequities.

The debate also touches a deeper truth about contrition, rooted in religious and moral traditions. According to the Bible, “whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”

The fact that the debate is intensifying, not waning, 154 years after the Civil War ended is a sign of moral turbulence that must be addressed. There seems to be a twinge of conscience that troubles us even with the passing of time.

Congress has repeatedly raised but not definitively answered the question. The House and the Senate in 2008 and 2009, respectively, passed resolutions apologizing for slavery but the two bills were not reconciled and failed to pass jointly.

From 1989 to his retirement in 2017, prominent African-American congressmen John Conyers (D-MI) put forward a bigger bill to address America’s “original sin.” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) introduced the same bill in the current Congress. It is noteworthy that, while these legislative proposals focus on reparations, they start with calls for a formal national apology.

While reparations have garnered all of the attention, it is appropriate to consider a different first step and explore the redemptive merits of an apology before even trying to address the economic dimension and possible modes of reparation. Indeed, competing calculations of reparations range widely from an apparently serious estimate of zero to six trillion to over 14 trillion dollars, depending on legal and economic theories. People should be open to a principled discussion of reparations, but the question of an apology stands on its own and should come first.

Apologizing is not necessarily about making the wronged party feel better or whole. First and foremost, it is an act of self-correction – the apologizer is declaring that in spite of what was done, they are not now that type of person – or nation – they are better than that. In the Catholic tradition, for example, this genuine contrition is a necessary precursor to reconciliation with God. This idea of expiation is not only a religious tenet but a psychological truth.

Because slavery was a state-sanctioned institution – written into Article 1 of the US Constitution – it makes sense that the federal government should be held to account. The US has acknowledged the injustice in a variety of ways – waging a civil war, emancipating slaves, amending the constitution and enacting statutes to provide citizenship, equal protection, civil rights – however we as a nation have never apologized. This is a deep moral failing, only compounded with the passage of decades.

The point is made more acute by the fact that the US has rightly apologized to other wronged groups of fellow Americans. For example, the Japanese internees, the Hawaiians, Native Americans, and the Tuskegee syphilis study victims. The principle that unites these cases is that the federal government engaged in fundamentally dehumanizing behavior toward a group of people in the name of the United States. In 1860, there were over 3.9 million slaves in a population of 31 million. If any national bad deed deserves an apology, the scale of this atrocity puts it far above any other event.

President Clinton described the importance of official apology in 1997 when he spoke to the Tuskegee victims: “The United States government did something that was wrong – deeply, profoundly, morally wrong….It is not only in remembering that shameful past that we can make amends and repair our nation, but it is in remembering that past that we can build a better present and a better future.”

Other countries have made historic apologies to wronged domestic groups. A good example was set in Australia in 2008 when then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized in parliament for what was done to the indigenous people of his country. Countries in Africa too, perhaps most notably Ghana and Benin, have apologized for their roles in the slave trade.

Religious congregations have also taken important steps. The Episcopalian Church formally apologized in 2008 for the “sin and fundamental betrayal of humanity” of slavery. As an Executive Committee member of the Church put it, “the Church needs to confront its past in order to change its future.” It was also in this spirit of apology for “corporate sin” that Georgetown University, a Jesuit-affiliated institution, decided in 2017 to apologize for its role in the slave trade.

Nine of the 18 states with slave populations prior to the Civil War have issued official apologies. Some of the largest slave-holding states have still not done so. Among the holdouts are Mississippi, which only ratified the 13th amendment ending slavery in 1995, fully 130 years after the end of the Civil War, and Kentucky, which ratified the 13th Amendment in 1976 and is also the home of the Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, who has recently been in the press for his slave-holding ancestry.

Now, many of the victims and descendants will deem a belated official apology sorely inadequate. Mere empty words. That is up to them as individuals. Indeed, how could saying sorry ever be enough to cure a wrong as profound as mass enslavement and vilification? It cannot. But an apology, if well made, can at least formally acknowledge our collective history and be a necessary first step in righting the national conscience by affirming our principles.

Indeed, it is exactly those moments when moral courage trumps political or economic expediency – the Suffragettes, the Civil Rights Movement, same-sex marriage – that have come to define the most important American values. It is exactly at this moment that we live up to the American ideal of making a “land of the free and home of the brave.” Failure to apologize only deepens the stain and turns that phrase into a hollow boast.

The key point, morally and spiritually, is that the offering of the apology, if full and sincere, is the redemptive act – for the nation, for all of us as citizens, including the victims. A nation that has done systematic historical wrong must take full cognizance of its faults and responsibility for its sins. And it is only the President or Congress, acting as stewards of the national conscience, that can make this apology.

The arguments against apology are flimsy. It has been contended that we need not be held to account for things done long before our time because circumstances have changed. This does not hold water. Such a casuist view creates moral hazard by encouraging people and nations to shirk accountability in the hope that time will wash away the guilt.

To the contrary, all citizens including the newest ones inherit the entire legacy of America, good, bad and ugly. New citizens celebrate the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving and enjoy the benefits of freedom, enterprise and other unique fruits of American history. But they also shoulder shared responsibility for the national debt, which they had no part in creating. Must we not also take moral responsibility for the actions of previous Americans who enslaved others in the name of our country? We write this as two white males from immigrant families that came to this country long after Appomattox.

It also turns out the past is much closer than we think. The long shadow of slavery remains with us today. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has eloquently reminded us, the scourge of racial inequality continued long after Reconstruction through the invidious forms of segregation of the Jim Crow era to the insidious patterns of segregation that persist. Today, African-American families’ median wealth is about ten percent that of whites.

Another common rejoinder is that it is incorrect to judge the past by contemporary standards. This, too, is misplaced. Slavery was known to be wrong at the time. It is a misunderstanding of our country’s history to suggest otherwise. More than eighty years before the Civil War, the territory of Vermont banned slavery at the start of the Revolutionary War. As President Lincoln put it in 1854, “no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading principle – the sheet anchor of American republicanism.”

It is also said that slavery was an institution peculiar to the South and therefore it is the South that should apologize. This view misses the reality that the US economy before the Civil War was an integrated system. Southern surpluses from the cotton trade were readily invested in the North, and Northern banks financed the Southern economy. The state of Maryland, which was part of the Union, recorded almost 90,000 slaves in the 1860 census. Moreover, the drafters of the Constitution, North and South, all agreed on the abhorrent Three-Fifth Compromise.

Finally, the election and reelection of the bi-racial Barack Obama as president was certainly a major milestone in national healing, but it was in no sense a substitute for a full-throated official apology for what our country did. Pointing to the election of one African-American man in 2008 as some kind of absolution for the centuries of abject cruelty, inequality and discrimination against millions of Americans is a particularly bizarre view of justice.

The atavistic racialist rhetoric of President Obama’s successor shows that the work of expiation is far from finished. Indeed, the country seems to be going in the wrong direction. The idea of an apology, much less reparations, has gone up and down over the last twenty years, but is certainly on a downward trend today. But this would not be surprising with a president in the Oval Office who gleefully stokes racial division on social media.

The current lack of public support for an apology is not surprising because it relates to an unflattering truth about our history. This has led many to advise the current Democratic candidates to avoid the issue. But unpopularity should not deter us from the just course. As Nat King Cole sang, it’s time to “straighten up and fly right.”

This is not an issue for African-Americans only, or even primarily. The need for an apology belongs first with all Americans, not any one community, region, or political party. A national apology would not be the last word on righting the historical wrong – leaving open the reparations question – but it would be an essential act of contrition and a vital rededication to our American values.

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